May 22 is observed as International Day for Biodiversity but as each year passes and another Biodiversity day is celebrated, more plants, animals and aquatic life continue to disappear for good from the face of the earth. It is true that new animal species have been recently discovered in the state, but some plants, animal and aquatic lives have also rapidly disappeared from the face of the earth. This vanishing act is happening across the universe and Western Ghats region is no stranger to this rapid loss of biological footprints. When we talk about species that gradually become extinct, we are not only talking about the rapid extinction of animate beings but also the sad extinction of plants and animals but the culture around which they exist also dies with them.
People say that culture and tradition are part of our identity as if culture is an external manifestation only. We forget that our identity is intricately linked to the kind of relationship we have with the world around us and the way of life we weave with our fellow creation and the world around us. The fact that people make the best use of what is available in the environment to their advantage is one example of that way of life, but our unique agrarian life is also suffering due to the change that is happening around.
In the past, farmers carefully select from the produce and keep the best as seeds for the future. Seed keeping is a tradition that every household is practices. It is also an illustration of our generosity because farmers also take pride in sharing the best of seeds with their neighbours. Unfortunately we now see that the local seeds have disappeared at a very alarming rate because of the introduction of genetically modified seeds which are specially designed to yield maximum production and also make it easy for the farmers to grow and take care of.
The popularity of these foreign seeds not only puts the local seeds under threat of extinction but these seeds also have a huge impact on the agrarian culture of the society. The seeds have changed the agrarian culture of the people here. The tradition of keeping and sharing seeds that neighbours practiced is gone because the farmers now depend on the agencies for their supply of seeds. Earlier; looking for better quality seeds could be a reason to visit and chat with neighbours; now farmers no longer visit each other for exchange of best seeds. Hence the culture of keeping and protecting one’s seeds has also died. Now many of our indigenous crops and vegetables are on the verge of extinction because farmers no longer feel the need to keep and protect their seeds.
When we lose all our seeds we also lose our food habit, our culture and ‘the agro-ecology’ or the traditional knowledge systems that our ancestors wove around the plant. We are losing the knowledge systems that our ancestors have created and which also evolved as it is handed over from one generation to the next. Therefore when our seeds are lost, part of our culture also dies with the lost seeds.
Our culture is also connected with the kind of life we develop with our water bodies particularly rivers. Rivers were the sources of fresh water fish. In the past people earned their livelihoods from fishing. Today that way of life has been rudely snatched away from the people. Their rivers are dead and all the aquatic life in their rivers have disappeared and rendered the river useless. Again with it part of our culture also vanishes such as the tradition of drying fish and smoking fish to give it a distinct taste and preserve it. There is an immediate need to reclaim our dead rivers and also to prevent other rivers from the onslaught of pollution.
Our forests have gradually vanished because of the timber trade and charcoal producers who slaughter the forest without mercy because there is no system on how to manage out forests. The traders would cut every tree and shrub and leave the land almost barren. In the process not only is the forest destroyed but herbs and plants used by that traditional herbal medicine practitioners use and wild edibles that people consume also disappeared with the forests.
When the forest disappear the animals, birds and insects which are part of our web of life also disappear. People are yet to realize that not only coal and limestone are our resources but the forest and what is in the forest are also our valuable resources and unlike the former which once exhausted cannot be replenished, the latter is sustainable resource.
In the past with the hope of making our environment greener, the government through its various departments like Soil Conservation, Forest Department and even the District Council’s forest department were engaged in mass reforestation projects across the state, but what is the success rate of this entire exercise? What is the survival rate of the saplings we planted? Have we really been able to achieve the desired result? And if reforestation did not succeed, do we know why? I mean, did we learn any lessons from the futile projects?
In most of the reforestation schemes the objective is only to reach the targets so departments use species which are readily available and the Khasi Pine is the most popular alternative, but the survival rate is very poor and that is the reason why these hills are still barren today. Khasi Pines are not only bad for the environment because they are mono- crops and since the pine forest is a mono- culture, water retention is also low in the area. The other characteristic of the pine tree which is bad for the environment is that it hardly attracts birds or insects to its forests.
If we want our plantations to be successful we should use native species which are endemic to the area as the saplings of these trees will not only have a better chance to survive because the land and the climate condition is also conducive for its growth but it will be friendly to the animate lives in the area too. Endemic species will encourage overgrowth around it which will also help to improve water retention of the forest, but more importantly it will be haven for all animate beings.
Of course the theme of this year’s celebration is ‘Biodiversity and Sustainable Tourism’ and the point is we need to protect our biodiversity before we can even think of attracting any tourist. Our strength is in the rich biodiversity that we have and our duty is to protect the same not only for commercial purposes, but for posterity.
Author: H H Mohrmen (from theshillongtimes.com)