July 10, 2020

Nature conservation culture of indigenous communities bears hope about a healthy planet

Date palm trees grow in abundance in landscapes surrounding eucalyptus plantations in Koraput and Rayagada districts of Odisha. © Basudev Mahapatra

As the world struggles to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic caused by a zoonotic virus named SARS CoV2, experts warn that more such crises are imminent in the future unless human behavior towards ecosystems and biodiversity changes, and the culture of conservation strengthens.

According to studies, outbreaks of animal-borne and other infectious diseases like Ebola, SARS, bird flu and now COVID-19 are on the rise. The UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) frontiers 2016 report notes that “around 60 per cent of all infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic as are 75 per cent of all emerging infectious diseases.”

John Vidal, environmental editor of ensia, blamed humanity’s destruction of biodiversity for creating suitable conditions for new viruses and diseases like COVID-19. Yet, biodiversity loss is happening at unprecedented rates impacting human health worldwide, observed the state of knowledge review jointly published by Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and World Health Organization (WHO).

The recently released Global Forest Resources Assessment 2020 (FRA 2020) shows, global forest area declined by about 178 million hectare (an area approximately the size of Libya) in the 30 years from 1990 to 2020. While the area of primary forest has decreased by 81 million ha since 1990, only three million ha of planted forest has been raised every year against annual loss of eight million ha of naturally regenerating forest.

Shrinking forests

Between 2009 and 2019, the district of Koraput has lost 9.52 sq KMs of very dense forest, nearly one sq Km each year, while the state of Odisha, in the eastern part of India, has lost 103.29 sq KM of forest of the same category during the decade, indicate the India State of Forest Reports.

“Once inside the forest, we are now 20 KMs away from it. This happened in last 4-5 decades, initially to make space for developmental works, to support timber businesses, then to make land for agricultural use and commercial plantation of Eucalyptus. We have lost all ecosystem services we used to get in the past,” said 65-year-old Dambaru Pujari of Padarguda village in Koraput district.

With no grazing land left nearby now, villagers occasionally take their cattle animals to far away patches close to the forest for grazing. “For anything we believe would be available in the forest, we walk 20 KMs to reach the forest, which also has lost its lustre and richness in terms of biodiversity and produce,” 67-year-old Daimati Pendabadia, of the village said.

The forest bordering Odisha and Chhattisgarh once served as a habitat to several wild animals including panthers. None of the animals is seen in the forest these days, Pujari said. “Loss of forest has led to many changes in the local climate like temperature in summers becoming unbearable.”

By destroying the tropical forests, “we risk our own quality of life, gamble with the stability of climate and local weather, threaten the existence of other species, and undermine the valuable services provided by biological diversity,” marked Rhett A. Butler, founder and editor-in-chief of Mongabay, a non-profit conservation and environmental science news platform.

“Widespread deforestation could lead to a significant decline in rainfall and trigger a positive-feedback process of increasing desiccation for neighboring forest cover; reducing its moisture stocks and its vegetation would then further the desiccation effect for the region,” Butler highlighted.

Plantations bear little hope

The area of planted forests has increased by 123 million ha since 1990 covering about 131 million ha that makes three percent of the global forest area, as per FRA 2020. However, a landmark report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) observes that planting of monocultures have very different consequences for biodiversity and its contributions to people.

With commercial plantation of Eucalyptus rampant across the forest edges and adjacent agricultural lands of Rayagada and Koraput districts to feed a few paper mills with raw materials, Jagannath Majhi, 35, of Rayagada’s Bissamcuttack observed, “such plantations neither allow other local plant species to grow around nor are they friendly to the local fauna.”

Eucalyptus, researchers find, consumes more water than other plant species in natural forests, which may draw down the water table in some regions. Its effects on the environment include the loss of soil productivity and fertility, disruption of hydrological cycles, risks of promoting pests and diseases, and negative impacts on biodiversity. In addition, Eucalyptus can acidify soil.

“What we see over last few years is that hundreds of date palm trees have grown in the region, mostly near the plantation sites,” Jagannath and his friend Sambaru said.

The date palm grows in harsh climatic environment. According to Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, date palms grow in arid and semi-arid regions which are characterised by long and hot summers, no (or at most low) rainfall.

“Unusual growth of date palm trees in forest landscapes of Odisha is indicative of ecosystem degradation and increasing aridity threatening the local forest and biodiversity,” said Bidyadhar Maharana, an expert in agriculture science.

Terming exotic monocultures as “biological deserts,” studies inform that such plantations are not only harmful to local biodiversity, but are also “more susceptible to pests and diseases” as they create ideal habitat for insects and pathogens that would lead to rapid colonization and spread of infection.

It is increasingly clear that large-scale, often anthropogenic, environmental changes across the globe are among the most important drivers of emerging zoonoses. These drivers include land use changes such as deforestation, agricultural encroachment, urban sprawl etc. resulting in climate change and biodiversity loss.

Use land, don’t exploit and spoil

Intensive single crop farming to ensure higher yield to meet growing food demand and making agriculture a profitable economic activity has led to degradation of soil quality and ecosystems. Such farming acts against nature because of its association with inorganic fertilizers and pesticides. Higher crop yield through such practices comes at a huge socio-ecological cost such as environmental pollution, land degradation exacerbating impacts of climate change, biodiversity loss, decline in human health and livelihood, and erosion of traditional agricultural knowledge as well.

Following persuasion by the government, some Gadaba tribal people of Koraput’s Kadamguda village started growing high yielding variety (HYV) paddy crop about a decade ago. “As it required regular input in forms of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, we had to make loans to fulfill such needs. Initially the yield was good. Two years later the crop failed due to lingering summer heat and low rain. We suffered badly and had to work elsewhere to repay the loans,” 62-year-old Bhagaban Gadaba told.

According to 68-year-old Chandar Gadaba, “As we grew HYV seeds, indigenous tuber crops and other traditional crops didn’t grow on the edges and bonds of our fields. We found that regular visitors like birds, bees and flies stopped visiting the fields under HYV crop cultivation. A good variety of edible plants also vanished from the surrounding.”

As tribal farmers of the village observed, the soil didn’t support their indigenous variety crops immediately when they wanted to return to their own traditional crops. “After applying chemicals for three consecutive years, the soil became poisonous,” Purushottam Gadaba said while showing a garland of indigenous seeds he grows in his lands without applying anything inorganic.

Substantiating such observations, studies confirm that overuse of chemical fertilisers for higher yield often results in physical and chemical degradation of the soil and alters the natural microflora while increasing alkalinity and salinity of the soil.

Traditionally living in unison with nature since time immemorial, Kondh indigenous farmers of Rayagada district always grow multiple crops simultaneously in their upland fields called ‘dongor’ without using any chemical fertilizers or pesticides. “Usually situated on the edge of forests, our dongors are mostly inspired by the forest ecosystem. We grow more than 60 varieties of crops, including paddy, millets, legumes, leaves, tubers and vegetables, during one season in a phased manner since the month of May and harvest them one after another over a period of nine months since August,” Pala Urlaka, 65, of Darukona village said while peeling off tamarinds collected from the forest.

In fact, “we count the birds and insects coming to the dongor as part of nature and our extended family. They too have their share in the dongor. We never ever think of killing them by applying any kind of chemicals,” she emphasized.

Explaining the relationship between the Kondh tribal and nature, soil in particular, 65-year-old Kanhu Radika of Tikarpada village under Muniguda block said, “Land is not made by us but is a gift from nature. It gives us everything from food, energy, materials to make cloth, a space and all materials for our housing. It’s for all – from humans to animals, plants, insects, birds etc. We shouldn’t be in conflict with any of them but live with them in harmony.”

Terming land as the second mother, 30-year-old Kondh youth Sekro Radika turned emotional while expressing his concerns. “When we apply chemicals to get higher yield, we are not only ruining the soil but killing many plants and abandoning or killing many animals of the region too.” That’s like “sucking blood instead of milk from the mother,” just to yield profit, he said.

Overuse of chemical fertilizers not only leads to loss of soil quality and biodiversity to exacerbate the impact of climate change, it also degrades the ability of an environment to control diseases. “They destabilize pathogen-hosts interactions that occur in pristine environments, therefore increasing opportunities for zoonotic spillovers,” said Bernard Bett of the international livestock research institute while speaking on the delicate relationship between humans, wildlife and the pathogens.

Be it through deforestation or intensive high input based crop cultivation, notes IPBES, current negative trends in biodiversity and ecosystems will undermine progress towards 80% (35 out of 44) of the assessed targets of the Sustainable Development Goals related to poverty, hunger, health, water, cities, climate, oceans and land.

Culture of conservation bears hope

In such a critical time where restoring environmental health has become crucial for human health, the association of indigenous communities with nature and the inherent culture of conserving forest, soil and other natural resources bear enormous hope, said Debjeet Sarangi of Living Farms, a non-profit working with indigenous communities of Odisha and Chhattisgarh.

“The relationship between indigenous communities and nature is not limited to food, livelihood or economic activities. In fact, they co-habit helping each other survive with their own identity and dignity.”

Reflecting the culture of conservation integral to tribal life, 75-year-old Sada Giuria of Koraput’s Gunduliaguda village said, “Without forest we can’t live. It provides us everything we require to survive. It’s our mother.”

Tribal people protect the forest and worship it as god. “As rainy season starts, we worship the forest ceremonially praying it to protect us from epidemics and wild animals, to bless us with good amount of rain and proper climate for a good harvest,” he cited.

Tribal people draw all things required for their survival from the forest. “How can we think of a survival without forest, which is very much a part of our life?” – questioned 50-year-old Duryodhan Giuria, a Bhumia tribal.

The inherent traditions of indigenous communities exemplify how the culture of conservation helps protecting environment, forests and natural wildlife habitats that in return extend their services and protect humanity from diseases and pandemics like COVID 19.

According to scientific studies, intact ecosystems maintain a diversity of species in equilibrium and can often provide a disease-regulating effect if any of these species are either directly or indirectly involved in the life cycle of an infectious disease and occupy an ecological niche that prevents the invasion of a species involved in infectious disease transmission or maintenance.

An edited version of this piece first appeared on Mongabay India.

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