Burning Issues

Can Money Bring Back Forests

                                 Can Money Bring Back Forests

-Usha Nair

Print some money and give it to us for the rain forests-Vivienne Westwood

There is an all pervading belief the world over that every crisis has a quick fix solution, and money is the panacea to all problems. Several countries are daily battling critical levels of air pollution, and globally 2016 is likely to be the hottest year on record. The Heads of State from 196 countries, recognising the increasing threat of air pollution and the importance of preserving forests, agreed at the recently concluded Conference on Climate Change in Paris in December 2015, to help developing countries by providing $100 billion a year from 2020 onwards for protecting their forests, reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD+), and as incentives to replant.

These lofty aspirations have been met with scepticism from several quarters, as it is alleged that the devil lies in the detailing. While the world is struggling today to limit global warming to below 2degrees Celsius above pre-industrial averages, none of the countries are legally accountable in case of default in complying with the goals detailed in the Paris agreement. Further, providing of funds may falter at the altar of other overriding priorities of developed nations. Responsibility is now voluntary and shared between all countries. Moreover, the money to be made available is not guaranteed from the public purse. Instead, finance will come largely from unpredictable “market mechanisms” such as carbon offsets. Nearly all developing countries have put forward their “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDC), to show what they plan to do over the next 20 years to reduce their emissions. These range from planting tens of millions of trees and developing solar power, to reducing emissions from coal and cutting subsidies for fossil fuels. Most are dependent on money being made available from carbon financing via the Green Climate Fund.

If we examine the plans for afforestation and reforestation, it begs several questions. Can afforestation and reforestation bring the forests back? Are money/funds the only requisite to restoration of the ecological equilibrium?  What exactly is deemed as a forest? Under United Nation’s Clean Development Mechanism, forests consists of trees with at least a height of 2-5metres,with crown density of 10-30%  over an area of 0.05- 1 hectare. One section of conservationists cites the success of AR projects undertaken in Africa, S America, and India. Thus Hyder El Ali, through his NGO Oceanium planted 500,000 trees in 2007 in Senegal and 6.3million saplings across its 156 villages in 2008. Sebastian Salgado and his wife Leila, bought in 1997, 700 hectares of deforested land in Brazil and planted 1.5 million trees and over 10 years transformed the area into a natural reserve. In India, Sadhguru sought to restore the ecological balance in Tamil Nadu State, and as part of his project Greenhands, planted 850,000 trees in 2006.

Tiger hiding among Dhonk Trees in Ranthambhore
According to others, while reforestation is the right way forward, afforestation is fundamentally flawed in that it assumes that the loss of forests or other natural habitats as a result of development projects can be ‘compensated’ by simply planting trees. Paul Dirac comments that ‘God used beautiful mathematics in creating the world’. Forests and other natural habitats are extremely complex ecosystems that have evolved to a state of ecological equilibrium over millions of years, with their full complement of pollinators, seed dispersers, predators and prey. These natural habitats are the repositories of rich biodiversity, which is already under extreme stress. The ‘compensatory afforestation’ that countries have adopted so far predominantly consists of raising artificial plantations of non-native species of trees, with zero biodiversity value. Even where plantations of mixed species of native trees have been raised, they do not come anywhere close to replicating the natural habitat that was destroyed. Commercial afforestation is a cause of major environmental degradation and social problems in many parts of the world. Effects of large-scale monoculture tree plantations, especially on grassland biodiversity, can be disastrous. 

Thus in India, from 1980 to 2005, the Kudremukh Iron Ore Company Limited (KIOCL) strip-mined hill slopes and dumped over 150 million tonnes of tailings into a pristine, 100 metre deep, forested valley. To ‘compensate’ for this loss of natural habitats, KIOCL planted millions of non-native species on adjoining areas, destroying the natural grasslands. In China, large swathes of land were cleared for agricultural and developmental purposes. In the current millennium, China recognised the dangers of deforestation and annually increased its forest cover by 11,500 square miles, according to a UN2011 report. But recent studies by conservationists tell a different story. Luoma   in a 2012 analysis titled ‘China’s Reforestation programs –Big Success or Just an Illusion’ has summarised on- the- ground findings which question the long-term viability of large acreages under non-native tree species and monoculture plantations. 

An ambitious project, tipped to be the world’s  largest ecological restoration exercise ‘The Great Green Wall”, which commenced in 1978 and will continue till 2050,  designed to eventually plant nearly 90 million acres of new forest in a band stretching 2,800 miles across northern China, has come under scrutiny. Millions of saplings sown, have largely failed to take root.85% have failed, according to Beijing Forestry University scientist Shixiong Cao and five co-authors. David Shankman ,  a co-author of the study, says over the years the plantings have tended to eventually deplete local soil moisture and die en masse simply because the planted species “are not native to the region’. In the process they also destroy the native underbrush which are unable to access sunlight (because of the thick canopy overhead), and water (owing to depleted water table).

Attempts to control desertification and soil erosion by afforestation have had little success,” Cao and his fellow researchers conclude. South Africa already has more than 1.5 million hectares of alien tree plantations, mostly composed of eucalypts, pines and wattles. Timber companies are, however, increasingly acknowledging the negative effects of afforestation. In South America, the depletion of 20% of the Amazon rain forests in the past 4 decades, surpassing the previous 450 years, have compelled some of the countries, particularly Brazil, to take stringent measures against deforestation.

Decades of experimentation have established that regeneration and forest management, avoidance of deforestation, reduction of forest degradation translates directly into reduction in greenhouse emission that can be measured, monitored and verified for carbon sequestration and carbon revenue.  So while there is unanimity on the benefits of reforestation, there are fewer votaries for afforestation as a sustainable option.  

Afforestation runs several risks including financial, administrative and governance issues. The choice of land, soil and trees are critical to the success of an afforestation project. Wrong choices could contribute to deforestation, loss of biodiversity, harmful impact on local livelihood. Water intensive forest plantations utilise scarce local groundwater and monoculture plantations render the soil nutrient-deficient, all of which will adversely impact food crops. Besides natural hazards, financial risks are immense, as it requires substantial financing at the beginning and takes time to deliver revenue and benefits. Investors face high initial costs and delayed returns. These projects demand qualified consultants with expertise on biodiversity, hydrology and land ownership structures. The social and legal impact can make it expensive with potential for conflict. Instances of misuse of funds and shifting of financial risks to the farmers are many. Long- term sustainability is not guaranteed and hence the reservations expressed against deployment of scarce funds in afforestation projects.
In an incentive driven world, the mere planting of trees will not bring the forests back. The availability of funds as incentives for increased forest cover has to be judiciously allocated and utilised towards sustainable forest growth.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       The greater challenge is whether Man can undo the damage he has done and restore the ecological equilibrium in time to arrest rising temperatures and climate change .Otherwise doomsday is just around the corner!!

Usha Nair is a nature lover and can be reached at  ushaenvironment@gmail.com

Citizen Science

Getting science across

Getting science across

A survey in the US shows that much of basic science is still unclear to many in society, says S.Ananthanarayanan.

As science and technology rules more and more of how we live, it is tempting to say that general appreciation of the science is the key to rational and hence better living. On the other hand, we know that there are other factors, historical and cultural, apart from physical, which have worked for affluent societies and it is also not always clear that these societies consistently chart the best course for themselves. But the merits of being well informed in the sciences cannot be denied and a leading public opinion survey body in the US has conducted a trial to assess how much of simple, everyday science the average US citizen knows.

The Pew Research Centre is an independent organisation in Washington DC, which collects and provides information about social issues and analyses of media data, opinion and media reports. The current study surveyed more than 3,200 randomly chosen US adults, who were asked to answer twelve simple, multiple choice questions, chosen to represent high school learning and subjects that are there in the news. "As science issues become ever-more tied to policy questions, there are important insights that come from exploring how much Americans know about science," lead author Cary Funk, an associate director of research at Pew Research Center said.

The survey, as described below, showed that most Americans could answer questions about names and concepts, like who developed the polio vaccine, or about comets or nuclear energy, but did not fare well with terms and applications, like what makes a sound wave loud, or how altitude affects boiling of water. And the twelve questions were followed by question about sex, age and education level, which allowed the scores to be analysed according to these categories.

This object in space, with an icy core and a tail of dust and gas that extends for millions of miles, is: (a) a star (b ) a comet (c) an asteroid (d) a moon      86% got this right

Waves used to make and receive cell phone calls are
(a). Radio waves (b). sound waves, (c). light waves (d). gravity waves     72% got this right

Which layer of the earth is hottest? : (a).the outer – crust (b).the middle – mantle (c).the inner - core
78% got this right

Which of these is the main way that ocean tides are created?
(a). the rotation of the earth on its axis (b). the gravitational pull of the sun (c). the gravitational pull of the moon
76% got this right

What does a light year measure?
(a). brightness (b). time (c). distance (d). weight     72% got this right

Shimla is at a higher altitude than Mumbai. Which of these is true? (the survey used Denver and San Francisco)
(a). water boils at a higher temperature in Shimla than in Mumbai (b). at a lower temperature (c). at the same temperature
34% got this right

Which of the pictures, 1, 2, 3 or 4, best shows what happens when light passes through a magnifying glass?
46% got this right

Loudness of a sound is determined by which property of the sound wave?
(a) frequency (b) wavelength (c) velocity or rate of change (d) amplitude or height    35% got this right

(a). in recent years, the level of tooth decay has increased (b). some people brush their teeth more often than others (c). eating more sugar causes more tooth decay (d). people are eating more sugar these days
63% got this right

Which of these elements is needed for creating nuclear energy and nuclear weapons?
(a). sodium chloride (b). uranium (c). nitrogen (d). carbon dioxide     82% got this right

Which one of these scientists shown developed the polio vaccine? (a) Marie Curie (b) Isaac Newton (c) Albert Einstein (d) Jonas Salk     74% got this right

A study on how the position of the planets could affect human behaviour is called?
(a). Astrology (b). Astronomy (c). Alchemy (d). Meteorology    73%got this right

The average was 7.9 answers right, with 8 answers right being the most common score. As can be expected, higher scores were found with higher levels of education, but even among the educated, there was considerable failure in questions of applications – we can see that about 60% went wrong in the questions about boiling, magnifying lens and loudness. Although post graduates did well, in the category, ’some college’, the mean scores were 9.1 and 7.5 out of 12, for men and women, respectively.

A glance at the questions shows that they would need editing and change before they could be applied to gauge, for instance, the level of science knowledge in India. In India, again, the level of literacy is lower, there is the question of language and medium, as well as the questions of health, hygiene and the environment being, perhaps, more relevant than a question about the comet! But a scientific temper among people is important and a survey to arrive at an objective measure, which could be monitored, would be relevant and more revealing than only statistics of enrolment in schools, number of graduates, and so on.

An effort in this direction with an interesting twist was unwittingly carried out back 1974 as part of project work in a BSc (Statistics) course. A class in a Chennai college surveyed housewives in a pocket in the city to assess their level of science knowledge. One of the questions set, for instance, was, “An electron is?” with the choices of answers as: (a) an atomic particle (b) an insect (c) a laboratory instrument (d) a tumour. While the purpose of the project was an exercise in designing the survey and the analysis of numbers, 300 housewives actually filled in questionnaires and the result was an average score of some 30% of the questions answered correctly.

This survey, which had been done in early 1974, to submit the report by March, happened to be repeated later in the year, using mostly a different set of subjects, with some from the first lot. To the student’s surprise, the results were significantly better. As no error was apparent in the method used, the improvement was intriguing. Till it was realised that in May, 1974, India had carried out her first nuclear test at Pokharan. Maybe it was this event, which was all science, and had been part of the market chatter since May, that had affected how much attention was paid to matters of science, it was suggested.

Unfortunately, these surveys were not rigorous or documented and this suggestion remains a conjecture. An Event like this, which was something momentous in India in 1974, would form part of the cultural milieu of any region. The US has had over a century of great technological advance including the space programme and putting a man on the moon. In addition, a survey of 3,748 scientists by the American Association for the Advancement of Science says 87% of scientists believe they should actively participate in public policy debates and 98% of them they have at some time, either through the press or through social media, engaged with the public about their work.

But still, other AAAS studies show wide gaps between scientists and US adults in key areas like whether GM foods or food grown with pesticides are safe, or the causes of global warming, and there is also a strong movement in the US to teach the Book of Genesis along with the theory of evolution in schools. This clearly means cultural and commercial influences would be strong even in advanced societies. Which is not undermine the importance of understanding science, but it emphasises the need for dissemination of science to keep alive the torch of reason and the methods of experimentation and verification, at a time when survival of the race depends on making the right choices.

(Courtesy http://www.simplescience.in)

[Answers to quiz: 1. b, 2. a, 3. c, 4. c, 5. c, 6. b, 7. 3, 8. d, 9. c, 10. b, 11. d, 12. a]


Destination Periyar Tiger Reserve, Kerala- Part II

Periyar Tiger Reserve, Kerala
-Text and Photographs
Dr.Susan Sharma, Founder, IndianWildlifeClub.com

 (Continued from last month)

Day 2 saw us getting ready for the much anticipated trek. PTR has a cool and humid climate with comparatively high rainfall.   April-May are the hottest and December-January the coolest.  Rainy season had just got over and the climate was pleasant.     

Readyfor trail
Sajeev advised that we spray a good amount of Dettol on our sox and pants to dissuade leeches.  And that came out to be an excellent tip. 
Rajkumar, our guide started explaining the forest types in PTR.  Seven types of vegetation have been identified from Periyar Tiger Reserve, of which evergreen and semi evergreen forests form the major portion.  Besides these marshy grasslands and montane grassland sholas form extremely valuable micro ecosystems. 
A bamboo raft carried us to the dense forest.  

The Reserve is the only known home for several endemic species such as Habenaria periyarenesis (a ground orchid), Mucuna pruriens thekkadiancis (a leguminous climber) and Syzygium periyarensis (a tree).  Flora considered previously extinct/endangered have been reported from PTR thanks to the research and impact monitoring component of the India Eco development Project.  The Aristolachia climber which is the food plant for the Southern Birdwing Butterfly, looked almost like a pitcher plant. 

The sights and sounds of the Forest soon engaged all of us. What is that bird?  What sound is that? Whispers from all of us made Rajkumar take charge with Sajeev pointing out flora and trees which one would not have paid attention to otherwise.  Rajkumar borrowed my camera and came back with a shot of the horse shoe bat inside a tree cavity.  This insectivorous bat is a forest pest controller, he explained.  

The PTR brochure listed 63 species of mammals, 323 species of birds, 44 species of reptiles, 28 species of amphibians, 38 species of fishes and 160 species of butterflies.    Sure enough, this Forest is teeming with life and soon our cameras started clicking.  Sajeev and Rajkumar would announce the names of birds, butterflies, amphibians, reptiles or a tree which caught our attention.  They brought our attention to a dried skull of a sambar on the ground, a still dripping with honey beehive, which was lying on the ground; the cut in a tree trunk, which Sajeev explained,  is how tribals take honey out.  They would cut away the honey filled portion but leave most of the bee hive with bees intact so that they can make more honey.

whitebellied blue flycatcher
The bicoloured frog or Malabar frog seemed to be popping out of many places.  As we approached the lake bank, the black tadpoles of the frog could be seen in shallow waters forming schools of tadpoles to hunt in the slow moving stream.  Despite their abundance here, I was surprised to learn that this frog is Near Threatened(IUCN)
Bicolored frog   
The sudden appearance of a Grey Hornbill in the canopy set our cameras rolling despite bad light.   Stray langurs here and there reminded us that we may run into that elusive creature -the lion tailed macaque- the endangered endemic primate of Western Ghats.  Giant squirrels appeared, always munching on food!  These squirrels could be seen  en-route our road trip to PTR as well. 
Sajeev explained that the faunal diversity in PTR is unparalleled.  Elephant, Gaur, Tiger, Panther, Sambar, Barking Deer, Wild Boar, Sloth Bear, Nilgiri Langur, Lion-tailed macaque, Otter, Malabar Giant Squirrel, Wild Dog etc are the major mammals.  Fourteen endemic species of birds have been reported from Southern Western Ghats including the Malabar Grey Hornbill, the Nilgiri wood pigeon, Blue winged parakeet, Crimson throated barbet, Rufous babbler and White breasted laughing thrush.  
Four fresh water fishes are endemic to the Reserve.   But introduced species like Tilapia are abundant in the Lake.
 Around 58 villages are situated on the fringes of the Tiger Reserve.  It is estimated that around 2.25 lakhs of people live within the 2km radius of the Tiger Reserve.  These communities have partial or complete dependency on the forests.  About 22 estates situated along the boundary of Tamil Nadu harbour nearly 3000  labourers, with more than 1000 of them having been identified as dependent on the Tiger Reserve for various purposes.  To empower these communities and to reduce the dependencies on forests, various Ecodevelopment activities were launched in mid 1990's.  Pure wild honey and allied products, lemon grass oil, eucalyptus oil, sandal wood sticks, pepper, frankincense are some of the products you can buy at the Vanashree shops.  
The commitment of Rajkumar, our guide, and the eagerness of a trainee who kept on taking down notes during the trek- are experiences all four of us will never forget.  This commitment of individuals is what makes PTR a special Forest.  Under the Eco development program, many tribals and even ex-poachers have been trained to become guides. These guides engage in forest protection on a full time basis. Rajkumar spoke flawless English, was truly knowledgeable about the forest, its moods, flora and fauna.  His pride and enthusiasm in the denizens of PTR is bound to rub off on any tourist.  Education officers train and up skill local communities, helping them develop a stake in  Forest protection.  Trekking in PTR was, for us, experiencing conservation at grassroots.  


Celebrate India!

Celebrate India!
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Water Facts

Water Facts
-Susan Sharma

India has two sources of fresh water — surface water and groundwater. Surface water — with rivers as its main source — is being relentlessly utilised through dams. These dams have robbed some rivers of their usual water flow, while diverting the course of others.

As much as 55% of India’s total water supply comes from groundwater resources.   Unbridled exploitation has led groundwater levels to plummet dangerously.

How much do we know about this precious natural resource called water?

Attempt our online quiz to know a few water facts.  

Photo Susan Sharma

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