By Dr R. H. Patil, Department of Agricultural Meteorology, UAS, Dharwad
lost its one of the greatest sons on 21, May 2021in Sunderlal Bahuguna, noted environmentalist and Chipko movement leader. He was 94 years old. Born to a very affluent family on 9 January 1927 in Maroda village near Tehri, Uttarakhand.
At thirteen, he adopted Gandhian principles and involved in social activities and mobilized people against British rule. He worked towards getting rid of social evils like liquor consumption among villagers and exploiting women workers.
His love and concern for rural people grew so much that he married his wife Vimla on the condition that they would live with rural people in the village and built their ashram. Ever since, he lived there for most of his life for protecting the Garhwali Himalayan region and its environment.
A life-defining time came when he walked through Himalayan forests and hills for close to 5000 km on foot and witnessed firsthand damage done to forests because of mega developmental projects in fragile ecological landscapes and it’s a devastating adverse impact on the socio-economic life of villagers living in the Himalayan hills. This lead to the Chipko movement in the 1970s against deforestation and this movement raised awareness about the environment and the role of trees and forests in keeping our ecology healthy.
The slogan of this movement was “What do the forests bear? Soil, water and pure air”. Chipko movement grew and spread so big and strong that in 1980 the then Prime Minister Late Indira Gandhi ordered not to fell any trees in the Garhwali Himalayan region for 15 years! Sunderlal will always be remembered for his lifelong dedicated service to protecting forests and the environment and even more for creating awareness among the public which has enabled us to strive towards expanding forest cover in the face of exponential growth in development projects across India.
Unfortunately, our efforts so far are falling short of expected as we are losing more and more forest to encroachment for agriculture, felling for wood, illegal mining activities, road and rail projects, among others.
Loss of forests:
Loss of forests is so rampant globally that we have lost one-third of the total global forest cover since the Ice age. Some 10,000 years back 57% of total habitable land on the Earth, that is 6 billion hectares, was covered with forest. This by 1900, over some 8,100 years, came down to 5 billion hectares, a loss of 1 billion hectares of forest. But, we lost one more billion hectares of forest in just 120 years between 1900 and 2018 because of the exponential population growth.
During the same time area under cultivated crops increased from almost nil to 1.6 billion hectares and the rest 0.4 billion hectares of forest were converted to grazing lands. 2 billion hectares of forest is lost and at this rate, we may lose one more billion hectares of forest during the next 50 years!
As per the World Counts report between 2011 and 2015, every year 20 m ha forest was cut globally, but felling sped up since 2016 and now on average 28 m ha under forest are cut each year. That is equivalent to one football field every second!.
In the last 4 decades, a forest area equal to total Europe has gone and we lose half of the global rain forest in the last 5 decades. In the first two decades of this century (2000-2020) forest area larger than the size of India is lost globally. If this continues at this rate, some estimates suggest we may lose all of our rainforests in another 100 years.
The situation in India is no better. Today India has some 712,249 sq km of forest cover which comes to around 21.67% of the total geographical area. However, what is worrisome is this is not uniformly distributed across India and only 3.01% of it is a very dense forest followed by another 9.38% moderately dense forest. The remaining 9.26% is the open forest where tree canopy density is over 10% but less than 40%.
Among the states, Madhya Pradesh has the largest forest cover followed by Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Maharashtra, but looking at forest cover as a percentage of total geographical area North-Eastern states rank much higher with Mizoram (85%), Arunachal Pradesh (79%), Meghalaya (76%), Manipur (75.4%), Nagaland (75.3%), Tripura (59.98%) and Assam (34.21%) ranking much higher than other states of the country where Madhya Pradesh accounts for only 25.11% of its total land area.
The NE states together makeup just 7.98% of the total geographical area of the country but account for nearly 25% of India’s forest cover. Although shifting cultivation in these hilly areas has been there for ages, but with more and more development projects, expanding settlements in the recent decade and adopting semi-permanent farming practices have resulted in a fast decline in forest cover which is alarming given its fragile ecosystem.
We must keep current tree cover and take up reforestation on barren land. Apart from the NE region, India has another patch of dense forest in the Western Ghats stretching from Gujarat to Tamil Nadu covering six states on 160,579 sq km along the Western coast, of which Karnataka accounts for the maximum.
As per the National Forest Policy to achieve optimum ecology for sustainable development minimum of 33% of the total geographical area must be under tree canopy cover, but India has only 21.67% that too including 9.26% open forest.
No other state has 33% of its total land under forest cover except for the NE region. This is an immense challenge in the face of climate change and its expected affects on the Indian monsoon, its spatial and temporal distribution in coming years.
In global warming and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by each country, there is an option to go for ‘carbon trading’ in case of GHG emission obligations were not met by one country and can purchase carbon credit from other nations at a pre-determined price. This is, unfortunately, not possible with forest cover and meeting 33% of the geographical area for sustainable ecology and development. Each region needs to have optimum forest cover uniformly spread across the region to contain climatic variability over time and space.
Desertification is a slow and natural process over the millennial-scale, but ever-increasing human activity, deforestation for agriculture and non-agriculture activities, improper land management coupled with the adverse impact of climate change have fastened the rate of expansion of deserts.
For example, the Gobi desert in Inner Mongolia expanding and swallowing over 3,370 sq km of land annually. According to a recent study by the University of Maryland scientists the Sahara Desert, the largest desert in the world has expanded by about 10% in the last 100 years. Similarly Thar desert in Rajasthan is expanding. According to a study by CAZRI, Jodhpur, India centre some 14.88 m ha of land from 12 western districts of Rajasthan adjacent to the Thar desert has been subjected to widespread land degradation contributing to desertification. Deforestation on one hand and desertification on the other are threatening the sustainable livelihood and economy of 100s of millions across the world.
Impact of deforestation:
Around 70% of total plant and animal species live in the forest, the deforestation leads to the destruction of natural habitat and loss of these species.
Only in the last 40 years almost half of this species are lost and leading towards sixth mass extinction. Deforestation is one of the major contributors to global warming. Globally 20% of total GHG emissions come from cutting tropical forests and since 2000 close to 100 Gega tons of CO2 are emitted into the atmosphere. Forests are the lungs of the Earth. With the fast decline of forest cover pollution, GHG emissions will increase at the cost of quality air.
Deforestation affects the global water cycle and results in an increased frequency of floods and droughts at the same time in different regions of the country, thus threatening national food security.
Deforestation is degrading our soils because of widespread soil erosion, contaminating water and polluting air, thus severely affecting our quality of life and economy in the long run. Widespread deforestation has also resulted in increased GHG emissions and depleted soil carbon stocks, soil fertility, biodiversity and groundwater ultimately threatening the sustainable economy and life on Earth.
Deforestation causes widespread soil erosion and with it, we lose fertile topsoil which degrades lands and crop productivity, which in the long run leads to desertification.
Weather and its pattern over time and space would vary and extreme events like too hot summers, warm winters or disappearance of winters, long dry spells, high intense rainfall events etc will increase, thus exposing crops to abiotic stresses ultimately lowering the crop productivity. Overall, the quality and health of the public will be affected severely, which would require trillions of US dollars each year to cope with these adverse impacts.
Therefore, in the very unfortunate demise of Sunderlal Bahuguna, a true champion of environment and ecology, who fought all his life to protect forests and their ecosystem, it becomes obligatory on our part to recommit ourselves to protect and grow more trees in our community, village, cities and farmlands to leave behind the better world to our next generation. This commitment and action by us will certainly rest Sunderlal Bahuguna’s soul in eternal peace.