FOREST DEGRADATION Over the years, ‘betta’ land in the Western Ghats has seen severe degradation. This is largely because of biomass-oriented arecanut cultivation.
Trees are often lopped in the ‘betta’ for green leaves. Further degradation would
leave ‘betta’ unproductive, write Seema S Hegde & Raghunandan S Hegde
‘Soppina betta’ (popularly know as betta) are patches of forest assigned to arecanut cultivators in the Western Ghats. Since arecanut needs a huge quantity of biomass right from its cultivation to processing, its cultivators are given user rights to the betta to meet their biomass requirements of firewood, green and dry leaves. They are permitted to use the trees in the betta to grow pepper vines, allowed to plant additional trees and dig trenches to harvest rainwater.
However, green felling by the users is prohibited and the ownership of betta rests with the Forest Department.
Assigning betta to arecanut cultivators started during the colonial period, but is no longer practised today. The Forest Department has stopped assigning betta to cultivators who come up with new arecanut plantations. But those farmers who already have been assigned betta earlier enjoy the privileges even today. Their user rights to betta are not taken away.
The objective behind this assignment earlier was to prevent the pressure exerted by them on surrounding natural forests with the presumption that the cultivators would maintain stipulated biomass stock in the betta assigned to them. But, over the years, there has been an unsustainable and over-extraction of biomass which has led to severe degradation of betta. As a result, today, arecanut cultivators are extracting biomass from natural forests in order to supplement their extraction from the betta.
Continuous lopping has left betta land with only old and degraded trees with very little chance for regeneration. Unless the matter is addressed, and policy changes are brought in, the degradation is bound to continue and would have repercussions on the adjacent natural forests.
Causes for degradation
The betta has not degraded recently or suddenly, but has been undergoing degradation over the years. This gradual change is almost unnoticed. Among the reasons for degradation is, firstly, biomass-oriented arecanut cultivation in the Western Ghats region. A study by N C Saxena and others (in 1997) mentions that on an average 50 kg of green and dry leaves are applied to each areca palm annually. Arecanut cultivators use green leaves mixed with cattle excreta as manure, and dry leaves as mulch in their plantation to retain the soil moisture and prevent weed growth. In addition, arecanut consumes a huge quantity of firewood when it is boiled during processing.
Secondly, although according to the law, arecanut cultivators have only user rights to betta, in practice they almost own them. However, the feeling of ownership has not been an incentive for them towards sustainable biomass harvest and rehabilitation of degraded betta. On the contrary, since they do not have ownership rights to betta, there is no incentive for them to rehabilitate it. The Forest Department feels it is the responsibility of the users to take care of the betta and the users feel it is the owner’s responsibility.
Hence, the blurred scenario of actual user-ownership rights and cultivators’ perception of user-ownership rights have ultimately led to the negligence of betta by everyone.
Third, the area under betta is small as compared to the total forest area in the arecanut growing districts of Chikmagalur, Dakshina Kannada, Shimoga, Udupi, and Uttara Kannada. Therefore, there has been little attention paid to control its degradation.
Conservation — why?
The natural forests adjacent to betta land have a greater number of trees with good crown cover and seedlings. On the other hand, trees are lopped in the betta for green leaves and there is very little crown cover. Such lopping and sweeping of fallen dry leaves affect forest regeneration as these activities interfere with flowering and seed dispersal.
With further degradation, such betta become unproductive. Arecanut cultivators would then completely rely on natural forests. Arecanut cultivation is such that it cannot be carried out without the use of biomass.
Even though the area under betta as compared to total forest area is small, its rehabilitation is not to be neglected. For instance, in Uttara Kannada, the area under betta is only 5.43 per cent of the total forest area of the district and looks negligible, but in absolute terms it is 542.13 sq km and is not a small area to overlook.
Possible options for restoration
A minor change in the government policy and a little more sense of responsibility among users can help conservation and regeneration of biomass in the betta. The government should strictly insist on having a stipulated number of trees and percentage of crown cover in the betta. Also, a user failing to maintain so would attract fine. This suggestion in the present-day bureaucratic set-up can work depending on the sincerity of the forest officials and the betta users, but the solutions mentioned further look more promising. Arecanut cultivators should shift to alternative biomass products.
For instance, using the dry fallen leaves of areca trees as mulch in place of dry leaves swept from betta and natural forests, planting fast growing foliage yielding species like gliricidia along the hedges and lopping them for green leaves instead of lopping trees in the betta, using fuel-efficient ASTRA stoves in the place of traditional stoves to boil arecanut, and using arecanut byproducts in place of firewood to the extent they could.
With all these measures, even though it may not be possible attain a point of ‘no extraction from betta and natural forests’, it is definitely possible to bring down the pressure on them.
Since arecanut cultivators belong to the elite class in the village and are educated, awareness creation about degradation and conservation is not relevant.
Most of these cultivators are already aware of the facts. Instead, they should be made aware of their responsibility towards conservation. There are a few progressive farmers who have been concentrating on sustainable harvest from betta and rehabilitation of the same.
The impression that the betta does not belong to them should be replaced with a new impression that even though they are not the owners of betta land, they should protect it because they use it, and need it in the future.