Far too long, we have been exploiting and destroying our planet’s ecosystems. It is said every three seconds, the world loses enough forest to cover a football pitch and over the last century we have destroyed half of our wetlands.
In Manipur, we are overwhelmed by multi-faceted issues of loss of forest cover and bald mountain ranges, diminishing wetland systems and polluted rivers, indiscriminate use of plastic use and wastage, and of course the vanishing water bodies in urban areas. In recent times, enough has been reported about the state of our wetland system and the vanishing peripheral wetlands due to human encroachment and other factors.
Loktak, of course, everyone knows it has changed to such a great extent ever since the coming of Loktak project and Ithai Barrage. Its ecosystem has been depleted so much that it is not recognisable with the Loktak of yesteryears. Our forefathers taught us that, Loktak is our Mother and Mount Koubru our Father. Let us begin with the vanishing forest cover on Koubru range, a result of human encroachment and widespread destruction of forest cover.
Chief Minister N Biren Singh had once come down heavily on Forest department officials for the widespread deforestation in the sacred Koubru range. He had instructed forest officials to go and see for themselves the state of degradation and take up appropriate measures for rejuvenating forest cover in Koubru and other hill ranges for the sake of future generations and also appealed to the people inhabiting the general area to cooperate with forest officials.
Mountain forests perform a protective function against natural hazards, so that when the forest cover is lost and the land is left unprotected, runoff and soil erosion increase, provoking landslides, mudslides, avalanches and floods to the detriment of villages and transport systems, human infrastructures and of the food security of vulnerable populations.
The forest department in response to the Chief Minister’s instructions had begun a mass tree plantation drive and it was met with resistance from the village chiefs and some CSOs last year. There was even a stand-off between the police and CSOs. Ridiculous as it sounds, there were claimants to the ownership of Mount Koubru. It is happening all over again in Thangjing range and villagers are even objecting to tree plantation drives carried out by Forest department officials with a claim of ownership and that nothing can be done without their consent.
Even on the occasion of World Environment Day, some villagers tried to stop a tree plantation campaign in Nongmaiching Hills. It is indeed strange that forest dwellers and communities living in the hills should object to such afforestation drives. In many places around the world, the bond between forests and its dwellers is very there and they weep and despair wherever there is degradation of forest cover.
Manipur’s forest dwellers and hill people should not be any different from the rest. Leave aside the noise of claims and counter-claims over the mountain ranges, one thing is sure, many of the mountains and hill ranges are bereft of forest cover and it will be a herculean effort to restore it to its original form. Yet, we must all endeavour to restore the glory of the mountain ranges and hills in the state.
The issue of deforestation due to jhum cultivation has been debated enough. While government ministers and experts shout from the mountain-top that the practice of jhum is leading to land degradation and soil erosion, nothing much has been done on the ground to convince the hill villagers from giving up this traditional practice or to introduce sustainable methods.
One must understand that the present land holding pattern in the hill areas is one important factor impeding the growth of sustainable practices of agriculture and horticulture activities. The time has come for advocating a change in the land holding pattern in the hills and making it more democratic.