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Updated: June 5, 2011 00:47 IST

Bring forests closer home

Professor P. J. Sanjeeva Raj
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Butterflies and birds are the earliest and the best eco-indicators of the success of a forest restoration. File photo: A. Shaikmohideen
Butterflies and birds are the earliest and the best eco-indicators of the success of a forest restoration. File photo: A. Shaikmohideen

The year 2011 is the U.N. International Year of Forests (IYF), with the theme, ‘Forests for People.' The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has chosen India, for the first time, as the ‘global host' of the World Environment Day (WED), on June 5, 2011. The theme of the WED this year is, “Forests: Nature at Your Service.”

Out of the ecologically ideal one-third or 33.33% of forest cover for a country's geographical area, India has an average forest cover of about 21.02%, of which the high density forests constitute only about 2.5%, followed by moderate density forests of 9.71% and scrub jungles of 8.77%. It is the moderately dense forests, outside national parks, that are being degraded rapidly into scrub jungles and then perhaps ultimately into wastelands, if not into desertification.

In view of the tremendous developmental and tribal pressures on forest lands, the only way to increase the green cover in India is through the restoration of our vast scrub jungles and wastelands into moderately dense forests at least, if not into high density forests.

Wasteland development in India has been focussing at the plantation of only the conventional 5-F trees — for food, fodder, fertilizer, fibre and fuel; but wasteland restoration goes one step further towards a holistic restoration of the soils, floral and faunal diversity in a specific ecosystem and to provide diverse ecological services as well as livelihoods and health care for the dependent poor.

Soil restoration

For wasteland and degraded forest lands, other than industrial and mining lands, the first task in restoration is to test the soils for their nutrients and to apply the appropriate remediation. After superficial ploughing, broadcasting leguminous seeds like those of Sesbania, Vigna, Dolichos, Gliricidia, Crotalaria or any pulses, inoculated with bio-fertilizer combinations of Rhizobium, Azotobacter and Azospirillum, will greatly enhance the fertility of the soils as well as the growth of the plantations.

Floral (plant) and faunal (animal) restoration takes place simultaneously complementing each other. Floral restoration is primary and is central to any kind of terrestrial (land) restoration, but the choicest species of mixed vegetation at all levels, from the ground to the canopy levels, is crucial. Natural regeneration of weeds (herbs) followed by grasses may be the first signs of greening.

Herbs attract insects, particularly the keystone butterflies, bees and wasps. Shrubs are the feeding and nesting sites for birds. Lantana camara, though an exotic shrub, yet is the first and the most dominant one to appear and to attract, through its berries, birds which disseminate its seeds in turn. Trees alone, by themselves, are not so effective in attracting biodiversity, unless they are supplemented by the complementary undergrowth of grasses, herbs, shrubs and climbers.

A scrub jungle, interspersed with diverse trees, is richer in biodiversity. Even the species of trees for restoration should be chosen meticulously for discharging a variety of ecosystem services like nectar and fruit trees for food, legumes like Gliricidia for fodder and fertilizer, coconut and silk cotton for fibre, etc. Afforestation with single species of trees (monocultures) and all exotic or invasive species of vegetation should be totally avoided.

Keystone species

Keystone species in an ecosystem render several services, chief among them being sustaining rich biodiversity. Every species is a vital link in its own ecosystem but some, through their diverse services to diverse organisms, play an amazingly dynamic role in sustaining their ecosystems. Ficus (fig) species, like the peepal and the banyan, Indian plum (Ziziphus tnauritiana) and the Wild Durian (Cullenia exarillata) are proverbial keystone trees in a forest ecosystem.

Earthworms, bees, termites, butterflies, ants, birds, rats, bats and elephants are well known keystone animals in terrestrial ecosystems. Butterflies and birds are the earliest and the best keystone species and bio or eco-indicators of the success of a forest restoration. Butterflies pollinate as well as beget caterpillars prolifically, the preferred food of several birds and their nestlings.

Birds pollinate and disperse fruits, grass seeds and grain, and also control insect and rodent pests. Both butterflies and birds do not need a conscious stocking or introduction into a restoration site, but they immigrate and colonise it by themselves, and incidentally provide immense aesthetic beauty for naturalists.

Herbivores like elephants and gaur in the wild, and domestic buffaloes, through their dung, disseminate wild, and rare seeds on which they feed, from the inaccessible niches of the wilderness. For a better success in wasteland and scrub jungle restoration in different regions of India, we need to understand better about our diverse soil types, their compatibility to various plant species, interactions between plant and plant species and between plant and animal species.

People's restoration

Vegetation is the indispensable companion of all animal and human life on earth. As the theme of the World Environment Day-2011 aims, “Nature at Your Service” means that a well-planned restoration of the green cover provides invaluable life-supporting goods and services like oxygen, carbon sequestration, food, medicines, commerce, energy and micro-climate. The richness of animal diversity is a reflection of its plant diversity in that ecosystem. Wasteland and scrub jungle restorations are awesome object lessons in environmental education too.

If wastelands and scrub jungles around our villages and cities are restored, woods and forests can be brought closer to our neighbourhood, and as you wander through such forest grades, you are bound to be inspired and go into ecstasy and sing as the Swedish poet, Carl Gustav Boberg (1859- 1940) was likewise so inspired, as to compose the second most popular hymn, and I quote a part of this superb environmental hymn:

“When through the woods, and forest glades I wander,

and hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees . . .

Then sings my soul, my saviour God to thee,

How great thou art, how great thou art!”

(The writer is formerly Head of the Zoology Department, Madras Christian College and currently a Consultant Ecologist. His email is fajsanjeeva@gmail.com)

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