Himalaya’s Barren Slopes

By: Staff Reporter
The Himalaya, one of the prettiest destinations in the world, is under a severe threat of losing its bio-diversity. The essay showcases the problems it faces and suggests a way forward to combat the challenge!
English Free Article Environment

Who is responsible for the rapid degradation of our pristine Himalayas? No it is not always man!
But man definitely is an interfering pest that nature can do without. Events such as forest fires and landslides are an integral part of the natural cycle – but all such processes were hastened when humans began their exploitation of the pristine Himalayas.

The Himalayan landforms were produced over relatively short period of time. When the Himalaya began to rise after the collision of the Indian and Asian continental plates, mainly during the late Tertiary and Quaternary periods, new landscapes emerged.

In this geologically young zone, tectonic, climatic and earth surface processes are thus intricately linked. In the steep sided valleys of the Himalayas, slope failure associated with melting glaciers is most common. The deglaciation accelerates erosion process and large-scale sedimentation because of the increase in the volume of the melt water.

The moraine-dammed lakes in this region have enough potential to burst catastrophically, eroding valleys and washing away with wrath all that comes in its way. Due to the rapid summer melting of many Himalayan glaciers during the past century, possibility of such catastrophies has increased. Large earthquakes also play a significant role in this unstable tectonic region.

“By 2030 the glaciers will advance. By 2100 we might see another ice-age. We are undergoing a period of glacial retreat due to late snowfall resulting in little compaction and crystallization. This is followed by quick melting and glacial retreat in select glacier, especially the Gangotri.” – Dr Milap Chand Sharma, CSRD, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Why is the Himalaya so very important?
Visualise the northern most part of India. What springs to mind immediately is the complicated mountainous terrain of the Himalaya, which provides political protection as well as perpetual snows, lending our rivers its perennial character.

The majestic Himalaya that offer spectacular scenery and environmental mysteries, consists of one of the most fragile landscapes in the world. The fragility further gets complicated because of the escalating human interference and unplanned process of development. In an environment as fragile as this, human interference can create havoc. It is not a single act but a chain of processes that act in conjugation to degrade the entire mountain region.

Comprehending the issues of the people up there!
A vicious cycle exists in the developmental process of the Himalayan region. With burgeoning population, the area under subsistence crops is constantly expanded along with an increased dependency on livestock farming. All the sequences intensify the demand on these mountain lands. Did you know that sustainable use of one hectare of arable land requires destruction of one to four hectares of forest?

Even the forests are pumped dry for basic human demands of fodder, fuel wood and other requirements. Moreover, grazing more often than not tends towards overgrazing. Development of tourism is another factor that adds to the degradation and degrades the mountainous environment.


Living in the mountains
Before we embark on any discussion on the man-agriculture scenario, we must comprehend the dynamics of the day to day life here. Before the craze of development took over in our country, the people here followed a sedentary lifestyle. Men were essentially collectors and hunters who left the home to provide for his family, while the women and children stayed back and tended to their kitchen garden.

The basic energy intake of the subsistence villagers is satisfied by food crops, usually grown on irrigated terraces `khet‘ or rainfed terraces termed as ‘bari‘, supplemented by some animal products. At lower altitudes, where irrigation is feasible, the irrigated terraces produce a winter or dry-season crop in addition to the summer monsoon crop, rice.

With the increasing altitudes, the proportion of ‘bari‘ to `khet’ increases, due to cooler dry-season conditions, increasing slope gradient and inaccessibility to water. Livestock supply draught power and serve as the primary and perhaps only source of fertiliser.

In the last twenty years, population pressure lured the men towards better employment opportunities in the plains. Thus selective migration began. The money that they earned was sent to the village to buy provisions, which were again transported from the plains, as hill production fell due to a smaller manpower.

Thus, a full cycle followed leaving the people here with very little savings. Soon the women were forced out of their homes to tend to the fields. However unlike the men they were unable to venture into distant forests to collect all that the hill economies were dependent upon. Foraging for fodder and firewood was done in the closest proximity to the village – unlike the older days. Consequently, the jungles around the village began to disappear.

This nibbling effect is apparent around all the hill villages, with its diameter increasing alarmingly every day.

Is deforestation well understood?
Deforestation causes more degradation in the mountain slopes as compared to plains as gravity easily pulls off the loose top soil. Therefore greater the slope angle, the greater will be the impact of deforestation. It will disastrously affect the plains as the floods will be immense and siltation heavy.

Bleeding the forest
In a discussion with Dr. Milap Chand Sharma of Jawaharlal Nehru University, our correspondent gained valuable insight on several issues. He mentioned the existence of hutments in the fragile glacial ecology, which caters to pilgrims as well as tourists and more often than not upsets the balance of such an environment.

Gangotri specifically, supports two such hutments, one near the glacier, Bhojvasa, and the other above the glacier at Tapovan. The hermits regularly venture out in groups of five or six to collect juniper or firewood. What is juniper? It is a predominant slow growing high-altitude conifer. It hardly grows more than one inch per year, as the growing period is limited to two or three months, lying dormant for the rest of the year.

The oil content of juniper is very high and therefore the wood requires no drying process before burning. How can we talk of saving such an environment where primary species is mercilessly cleared? Dr. Milap adds, “religious sensitivity or otherwise, law should be enforced to forbid any permanent settlement from interfering with the natural environment in these regions”.

Besides, we all know how small rivulets to large tributaries have been used as dumping grounds. All the villages discard their refuse near the river and in this age of plastic, the effluents turn toxic destroying the purity of the life in the waters.

Moreover, pilferage of wood is a regular practice and is practiced not only by local population but also by the army. Yes, you will be surprised to note that the forest department and the army clash over controversial clearance of forests.

In fact, Uttrakhand saw it’s so called ‘snow-damaged’ deodars transported to Dehradun to build officer’s bungalows. The story is similar even in the distant glens of virgin forest areas of Sikkim.

What is more, have a look at the shelves in any shop. Every product ranging from cosmetics and medicines and even paints talk about extracts which have been derived from medicinal plants.

Exotic names feature prominently on packages. Where do they come from? Yes, they mostly come from the hills of India. The extraction of medicinal plants in the recent years has increased, as opposed to official records, over more than ten times. Most of this is illegal and undocumented, with a parallel well-oiled black market. Although the government has many restrictive policies on extraction of certain species, illegal extraction continues unabated.

Grazing troubles
In valley areas of the Himalayas, grazing of livestock is a regular practice. With the intensive harvesting practices, the practice of grazing has also been increased. As for the impact of grazing, two sets of arguments feature prominently. Some experts argue that the continuous and regular practice of grazing causes the exposure of the rock and soil layers. It reduces the compactness of the soil, thus erosion quickly lays the area bare.

On the other hand, another set of argument states that grazing is essential for any plant life, especially in the mountainous regions. Two specific impacts are as follows,

  • Due to grazing, the low vegetation cover gets the potential of further growth.
    In fact the Valley of Flowers, which was protected from all grazing activities, found itself unable to cope with the sudden profusion of weeds!
  • Grazing adds animal fertilizer to the ground that increases the humus content of the soil.

Thus, experts add that the two issues of grazing and over grazing should not be confused as it would only provide a partial view. However, the character of the herd is of utmost importance and any change in its composition can have adverse results.

One such instance may be found in the areas of Tehri in Uttrakhand where goat keeping seems to be on the rise. This is mainly because sheep raised primarily for wool, now plays a less dominant role as high quality and cheaper wool is easily available from Australia.

Consequently it is more profitable to invest in goat rearing as goat meat is still a high sale commodity. Sheep or goat, what difference does it make to the Himalayan environment? Well, for one sheep is more eco-friendly than goat restricting itself to the pasture while a goat claims fodder from all plant life, high or low.

This degrades the environment more rapidly than we can imagine.

The Gujjars and many similar tribes that practice transhumance, take their flock up beyond the tree line. This is hardly new, as they have been practicing this movement for over hundreds of years.

So where is the problem? The nature of the herd has changed in recent years, especially when we take the buffalo numbers into account. The combined weight of the animal loosens the alpine soil which consequently gets washed away with the rains. Moreover, the Alpine meadows, meant primarily for sheep grazing have a species of grass which acts as a sponge in absorbing the precipitation and slowly releasing it to recharge the water table.

Increased buffalo tending also affects this grass cover and subsequently the additional run-off swells the channels resulting in a marked change in the water cycle.

For the people who visit these lands… 
The Himalayan region is a familiar place for tourists as well as pilgrims since the historical past. In addition to that, the complex terrain associated with the scenic beauty of the entire area attracts lots of expediters from all corners of the country and even from abroad.

Tourism as an industry is no doubt a part of the socio-economic development of any nation. But from the point of view of sustainable development, this industry may yield some negative results. The tourists and pilgrims, who visit the scenic or sacred places on the hilltop, usually abandon used scrap around their temporary camps.

The garbage thus accumulated prevents the natural percolation of rainwater into the soil layers. Some of the garbage, especially plastic does not degrade for hundreds of years, and leaves long-term repercussions on the environment! Some claim that the heating effect of plastic may even affect the flora of the area.

Uttrakhand Forest Department has introduced a two km barrier in Gangotri. An attendant, living in a temple, inspects the passing tourist traffic for polythene items asking them to deposit a token amount for the number of the same that they are carrying.

The catch here is that if you don’t bring back all that you take, you will forfeit the deposit. The amount of money is not the issue, but the dent that is made on the psyche on the visitor, who no doubt will carry all the plastic back. A commendable job indeed! It is imperative to protect the fragile glacial environment and this seems to be a step in the right direction. Rohtang Pass in Himachal Pradesh is another area where such a practice is undertaken.

Ladakh was relatively inaccessible in the past. Ladakh lakes such as Tsomoriri, Tsokar and Pangong Tso were protected with only the Changpas or the Ladakhian shepherds visiting them. Now it is open for the foreign and Indian tourists.

It seems that the habitat of the migratory birds have been disturbed due to this. These wetlands are believed to be the most important breeding site for waterfowl in Ladakh and are the only breeding ground of the bar-headed geese in India. Even the globally threatened black-necked crane finds a home here.

In addition, this region also supports some of the most endangered species of mammals such as kiang, snow leopard, lynx, Himalayan blue sheep and more. In view of the extreme fragility of the lake ecosystems and their under representation at the national and international level, conservation of these lakes needs to be addressed. Thus immediate steps need to be taken to conserve the Tsomoriri, Tsokar and Pangong Tso from the uncontrolled onslaught of tourism.

As we sow….
Now the question automatically arises is what can be done to provide sustainable employment to the village folk as well as save the forests from rapidly depleting? Well, foremost, perceiving the complexities of the hill is most essential. Two major aspects must be kept in mind before taking any measure for environmental conservation.

  • Each altitude shows a change in character and composition of the flora.
  • Even on the same altitude, the aspect of the hill determines the floral and the faunal composition.
In the Siliguri-Bagdogra areas a particular barbed rice variety used to be grown. With the emergence of hybrid varieties this was replaced by high-yielding fast growing rice.

So what resulted?

Not only higher yields, but also increased man-animal conflict.

Yes, the elephants that never harassed the farmers before as they had an acute distaste for the barbed rice variety, now find the newer fields enticing. Indeed, man digs his own grave!

Orchid and bulb farming is said to be effective in stopping at least 10 to 20 per cent of the migration and can get international money flowing into the region. Orchids are exotic and expensive flowers that can be stored for a considerable period with a demand that is worldwide.

The farmers here, however, do not have the expertise to handle either the cultivation or the spatial and temporal fluctuating demand of their products. Societies need educated people working in tandem with the farmers in accordance with the Japanese ‘just in time’ model. What is this model? Well, some may have land, while another may have the know-how and still another may have the finance.

Putting together all these components would result in sustainable product which could boost the rural economy.

Economic utilisation of forest products
Bamboo in north-eastern belt, especially Mizoram, can provide a sustainable source of income. How? No, we aren’t talking of cane furniture, but bamboo shoots. A raging international market, especially in the eastern world, exists for this product. The rates of profits are also very high.

Dairy development
Value-addition to perishable quantities of milk results in cheese. The shelf life of cheese is very long and the older the cheese gets, the better it is.

Unlike milk, it can also be carried over long distances and the prices are over three times higher. The making of cheese is also socially empowering as milk, generally sold by the male members, finds its proceeds eroded. In case of cheese-making women folk can directly benefit as the money finds its way home.

Introducing suitable cash crops
Yes, more money is welcome and necessary. In fact it is possible to introduce a cash crop which is ecologically suited to the environment and would also spell conservation.

Thysoliana maximum is a perennial grass that grows in the hill areas and can be used for fodder in the dairies besides featuring as a ubiquitous and mundane broom in everybody’s homes. Cardamom is an environment-friendly high paying cash crop, mainly grown in the Eastern Himalayas and can be grown with the tree Alnus nepalensis, ensuring a sizeable income along with the benefits of nitrogen fixing by the taller trees.

The cardamom plant also encourages the local animal population such as the civets, bear and pheasant. Thus, there are three things that such a proposition can fulfill, one to protect the environment, two to provide a high paying crop and three to encourage the faunal diversity of the area.

The bark of the Daphne tree can be used to make handmade paper which is exported and it is claimed to be the mystery of the Buddhist monk’s good eye-sight, who use this paper for studying in their dimly lit monasteries. This tree may also be used with cardamom for inter-cropping, thus increasing the value of the entire area.

Regularly pruning these trees allow the farmers to earn sustainably. Ginger is another crop which can be grown instead of millet to produce a higher income especially in the areas of dry land farming.

Herbal plant cultivation, a special project in the Kumaon region, has proved to be a success as marketing herbal plants through co-operative has been profitable. A plant of the alium species locally known as `jambu’ is extensively grown in this new project and sold dried as a condiment to garnish food.

Off-season cultivation
Peas may be cultivated in the month of June to cater to the larger cities in the plains. In the Kumaon region an NGO works with Mother Dairy to provide off season and organic vegetables to the plains.

Awareness Programes 
Last but not the least, awareness programme needs to be organized for local population and school children which would go a long way in conserving any environment.

The Himalayan region is one of the most important eco-regions of India. The aspects related to geology, geomorphology and ecology are exceptionally complicated in this region in comparison to the other regions of India.

In case of natural processes such as geological changes, exogenetic and endogenetic movements, we have almost no way to control the consequences. But we must keep in mind that the people living in the area will have to survive and at the same time the environment must be protected.

Forbidding any practice is not always the only way-out. Rather we should look for some other alternatives which might be more effective in terms of both the survival of the people as well as the conservation of the mountain environment.

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