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Vol. 25 No. 4 - October 2019

Study on the relation among Agriculture and Forests

By: Babita Kumari*

Agriculture is the main source of livelihood for a majority of the region’s rural population. In the last 10 years, the per capita land availability in the region has reduced by 18.4 per cent and now remains a meagre 0.16 ha. The reduction is attributed to the rapid increase in population and consequent fragmentation of the land. Similarly, per capita cereal availability has also reduced by 9.4 per cent in the last 10 years. The present per capita cereal availability is only 0.16 kg, thus making it very important to ensure food security in the region at any cost. Agricultural productivity in the region is not adequate to produce sufficiently for the increasing population. The average agricultural yield at present is 2.1 tonnes/ha (excluding Maldives) after an increase of 8.1 per cent in the last 10 years. The increase is attributed to increased use of fertilisers (69 kg/ha, which is a 40 per cent increase in the last 10 years in the region, excluding Maldives) and inclusion of more area from forests into the agriculture sector. This situation has, in its turn, taken its toll by depleting and threatening the remaining biodiversity of the region.

Forests play a vital role in the economy of developing countries. A large segment of South Asia’s population depends on forests for its housing, fuelwood and fodder needs. The demand for forest products and services is increasing with the growth in population and economy, even as the forest cover in the region deteriorates. A disproportionate withdrawal of forest produce as compared to a forest’s carrying capacity leads to this deterioration. Between 1990 and 1995, five countries in the region have experienced a reduction in their forest cover; the exception has been India where forest cover has increased by 36,000 ha. This increase can be attributed to an increase in commercial plantation and wasteland reclamation activities.

Plantations: In order to cater to the increasing demand for fuelwood, fodder and timber, the area under commercial plantations has increased in five countries of the region (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan) between 1990 and 1995. Forestry has been accepted as a farming practice, but has not spread in the region at the desired pace because the rotation cycle of forestry plantations takes time to give returns. It, therefore, has become limited to the bigger farmers.  slow-growing indigenous tree species have not been preferred in the commercial plantations, resulting in the introduction of fast-growing exotic tree species, which in turn has changed the composition of the local vegetation to some extent. Plantation forestry has resulted in large-scale monocultures of teak, sal, eucalyptus, Mexican pine, etc. The yield and income data collected from different countries have influenced the developing countries to adopt these species. This has been complemented by the indiscriminate plantation of eucalyptus, even on very dry sites where other species can perform better.

Shifting cultivation: Commonly practised by the hill tribes of India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, shifting cultivation is considered to be a major cause of deforestation. It is difficult to estimate the exact extent of shifting cultivation in the region due to the dispersed and unorganised nature of the activity, however it is estimated that it is practised over an area of 63.57 million hectares by about 22.7 million people in Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka (State of Environment in Asia and Pacific, 1990). In India alone, shifting cultivation is reported to be practised on 4.37 million hectares, and in Bangladesh about 8,00,000 people depend on shifting cultivation in the northern and eastern hills, where land degradation rates are quite high (SAARC, 1992). According to the Forest Survey of India, an important cause of habitat destruction in the eastern Himalayan states of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh is slash-and-burn/shifting cultivation practised in nearly 70 per cent of the land area, which has resulted in the loss of nearly 57 per cent of forests in the area. However, it is not the practice itself that is faulty; the growing population pressure has led to a shortening of the fallow cycle, thus not allowing sufficient time for forest resources to regenerate, which has resulted in this practice becoming unsustainable.

Livestock grazing: Forest grazing is also a major factor in the deforestation process. In the region’s drier parts, forest grazing is traditional and endemic to agricultural lifestyles. This problem is acute in large parts of India, which suffers from a lack of adequate grazing lands and a mammoth livestock population. Forests, therefore, are the only places where livestock can find any vegetation. Occupying a little over 2.4 per cent of the global land area and 16 per cent of the human population, India accounts for nearly 20 per cent of the world’s livestock population. The nation’s 12 million hectares of permanent pastures are grossly inadequate for the needs of its 1,896 million heads of cattle. This large livestock population has put tremendous pressure on land, particularly the grasslands. Not only are rangelands damaged by grazing practices, but forests also suffer livestock pressure as branches are cut for fodder or entire stands are levelled to make way for pastures. In Nepal, lopping is a prevalent practice, with nearly 40 per cent of the buffalo feed and 25 per cent of cattle feed is made of logs and leaves, thus putting tremendous pressure on the forests. Besides overgrazing by livestock, conversion to croplands is also a major threat to natural grassland ecosystems and results in decreasing vegetation and exposes the soil to water and wind erosion. In addition, livestock trampling compacts the soil, reducing its capacity to retain moisture. This is estimated to affect 280 million hectares in the region (33 per cent of the total degraded land).

Propagation of monocultures: Being a primarily agrarian region, agriculture practised over several thousands of years has led to the building up of a complex gene pool of thousands of crop plants adapted to local conditions. The traditional practice of planting several different varieties of crops in different seasons in an area, was intended to minimise risks from crop failure. However, the past years have witnessed the introduction of monocultures of fast and high-yield crop varieties and livestock to increase productivity. Introduction of monocultures has resulted in genetic erosion of domesticated species of plants, animals and fishes. Thousands of varieties of rice, millets, oilseeds, vegetables and legumes have been lost and several breeds of domesticated animals and birds are threatened. It is estimated that for the past 50 years, Indian farmers were growing nearly 30,000 varieties of rice. However, Maheshwari (1986) predicts that this is expected to reduce to 50 varieties and according to an estimate by Ryan (1992), India is expected to produce 75 per cent of its rice from just 10 varieties. This is expected to drastically reduce the genetic diversity of staple food crops, posing serious consequences not only for the future plant breeding programmes, but also for meeting the food requirements of the burgeoning population.

Fuelwood and fodder extraction: In India, nearly 90 per cent of cooking fuel is biomass based (fuelwood, cowdung and crop waste). The average annual requirement of cooking fuel in the country is 130 million tonnes, and more than 80 percent of the fuelwood is collected from the countryside. Increased fuelwood needs have been resulting inincreased deforestation to the extent that some sacred groves, which were left untouched for several years, have been damaged or cut down (Gadgil & Vartak 1975, 1976). In Nepal, nearly 90 per cent of all the energy consumed is still in the form of traditional fuel (WRI, UNEP, UNDP, WB, 1995). Biomass fuel comprises 73 per cent of the total energy consumed in Bangladesh.

These subsistence threats have, over the years, led to deforestation and loss of prime habitats of biodiversity. Loss of tree cover has led to erosion, landslides, silting of rivers and dams and floods downstream, resulting in economic losses. This has put to threat the existence of several species. Introduction of fast-growing monocultures has resulted in genetic erosion and loss of germplasm for evolution.

Tourism: Increased tourism continues to be a source of pressure on coastal resources. In fact, coastal tourism is recognised as the most rapidly growing sector of tourism world-wide. Sri Lanka’s coastal resources are expected to come under increasing threat from this economic sector. It poses a serious threat of environmental degradation, particularly through construction of hotels, beach clubs and marinas which involves infilling and dredging. Pressure from tourism has led to degradation of forests, changes in density and composition of species, and a loss of rare plants. In Sikkim (north-east India), a biodivesity hotspot, unplanned domestic tourism is adversely affecting the biodiversity of the region. Tourists invade ecologically fragile areas such as alpine grasslands, trample and uproot plants, leaving a trail of destruction behind them. Hotels and lodges in the state consume about 40 kg/day of oak, mahua and rhododendron bushes for firewood. In several areas in Sikkim, felling of fir trees for construction of hotels and lodges has resulted in accelerated erosion. The growth of trek tourism has resulted in the use of animals like yak, which consume nearly 30 kg of fodder - which puts further strain on the forests.

Faculty of Sciences, Indra Gandhi Technology and Medical Science University, Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh (India), E-mail: bbtmshr@yahoo.co.in

This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.

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