By the third quarter of this year, a high number of forests fires were reported in Manipur, a trend which is not desirable, according to experts. These fires erupted in Ukhrul, Churachandpur and Tamenglong districts. Most of these fires were did not seem to be natural, although there are some who say it could be, considering the warming atmospheric temperature, but most reports indicate they are likely to have been set off by villagers. It is also reported that the number of forest fires is the highest this year. Consequences of these fires have not been immediately assessed, but as a rule forest fires have no advantages and their impact on the environment is seldom less than disastrous.
Has the Covid-19 pandemic something to do with the increasing in number of forest fires? An official of the forest department suggested that due to the lockdown, villagers could not go to the market for food, and they might have desperately burnt the forest to trap some wild animals. For shifting cultivation too, villagers burn down forests. When a forest area is burnt, some animals and fowls are always trapped and end up roasted. The burnt parts of trees can also be slashed easily and used as firewood. With home delivery service of LPG gas the hill districts remaining remote, firewood might have be procured way until an alternative is found.
Depletion of forest areas in Manipur has always been a cause for concern. Large areas of forests have been lost to deforestation perpetrated by timber merchants. The Thangjing hilltop of Moirang which was once lofty green peak, visible from the airplane windows, is now barren brown. The Waithou hill range hasn’t only lost its vegetation but the hills itself is degenerating due to quarrying of earth continuously. Many more forest areas in the hill districts have become barren. So, a couple of years back mass tree plantation was added to the government programme.
Deforestation has very harmful effects on the environment. The depletion of forests damages the habitat of wildlife, and there have been cases when wildlife intruded into human settlements. It causes soil erosion at the catchment areas of rivers and leads to shallowing of the rivers. The result is floods in the valley. The pattern of rainfall is also negatively affected which in turn causes severe losses to agriculture. Rains do not fall at the proper time, it is erratic and for a state where agriculture is dependent on monsoons, it reduces agricultural productivity.
There are some other adverse consequences of forest fire. The smoke emitted by them contaminate the air that people in nearby villages breathes. It increases the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and contributes to global warming. And there is also the danger of the fire spreading to nearby villages.
In the meantime there are some experts who contended that the fires might not have been set by villagers but it might have erupted of its own. The heatwaves of late August might have increased the temperatures, and with low humidity, the winds must have naturally fan up the fires. They are a consequence of the climate change, they contended. Elsewhere in the world, particularly Brazil, heatwaves caused by climate change are known to increasingly cause forest fires.
Deforestation has always contributed to climate change. When there are less trees, the levels of carbon dioxide increases. The carbon dioxide traps the heat of the sun and temperature within the atmosphere increases. Rainfall is not attracted, and there is less rainfall. The climate change we are witnessing presently has a direct relationship with deforestation.
Forests occupy 76 per cent of the total geographical area of Manipur. And as Minister of Forest, Environment and Climate Change, Awangbow Newmai said earlier this month, it is a great wealth of the people. Medicinal plants are found in this forest. More than five hundred varieties of orchids are also found in this forests. Many tribes depend directly on forests for their livelihoods. So,the minister called for tapping the wealth of the forests.
It is ironic that some unscrupulous timber traders are illegally tapping the forest wealth. Teak is produced by these forests in large quantities. These traders have been felling these teak trees in loads of Shaktiman trucks and illegally selling them off to other parts of India at highly profitable rates. Though this has been banned by the government, it is going on clandestinely. We have seen many cases of these teak traders being caught with their consignment when Th. Shyamkumar was the Forest Minister. The minister had personally supervised the arrest of these illegal traders.
This timber trade is a big business. We find at the foothills of the Shirui mountain in Ukhrul district,a big saw mill. Timber cut from these mountains is processed at this saw mill before being transferred to their destinations. These traders are powerful and wealthy men. Teak and other timber from Manipur is in great demand in other places.
In the folklore of Manipur, forests play a significant role. There are goddesses associated with forests called Umanglais. Trees are worshipped as Gods. Old customs restrict the felling of trees. There are rituals to be conducted before a tree is cut down. Yet these customs seem to have died.
With the use of electrical saws, trees are easily cut down. The advent of technology has facilitated the cutting down of trees. Trees which otherwise would have been hard to cut, are now easily cut using sophisticated machines.Instead of elephants, Shaktiman trucks are now used conveniently to ferry the cut logs.
All these have increased the levels of deforestation which has caused erratic rainfall. This in turn affects farming activities. The production of indigenous rice has decreased over the years, and its price has increased from Rs. 33 per kg to Rs. 55 per kg. Its availability has decreased too.
Yet a nine year old girl did not accept that that this destruction of the environment was not preventable. Valentina Elangbam of Kakching district was seen crying inconsolably when two Gul Mohar trees she had planted on the banks of a river was cut down. The video was shared on Facebook by her uncle. When seen by the chief minister, N. Biren Singh, she was immediately appointed Grand Ambassador of the Manipur Green Mission.
The Manipur Green Mission was launched in Kangpokpi district on June 22 last year. Under it, thousands of tree saplings have been planted. It has also become a tradition to plant a tree by every marrying couple. The Assam Rifles have also been planting trees with the Commanding Officer, Operation leading the villagers. The harmful effects of forest destruction seem to have been realised.
We should make every effort possible to save the forests. Increasing the levels of awareness among the villagers living near the forest area is paramount. Awareness programme on the need to conserve forests may be increased on Radio, Television and the print media. If the villagers and timber traders come to know that destruction of forests is destroying ourselves, much efforts to protect and conserve forests will bear fruit.
Then, we can include chapters in the school and college syllabus on forest conservation. This will gradually increase the awareness levels. Experts on wildlife and forests writing on the topic will add to the knowledge of the students. In literature too stories and poems on forests conservation will drive home the message against destruction of the environment.
Destroying the natural environment and forests harm the ecosystem. Many species of plants and animals will go extinct. It is reported that even the Shirui Lily is facing extinction. It causes global warming and climate change with its disastrous effects on food production and daily temperatures. Heat waves also cause many diseases and is a threat to public health.
The writer is a freelance writer and journalist