Foresters and policymakers around the world tend to be obsessed with trees. The abundance of trees is considered a synonym of pride and accomplishments and the opposite tends to be symbol of disgrace. Bhutan, despite being among the least developed countries, boasts of having over 69 percent of its land under forest cover. While China has been applauded worldwide for having increased the land under forest cover by 2.15 percent through massive plantations in a short time span of five years (2004-2009), Pakistan is distressed to have lost as much as 33.2 percent of forests in merely twenty years (1990-2010).
Nepal is currently undertaking forestry resource assessment and aspires to maintain the current level of 42 percent of land under forest cover. Until a few decades ago, Nepalese forest professionals were desperate to handle the forests on their own, but the advent of community forestry ago helped change the equation a bit. Many community foresters now covet tree due to the assumption that they are assets to local communities, they support livelihoods and protect the environment. My brief visit to Northern Gorkha, however, tends to question that popular parlance, and instead suggests that trees may not be necessarily be an asset. In fact, trees may be more of a liability than asset in certain situations.
Khimpu village lies at the bottom of an extensive and rich high altitude forest in Kharibot VDC. While the said forest has been handed over to the community, it is so massive that the villagers fulfill their need for forest products without having to nourish the forest. Even a cursory view around the common trails indicates an indiscriminate felling of trees, which are then left to decay. This may lead the onlooker to question the basic notion of community forestry, which is supposed to inspire villagers to manage the resource for environmental and social betterment.
This is not quite the case in the alpine meadows of Murkhaghari that lie on the upper most part of the forests. Between the village of Khimpu and the meadows lies a rich and extensive community forest. Annually, when the fodder in the village is scarce and the agricultural activities are slack, the villagers take their sheep, goat and cattle to these meadows. Foresters in general (including me) may be intrigued to note that the villagers, who are indifferent to conserving the community forest that lies at their doorsteps, are worried by receding pastures which are far from their village and outside their official area. Actually, the villagers’ sentiments are not surprising: the trees are bountiful, compared to the pastures which are limited and provide them fodder when they need it most.
The Murkhaghari pasture has receded quite conspicuously, which has proved a big nuisance to the local people. First of all, this has led to a depletion of available forage for their animals. Second, the thorny bushes (mainly berberis) cause injuries to the animals, sheep in particular, owing to their relatively inefficient grazing methods. Third, the thorny bushes decrease visibility for the herders watching their stock, making the animals more vulnerable to wild predators.
It is conspicuous that while the pasture resource is degenerating, it is not necessarily at the cost of tree-based resource. In fact, it seems to be just the opposite!
The thorns of berberis trap rhododendron seeds which otherwise would have been blown away by strong alpine winds. These thorns not only provide the seeds a chance to germinate, but eventually, also protect the plants from being trampled by grazing animals. This process slowly helps to improve the condition of the soil through humus accumulation, which would eventually create the right environment for high-altitude trees like abies (a conifer). And when the area is covered with large tree-bearing forests, the berberis will be suppressed automatically, thus permanently annihilating the pasture.
No wonder the herders tried to uproot the berberis thorns right when it made an appearance. But, the species had become too deep-rooted to be eradicated by their efforts. Besides, new bushes kept sprouting from the remaining roots, leading to even denser bushes. Consequently the pasture deteriorated, both in quantity and quality.
The observations above, though interesting and useful, need further clarification through more empirical research. How and why are forests are taking over pasture-land? Does it have something to do with climate change and species shift? How widespread is this phenomenon, both regionally and nationally? What are its potential implications in terms of wider environment, e.g., the diversity of flora (grasses and trees) and fauna (mammals and birds)? What are its implications in social terms, e.g. the way herders are coping with or adapting to the new situation? And finally, what could be the possible policy implications?
This obviously calls for a much wider study on the dynamics of pastures, with special emphasis on the implications of pasture eradication on local socio-economy and environment. However, it is safe to claim that foresters and policy makers must not take it for granted that landscape with trees are always good and the ones without them are necessarily bad. A quote by Shakespeare seems to be apt here: ‘All that glitters is not gold’. And likewise, all that fail to glitter are not necessarily rubbish.
The author is former Joint Secretary Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation