Bid to revive forests in Jammu and Kashmir
ZAVOORA, India (AlertNet) – Amid thousands of tree stumps stretching over almost 60 hectares (150 acres) of bare plateau, there are signs of life. Delicate saplings of kail and deodar conifers are growing between other newly planted deciduous trees.
The woodland had been cut down illegally by loggers and encroached upon for farming. But forestry officials here in Shopian district, a two-hour drive south of Srinagar, the summer capital of India’s Jammu and Kashmir state, have supervised its replanting under a new government scheme.
The state government plans to spend a billion Indian rupees (more than $20 million) by 2015 on reforestation, with the goal of regenerating woodland to mitigate the effects of climate change and to earn carbon credits under the U.N. Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) programme.
That programme aims to have richer industrialised nations pay poorer tropical forest nations to protect their forests in exchange for richer nations receiving emission reduction credits.
In Jammu and Kashmir, 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) of woodland have been replanted since the government reforestation programme began in 2010. Forestry officials say the forests should regrow in three or four decades. The areas remains fenced off to protect the growing saplings.
Shopian district has suffered a significant loss of forest cover since an insurgency erupted in Jammu and Kashmir in 1989. Officials say that at least 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) of woodland in the district have been encroached upon and converted into orchards or maize fields by residents trying to earn a living in unsettled times.
Officials have not released the total additional area of land that has been cleared by illegal timber harvesters, but it is thought to be much higher.
For Immad-ud-din Khan, the view of the open stretch of land from the window of his brick and mud house in Zavoora brings back memories.
‘NOW THAT IS GONE’
“Even today in my dreams I tread the forest paths that were dotted with mighty and shady deodars,” the octogenarian reminisces. “But now that is gone. The whole area has been plundered.”
Khan counts off the responsible parties on the fingers of his frail hand. “We all are responsible for this looting of green gold - the government, locals, forest officials, smugglers, police and militants,” he said.
Official statistics suggest Jammu and Kashmir have about 20,000 square km (7,800 square miles) of forest. While figures on the extent of illegal logging are hard to obtain, the government says that about 14,000 hectares (35,000 acres) have been damaged by fire since 2000, often by people clearing land for farming or to produce charcoal, which is in great demand as a fuel in the winter. Poor forest management also contributes to fires.
A forest improvement drive that has seen 123 hectares (300 acres) of trees planted in Shopian since 2010 aims to conserve, protect, regenerate and manage existing natural forests.
“Under this programme we have been able to evict encroachments on forest land (and) carry out plantations and fencing of the forest area at vulnerable locations, besides developing nurseries,” said Himayun Qadri, the forest officer in charge of the programme in the Shopian forest division.
Around 50,000 conifers, including native species such as the deodar pine, kail and silver fir, have been planted along with 150,000 deciduous saplings – kiker, Kashmir elm and poplar.
“The conifer plants during initial years need some shade, they cannot grow in the open, so we have to plant them alongside broadleaved (deciduous) plants,” Qadri explains.
The department has also set up two tree nurseries to provide saplings for replanting. The nurseries are stocked with 200,000 conifers, 300,000 deciduous trees and 10,000 fruit- or nut-bearing trees such as apricots and walnuts, he said.
The forestry department also aims to remove people from woodlands that have been illegally encroached. According to a 2009 department report, more than 18,000 hectares (46,000 acres) of forest land has been illegally occupied in Jammu and Kashmir.
So far, forestry officials have evicted people from 110 hectares (270 acres) of former woodland in the Shopian division and fenced it to prevent renewed encroachment.
Funding for the programme is being provided by the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA), which receives payments from state agencies and private companies that have been authorised to use woodland for non-forestry purposes, such as roads, railway lines and power projects.
The state government says that between 2004 and 2010, nearly 3,900 hectares (9,500 acres) of forest land were diverted for various development activities, which under the law are not considered encroachment of forest.
Agencies and companies using forest land must pay to plant trees on double the area of land they have taken, and must also pay a sum equal to the value of goods and ecological services on the land they diverted, explained Lalit Kumar Sharma, CAMPA’s conservator of forests.
In Jammu and Kashmir that value ranges from 700,000 to 990,000 rupees ($14,000 to $20,000) per hectare, depending upon the ecological classification of the forest.
The reforestation programme may also bring a new financial resource for the state. A team at the Jammu and Kashmir State Forest Research Institute is guiding efforts to earn carbon reduction credits by protecting forests.
Although the work is in its early stages and carbon market prices have recently been very depressed, researchers at the University of Kashmir believe the state’s energy and forestry sectors could eventually earn as many as 75 million Certified Emission Reduction credits annually under the Kyoto protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism, with a potential value of up to $1.1 billion.
Jammu and Kashmir’s forests have suffered a wide range of threats in recent years, experts say.
“Felling of trees, movement of armed forces with heavy vehicles and the increased population of cattle have contributed to the loss of forests over the decades,” said Sajjad Ahmad, a research scholar at the University of Kashmir.
The diversion of forest land for development projects is also criticised, but some officials particularly blame militants for the enormous loss of forest cover.
“The troubled situation in Jammu and Kashmir since 1990 is mainly responsible for the degradation of forests and forest land,” said a senior forest official who asked not to be named. “But one cannot rule out the damage to the forests prior to that period which was done in the name of extraction of timber and firewood by politically backed contractors.”
In Zavoora, Immad-ud-din Khan fears that if government plans to revive forests fail, the state’s food security may be threatened.
Loss of forests can affect natural rain patterns and lead to excessive rainfall or drought, which means that “the food that we grow in our fields is dependent on forest cover,” Khan says.
But he is optimistic that the CAMPA programme bodes well for the future.
“It’s really good to see the government realising the loss done to forests and taking measures to regain them,” he says. “Not we but the coming generations will be able to see these plants turn into trees.”
Peerzada Arshad Hamid is a writer based in Srinagar, Kashmir.