I grew up in a sleepy hamlet of Almora nestled in the lush green hills of middle Himalayas. During my formative years I experienced the beauty of forests in all its shades. Experiencing this I assumed that the state of the forest will be the same everywhere because very often what you see is what you believe. However, I was in for a surprise.
During my teens itself I decided to plunge myself in the field of forestry that both motivated and fascinated me. But to my surprise during the course of my higher education I came across many forest areas which were degraded and had blank undertorey patches infested with exotic weeds, further deteriorating the forest health.
Most of the rural population in the state of Uttarakhand is directly dependent on the forest resources for meeting their day to day basic demands of food, fodder, fuelwood and also herbs of medicinal and aromatic value. But due to the degradation of the natural habitats and overexploitation of medicinal plants there is an urgent need for their conservation.
This got me thinking as to how these seemingly unrelated problems of degraded forests, livelihood dependence of forest dependent communities and conservation of exploited medicinal herbs can yield a single solution. I realised agroforestry was the only option.
Interestingly during Doctoral research I chose the task of improving the productivity of Chir pine (Pinus roxburghii) forest. The situation as it exists today is that the Chir pine forests have very less or no understorey growth. They remain full of needle cover with meagre or no understorey vegetation. The pine needles accumulated on the forest floor are a means of fire hazard.
Keeping in view the dependency for livelihood on the community forests especially Chir pine, it was a challenge to increase the producivity so that some short term economic returns could be achieved for the local forest dependent communities of the Panchayati forests. So, I thought of increasing the productivity of such land by introducing native grasses, medicinal and aromatic herbs that need conservation. The Van Panchayats represent one of the largest and most diverse experiments in common property management ever developed in collaboration with the State. Interestingly, Van Panchayats in India’s hilly state of Uttarakhand present one of the earliest examples anywhere in the world, where government and local people come together for the management of natural resources.
The project endeavoured to use the underutilized or unutilized land of Chir pine forests by associating seven of the naturally growing medicinal and aromatic herbs to improve the productivity of these forests. The concept of minimum tillage and appropriate topographical aspect was adopted to introduce native grasses and medicinal herbs in the understorey of degraded forests. The former aimed at minimizing disturbance to the forest floor and the latter to suit the appropriate microclimate of the particular herb.
Seven herbs namely Lemon grass (Cymbopogon flexuous), Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum), Akarkara (Spilanthes acmella), Kaunch (Mucuna pruriens), Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), Kantkari (Solanum khasianum) and Kalmegh (Andrographis paniculata) were selected having reviewed their natural habitats and growth conditions. The trial was conducted for two consecutive years and to everyone’s surpise out of seven medicinal plants four medicinal plants namely Akarkara, Kaunch, Kantkari and Kalmegh were found to be economically viable due to better yield and healthy financial returns. Spilanthes acmella, Mucuna pruriens and Solanum khasianum produced maximum yield when grown on northern aspect with net returns of Rs. 34,639, 15,567 and 2879 respectively per hectare in a growing season of four to six months depending on the species. While Andrographis paniculata gave highest yield with net returns of Rs. 5833 per hectare when grown on western aspect. Thus a Chir pine based innovative Silvi-medicinal system was introduced in the Indian Himalayan Region.
The outcome of the research has the potential to utilize the understorey of Chir pine forests, which occupy 3943 km2 area in Uttarakhand (16.15% of the total forest area) and other Himalayan states. It can also generate a source of income for the poor forest dwellers besides the intangible benefits like soil, water and biodiversity conservation of the area.
The implementation of the project will result in livelihood security of forest dependent community, first in terms of employment dealing with all the operation from planting to the collection of minor forest produce and secondly in the sale of the sustainable harvest of these produce. The impact of the project will involve the reduced pressure upon the natural forests, from where unscientific extraction and exploitation of such medicinal plants are continued. Besides, the frequent fire hazards in Chir pine forest can be minimized due to the decomposition and non accumulation of the pine needles in the forest floor.
Agroforestry has always been accepted as a land use system applicable both in farm as well as forest. In mountainous states most of the land is covered with forest, including government reserve forest, civil and soyam forest or panchyati, community or private lands. There is a need of utilizing the unutilized understorey land and degraded and blank patches of these forests, which generally remain infested with exotic weeds throughout the year leading to the underutilization of land resources.
So there is a scope for amending the policies so that agroforestry potential can be harnessed by planting native grasses, medicinal herbs, shrubs and wild fruit crops in the understorey patches of these forests with minimum disturbance to these degraded forest lands. There is also a need for a country wide review of all laws and procedures constraining agroforestry especially in the community and private forest out side the reserve forests.
I have the strong conviction that if this experiment could be carried out so successfully under such a tough terrain like a Chir pine forest then it holds promise to be replicated in the other forest lands as successful model of agroforestry.
Photo: Productivity enhancement through agroforestry in the Chir pine forest
Blogpost and photo by Dr. Chandra Shekhar Sanwal, Indian Forest Service, DCF Uttarakhand cadre (Dehradun, India) – chandra.sanwal(at)gmail.com
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