Drought in the Western Ghats Part 2: How deforestation saved ecologically-sensitive hills in Kerala

Editor's note: This is the second piece in a multi-part series on the nature of human excesses that have imperiled the fragile ecosystem of the Western Ghats, home to at least 325 globally threatened species of flora and fauna, by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation's reckoning.

The Pangode village is located on the foothills of the Agasthaya biosphere in Thiruvananthapuram, designated one of 123 'ecologically sensitive areas' in the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP), headed by Madhav Gadgil.

Villagers and women's groups here have organised large protests over the last six months, forming human chains and petitioning the state government over their one solitary demand: To remove the acacia and eucalyptus trees from the area.

"Since acacia grows fast, it may be 'profitable' for industrialists. But it affects our livelihood in several different ways," said VS Pramod, a villager who led the anti-acacia campaign under the banner of Agasthyamala Biosphere Reserve Conservation Forum. "It sucks out groundwater at alarming levels, drying up our water resources. The contents in its fallen leaves make the soil acidic and its pollen causes breathing uneasiness. We don't want an "ecological disaster" to happen here or in any other place," said Pramod, a resident of Pangode Panchayath.

The entire area is set on fire after the acacia trees are cut

The entire area is set on fire after the acacia trees are cut

"We were surprised to learn that acacia was planted in an ecologically sensitive area like this. It grows in just eight years. And when it's cut, the contracts torch the area, which is prohibited by law. Acacia trees pollute soil and water, and don't allow any other plant to grow nearby. It also leads to man-animal conflict," Pramod said.

State government bows

With Kerala reeling under the worst drought in 115 years, the state government and its green mission body have decided to cut down acacia and eucalyptus trees and replace them with medicinal and fruit-bearing plants, as the campaign organised by the Agasthyamala Biosphere Reserve Conservation Forum bears results.

"Acacia and eucalyptus trees in public places and those which cause harm to people will be cut down. They will be replaced with medicinal and fruit-bearing plants," said TN Seema, CEO of Kerala's Green Mission, told Firstpost.

"However, as the state forest department has a deal with Hindustan Newsprint Limited to supply acacia for industrial purposes, we may not be able to impose a blanket ban. We have told them to identify locations where they want to retain the plantation, and trees in the rest of the areas will be felled," said Seema, who is also an ex-parliamentarian.

The official said that the government's decision will discourage the plantation of harmful trees that cause ecological disasters. We will plant 1 crore medicinal and fruit-bearing tree saplings on 5 June," the official added.

Scientists side with the protesters

M Rajendra Prasad, a scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute, said that acacia cannot be called a tree and its planting it will not create a forest either. "As it doesn't have a proper leaf, it cannot be called a tree. Moreover, because of its inefficient leaves, it requires plenty of water. Additionally, since it's not an easily bio-degradable tree, it may also lead to desertification and can have a negative impact on the ecosystem," the scientist said.

Residents of Kerala's Pangode village form a human chain to petition the state govt to act

Residents of Kerala's Pangode village form a human chain to petition the state govt to act

Prasad added that the plantation of such trees in the ecologically sensitive Western Ghats will have a negative impact. "Water sources will dry up and ground vegetation will be hit. This will also lead to man-animal conflicts," the scientist added.

Pramod confirmed these observations. In Pangode and nearby villages, he said, animals are destroying crops and it's becoming a usual affair. "Earlier it was wild boars. But now jackals are also coming to our farms. It's all because of us. We destroyed their ecosystem. So, they are encroaching upon ours," Pramod added.

According to Kerala's forest department documents, in Kerala, acacia and eucalyptus plantation was initiated through social forestry activities in 1980-81 through the Rural Fuelwood Scheme sponsored by the central government and funded by the World Bank.

Recently, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) centre in Thiruvananthapuram reported that the state was short by 34 percent in the southwest monsoon, which is the state's primary source of rainfall. As against the normal rainfall of 2,039.7 mm for the period, the state received 1,352.3 mm of rain in 2016.

All 14 districts of the state were rainfall deficit in the current season, with Idduki short by 31 percent and Wayanad by a massive 59 percent. The northeast monsoon was also short by 62 percent and categorised as "large-scale deficient" by the IMD.

The seasonal rainfall seen during the first few months of 2017 is also lower by 33 percent for the period of 1 January to 22 February.

The insufficient rainfall in Wayanad and Idukki districts have clearly resulted in high daytime temperatures and rapid decline on water table.

Part 1: Urbanisation demands see hills sacrificed to whims of mining, industry lobbies
Part 3: Ambulance service supplies water to 700 families in Kerala's Kottayam
Part 4: In Kerala's Wayanad, acute water scarcity leading to man-animal conflict

Updated Date: May 11, 2017 15:52 PM

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