Climate change in Himalayas Let’s build on mixed forests

Dr Rajan Kotru
Global Forest Watch in 2019 put the global deforestation as 11.9 Million ha, which equals to the loss of a football pitch of primary forest every 6 seconds.In India, the State of Forests Report biennially depicts ourcountry’s forest cover and its health status. Accordingly, in 2019, the overall situation is promising sansthe ‘slash and burn practice’related deforestation and forest degradation in the northeast. However, Forest cover increase datais deceptive as simultaneously reserved forest areas (RFA) are showing decline whereas there is an increase of forest cover outside the RFA compared to previous assessment of 2017. The flip-sideof the promising report is that afforestation or forest cover increase is largely at the cost of losing biodiversity-rich natural forests including through encroachments (e.g., Anantnag Forest Division records above 6500 encroachment cases as per the J&K Forest Department website). Moreover, the forest cover of J&K is dominated by “Open Forest” which all foresters will agree can’t fulfil the purpose of sustainable flow of ecosystem services as done by a dense/moderately dense forest, if managed properly.The Indian Himalayas (IH), of which J&K is part, gets heavy monsoon rains and western disturbance precipitation. Any fragmentation and degradation of forests means accelerated soil erosion, landslides and even flash floods in a region that naturally is fragile due to its geological and seismic contexts as this mountain range is still in upward and sideward motion.That forest management in the Himalayas is not provenly done on sustainable basis is very much evident from the plethora of perpetual issues such as regular forest fires, flourishing of invasive species, degradation of biodiversity, drying of springs, frequent human-wildlife conflicts, uncontrolled open grazing etc. In other words,multiple functions mountain forests provide us: conservation of biodiversity, source of livelihoods, recreation, carbon sequestration, water-flow regulation,timber and non-timber resources for millions etc., are evidently impaired. At best these collective functions at landscape level are manifested as the bulwark for sustaining mountain agriculture that knowingly is subsistence-oriented.The direct-protective function of a forest implies that it protects lives and livelihoods, and rural and urban infrastructure against the impact of natural hazards (e.g. snow avalanches, rockfall etc.). This has tremendous significance as IH are increasingly sought for infrastructure built-up for meeting geo-political and socio-economic challenges.
Numerous studies (including the Hindu Kush Himalayan Monitoring and Assessment Report byNepal-based International Centre of Integrated Mountain Development, 2019)have concluded that impending climate change could cause irreversible damage to unique forest ecosystems and biodiversity, rendering several species extinct, locally and regionally. One study also projects the vulnerability index of the upper Himalayas against climate change as very high.The whole population of J&K in one way or other benefits from forest ecosystem services. Therefore, the issue of safeguarding intertwined ecosystems at landscape scale and the flow of mountain forest ecosystem services in our union territory at an optimum level for coming generations in upstream and in the plains as the bulk of river basin areasare forest land (includes rangelands), is uncertain. Hence building resilience of our mountain/hillforests is inevitable. This keeping in view that Forest ecosystems require the longest response time to adapt, say through migration (of species) and regrowth. Under natural conditions forests are fairly resilient and capable of sustaining services to a large extent, but given the incessant and multiple direct (e.g., over-harvesting of medicinal plants, open grazing) and indirect human impacts (e.g. Air pollution, Climate Change) that is less likely.
One of the key strategies to build resilience is the ‘no regrets’ policies and practices promotingmixed species forestry to reduce vulnerability. Based on practical evidence the world over scientists for combating climate change impacts on forests are suggesting mixed forests. Mixed forests may not win against monocultures only from their greater biodiversity and long-term ecosystem sustenance values angle but also from the perspective that multiple needs of forest-dependent communities and downstream these provide. A conversion from pure to mixed stands could increase the resistance of forests.
The potential benefits also include long-term economic efficiency, and stability. This is the result of the key global studies comprising five continents (KIT-Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, and Technical University of Munich, Germany). Trees in mixed-species forests are often better supplied with light, water, and soil nutrients via their complementary crown and root systems thus making mixed stands more resilient during dry years. In addition, they are more stable against pests and visually more appealing (e.g., for Eco-Tourism). Hence mixed-species forests are ecologically more valuable as versatile habitats (e.g., for wildlife). They mitigate climate change, as they are a higher carbon sink. Apart from this, hundreds and if not thousands of so-called community-microplans which foresters and other development agents (e.g., watershed experts, agriculturists) have prepared under joint forest management/community forestry give mixed forests and indigenous tree species a big “thumbs up”.Forest management concepts need to adapt to new challenges and harness emerging opportunities. Hence adhering to “Forest Type/Sub Type” classification using limited set of bio-physical criteria (e.g., Temperature, Humidity etc.) followed in working plans that has built arguments on persisting with monocultures (e.g., Conifers) will need a relook as new climatic conditions, societal demands and ecosystem service-flow needs, apart from our global/national commitments and targets on biodiversity conservation and carbon sequestration are emerging. Since forests contribute to mitigation of 20% of greenhouse gas emissions, there is a strong case for securing resilience of our forest ecosystems by raising mixed forests so that sustenance of numerous life-giving ecosystem services (e.g., water, food, energy), and our cultural legacy reduces also future heavy adaptation costs we will need to incur.
(The author is Lead Strategist, Trestle Management Advisor Group)