Forests and Climate – a love affair for the ages

(A version of this story appeared 19th September on Conde Nast Traveller)

Will I live to see next year? Mahaman Cub – Bandhavgarh National Park

One would think the link between climate change and forests is fairly straightforward. After all, trees are carbon dioxide made solid. And the rising concentration of carbon dioxide in our air is the leading cause of the recent, rapid warming of our planet. Trees, and by extension, forests appear an elegant solution to remove carbon diode from the air thereby reducing the warming. But like all great love stories – this one is more complicated. Recent findings show that trees have their own emissions, which complicates Earth’s energy budget. Moreover, the place where trees grow, the soil and its microbiota all add nuance to this straightforward tête-à-tête between trees and the global climate. However, net net, acting on forests – via afforestation, reforestation and preventing deforestation – reduces emissions.

On a local scale, however, the forest-climate link is far more robust. Here, the forest is promoted from being a sidekick to the diva of the climate theatre influencing both temperature and rainfall. In cities, trees act like air conditioners ameliorating the urban heat island effect. Of course, when the planet warms (or heats, depending on your vantage point) beyond a point, even the strongest forest looks vulnerable. The unusual drought (drought in a rainforest – the climate has changed, hasn’t it?) in the Amazon has made it less of a carbon sink, more vulnerable to fires and risks setting of feedback cycle that could accelerate the change.

Forest Fire (Image Source: Pixabay/skeeze)

When it comes to water, especially at regional or local levels, the forest and the tree reign supreme. Emissions from trees seed the clouds, the water transpiring from trees adds might to rain-bearing clouds, forests increase percolation of water into soils, dead trees and fallen leaves become humus that increase water retention in soils, the plumage of trees, the detritus and roots help slow down the runoff water, smoothening the downstream flows and reducing flooding, roots hold onto soil, tree cover lowers evaporation and makes the environment cooler. This is a love story for the ages.

Seshayee from whose feet the Charanganga, one of the numerous streams that the Bandhavgarh reserve gives rise to, emerges

In India, peninsular rivers rise from the forest. The forests of Madhya Pradesh birth the Narmada which sustains millions, with four states benefitting from the water and the power generated by the river. The surviving tanks in my town, Madurai, are beginning to fill now as the Vaigai gathers rain from the forests of the Western Ghats and brings them eastward. Madurai has received 23% less rain than ‘normal’ this year, so this hydrological gift from the forests is very welcome. And as many regions in India become drier with less predictable local rain, the more dependable waters of rivers sustained by forests gain importance. Forests stabilize local climate while mitigating some part of the cause of global climate change. Without it, the climate crisis might be far more volatile and menacing. Quite apart from the climate, forests provide myriad ecosystem and economic benefits amounting to billions of dollars.

Sambhar Deer at sunrise – Kanha National Park

But are our forests secure?

India’s forests have faced brutal persecution in the past two centuries. Large swathes of forests were cleared by the British to provide timber for the railway to cart away agricultural produce and more timber from the cleared lands to feed the Empire. After Independence, the forests of the Terai were used to provide settlement to the Partition refugees and the new nation set about clearing yet more forests for agriculture, dams and mines. Between 1951 to 1980, over 43000 square kilometres of forest, about the size of the state of Haryana were lost, more than half of which officially became agricultural lands Yet more forests were encroached upon. If you, like me, think these numbers appear an underestimate, consider instead that directionally forests appear to be losing ground mostly to agriculture.

Sal Forest

I recently visited the Sal Forests of Madhya Pradesh. When driving in the Kanha reserve, one sees the green – a vivid, dappled emerald green – canopy of sal trees with a rusty orange carpet of fallen sal leaves. In some places, bamboo grows interspersed amidst the sal trees and periodically one comes across the ‘valleys’ of grassland, some with water bodies. Less than half a century ago, villages once stood in these valleys, which are now grasslands where jackals gambol about and the barasingha munch meditatively, unaware of their position as a conservation success story. Kanha National Park became one of the first nine children of Project Tiger, an initiative launched in 1973 by the Government of India. For the conservationist, what plagued India’s forests was a cancer, not a cold and isolation was key to recovery. At that time, when Kanha was believed to have a mere 43 tigers. So, a set of villages were removed from the core tiger area, believing that the wild needed a place without human interaction to recuperate. Within a decade of this action, the number of tigers in Kanha had risen to 109. Tigers, like humans, appear to breed better in private. Over time, 35 villages have been moved from the core area leaving an area of 917 square kilometres less prone to unplanned human interactions. But this action, this removal, deepened the philosophical rift between conservationists, the forest department and the tribal communities and their champions – one that shows no sign of healing.

But Kanha is arguably the favourite child of wildlife reserves, protected and cherished with care. There are many other less-fortunate forests in Madhya Pradesh and India. Consider, over 2500 square kilometres of forest– about four times the size of Mumbai –in Madhya Pradesh alone have been diverted in the past few decades for other purposes, including village electrification, hydel projects and ‘encroachment’.

Beyond diversion, grazing presents an existential threat – almost three quarters of India’s forest see some form of grazing from agricultural livestock. About half of the forest area is susceptible to fires. Both grazing and fires increase the vulnerability of a forest. Moreover, grazing increases the chance of human-wildlife conflict. Many cases on unnatural tiger deaths come from poisoned carcasses of livestock or revenge traps set by villagers upset by the loss of their animals. This is a problem, because if the numbers of tigers, the star attraction for tourists fall, tourist revenues are likely to follow. Many of the economic benefits of forests – as climate warriors and water heroes – accrue to distant populations. But the way to increase the resilience of forests is to make them more economically meaningful to their immediate human neighbours. Tourism does this.

I can hear the inhalation of horror from purists, but hear me out. Researchers cited in a World Bank report, estimate that there are 8 billion visits to protected areas each year globally, generating about $600 Billion dollars of in-country expenditure. That’s a lot of money. This dwarf budgets allocated to protecting these sites or what philanthropists give to tribal communities. But the problem, as I see it, has two parts:

(a) This largesse is not spread out enough. 80% of these visits happen in North American and Europe. Even within India, most visits are to the marquee parks – Ranthambore, Bandhavgarh, Kaziranga, Kanha to name a few. I don’t know a non-wildlife person who visited Satpura recently. PS: there are tigers and tribal communities there too.  Dr Raghunanandan Chundawat writes in a report on tourism in tiger reserves in MP, that ‘the advent of wildlife tourism has created a ‘tiger friendly’ perception within the involved communities bordering the parks”. This is likely because of jobs: guides, lodge employees and drivers tend to be overwhelmingly from local communities. Even those non directly connected with tourism benefit: the small business revenue in tourist villages is estimated to be eight times higher than that in non-tourist villages.

For me, Ram Kali, an award-winning tribal female guide in the Mukki zone in Kanha who we were lucky enough to get, personified the good tourism can do. She is a tribal woman in a patriarchal setup, shining professionally, visibly respected by her male peers. She is a working mother, with a three-year-old, who earns an independent living. She is a powerful, proximate symbol of empowerment.

However.

(b) In large parts of the developing world, wildlife or nature tourism can be handled a LOT better. Even in the star parks, ‘infrastructure’ – toilets, a visitor’s information centre, disposal of non-biodegradable waste, sustainable water use can be far better than it is. We wanted to buy a guidebook, only to find that on most occasions, the shop was closed, or out of stock of the book we wanted. In the US, any visitor has to enter or exit a popular protected area through a visitor centre replete with merchandise, books and other ephemera. Booking is transparent in best managed reserves. In India, it is far more susceptible to connections. Then, of course, is the breakout of unorganized and unauthorised lodges who give a damn about sustainability. More transparency is one solution, but the better cure is encouraging tourism in more parks, thus spreading out demand. Lastly, there is the cruel and tasteless aspect of wildlife tourism, exemplified by the begging monkey on a tropical beach. Making parks more accessible, could show us how much better to observe the wild in the wild.

As the climate crisis unfolds, we have never needed our forests more. There maybe something we can do to help. Visit. Especially those on the road less travelled.

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