Much is being said about the tragedy unfolding in our mountains in the past few days. May one add to that discussion just a few quick points?
1) Fires are rampant in pine-dominated forest areas as pine needles are highly inflammable. It is not sufficient to create a fire line in the beginning of summer months as pine trees continue to shed needles through the dry months, and maintenance of fire lines needs to be a continuous process for at least three months each year.
2) This job can only be done with the active participation of local communities who need to be trained, equipped, authorized and supervised by local staff of the forest department. Provision of helicopter-squads and watch towers would certainly help, especially during a crisis.
3) The nature of vegetal cover in the forest areas is of prime concern. The spread of the pine trees could easily be said to be the root cause of the problems. Some years ago, the PCCF (Principal Chief Conservator of Forests) of Uttarakhand had decided to reverse this process through ensuring that all forest department nurseries would raise saplings of only broad-leaved species like oaks.
4) Besides the hazard of forest fires, pine needles are acidic and change the ph of soil, reduce the potential recharge of subterranean water sources, and all this can adversely affect farming systems, create food insecurity and finally encourage migration to urban sweatshops.
5) So, there seems to be no getting away from the hard task of systematically removing pine trees and replacing forest lands with appropriate broad-leaved native species of trees and shrubs. This would take at least 20 years and there is no time to waste; the process ought to start NOW and the crisis of 2016 should help us resolve to do so.
6) Several attempts have been initiated through civil society engagement across the state to address the tragedy of the commons. And, there are sufficient lessons to draw upon a strategy that includes training village women/men to establish nurseries in order to raise saplings of oaks, alder, willows, cypress, deodar, mulberry, et cetera.
7) We should also mobilize communities to identify forest areas adjacent to their homesteads to plant-out and maintain these saplings over a period of five to ten years
8) Such conservation and protection leads to immediate benefits of enhancing the availability of grasses and, within a decade, moisture regimes improve too, along with availability of small timber from these women-made forests!
9) Women-led self-help groups are known to protect such forests from the hazard of forest fires by keeping vigil, often through dark nights, stamping out forest fire lines with nothing more than a rake or two.
10) Alongside, it may well be worth everyone while to review the policy regarding pine resin, especially as synthetic alternatives are available. The revenue generated through pine resin contracts is also insignificant, and the state could be compensated by the MoEFCC, GOI. Side by side, removal of pine needles for making briquettes, boards et cetera could be institutionalized as appropriate technologies do exist and have been tried over the past few years through PPP models. This has not worked too well and ought to be reviewed and a fresh initiative in this direction would help immensely.
At the end of the day, it is important to get mountain communities to play an active role as custodians of forest resources, like their ancestors.