Environment protection, Western Ghats and Ecological threshold (rubber band) form three Venn diagram rings that woefully overlap very little. The Copenhagen summit that concluded recently gives little hope on that front, it came out with an agenda to save its face rather than that of the planet. Its final text or draft resolution, as it stands today appears to be more misleading than convincing , every nation wanted to protect its turf and emerge from the summit atleast with status quo if not gains on its political and economic agenda. The temperature cap commitments vacillated between 2.5 and 1.5 degree and as usual there was talk of back room maneuvering and the never ending chasm between developed & developing nations. But then nothing better was expected, the only positive coming out of it was the attention span, albeit a brief one that it brought to the pressing problem.
Will Copenhagen summit arrest the global rise in temperature or has the problem gotten out of hand already? Will Environment protection take a back seat in Western Ghats? Some of the answers ironically lay in the interaction I had with a senior forest official this week . Who better to give a testament on the issue than an official concerned with preservation, conservation and management of the green cover (of whatever little is left of it) that is so vital in absorbing the CO2 and arrest the temperature rise?
The DFO (District Forest Officer) in question is in charge of Environment protection in the southern parts of the Western ghats in south coastal Karnataka which in a rare instance provides as much as 79% coverage to the district area and is ecological hotspot. This official worked extensively in the area , first as a student undertaking field studies and later as an official doing field surveys and collecting data on forest management. A well respected and upright officer he spoke with conviction tinged with despondency. The transcripts of my interaction with him in his office went as follows
Me: the forest cover is substantial in this area
Forest Official: On record it is 79.2%
Me: (Laugh) on records sir?
Forest Official: I have to admit that actually...(pause)... a lot of encroachments are there... a lot of development projects are eating away the forest area......almost 99% of the schools in this area are in forest area. Environment protection has become a big challenge in western ghats because there are human vested interests at play here
Me: But sir coverage of more than 75% is quite substantial
Forest Official: there are different ways of looking at forests, the way forest officer looks is totally different from the way others look at it. The mere existence of trees is not a forest unless the ecological processes are taking place in it. We call something called fragmentation happening, there’s a canopy like this (joins the palm tip of his two hands to make an inverted V). We are fragmenting it (separates the palms to leave a gap between them), its only a matter of time before the forests are getting destroyed ...it may take 100, 200 or 300 years ...unfortunately the span in which we are working is only short, we wont be able to know the changes in a span of 17-18 years but people here know. Some of the elders around here have a different tale to tell of the surroundings here 50 -60 years ago and that points to a drastic change in the ecology. If environment protection was a security alert, it would be at level 6 here now
Me: hmm....I see
Forest Official: the moment you are opening this canopy then there is a road coming up in the forest area splitting it into 2 areas....this brings in infiltration and more importantly stops the exchange of green between these two patches of forest. So now all these has stopped (ecological process) ....there is no green exchange, there is no exchange of animals and the temperature that was usually 16-18 degree centigrade under the canopy has gone upto 22-23 with this opening. And whatever rain is falling is also draining away rapidly through this encroachment. So the changes are taking are at a small level but over a period of time if you club everything you get the picture. All these talk of environmental protection is at a superficial level, Western Ghats is changing and expert committee are helping little to arrest this.
Me: So you are saying that the fragmenting is destroying the forest
Forest Official: the networking of roads making fragments of the forest cuts short their life... the longevity of that forest patch is shorter than that of the forest that is completely covered. So you end up having an isolated part of the forest where Plants & Animal species find difficult to migrate. For them also there is a limit of migration....for example the giant squirrel can jump 10 or 20 feet but it cannot jump 60-100 feet , the inroads in Western ghats we are making creates a gap of something like 100 to 200 feet . so their population gets isolated in different pockets, there is no interaction between these two population and with inbreeding their population disappears over a period of time. And along with them we don’t know how many other species both plant and; animals are disappearing, its only a matter of time.
Me: Very interesting perspective sir....
Forest Official: But there are no takers for it, we find it very difficult to convince people and we are waging a losing battle. Crores of rupees come and; they think it is 'development'...for example more than 5% of forest area is acacia plantation, only for the benefits of local population but that is not the forest we consider as....deduct all things like that and we are left with nothing. Then there is this rapid soil erosion where tonnes of top soil with vital nutrients is getting eroded fast. I have seen some isolated waterfalls deep in the western Ghats during mansoon....they are supposed to be clean water but they are getting muddy since tonnes of soil is getting eroded.
Me: So you are saying there is a continuous drain of forest resources
Forest Official: Its a matter of time as I told you , the system is like you know....a rubberband you are pulling, pulling, and pulling and all of a sudden you may just break it. But till then you feel its fine and you really don’t know when its going to break. So the 79 percent I told you is not ecologically 79 percent in Western Ghats
I hope the Copenhagen leaders are tuned into this fact, it may not be even 1.5 degree elastic as some would like to believe. As far as Western Ghats and its environment protection is concerned, it remains to be seen what happens with the Kasturirangan report implementation