Is bamboo extraction to prevent forest fires really needed?

In a proposal submitted to the Central Government recently, the Kerala government has sought a green signal for the removal of 25,000 MT of dry bamboo from 100 sq km of the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, following drying up of the bamboo after mass/gregarious flowering this year. The sanctuary is spread over an area of 344.44 sq km, of which approximately 50 sq km is under dense growth of bamboo. Another 50 sq km area is under moderate bamboo forests.

Bamboo that belongs to the grass family is one of the fastest growing plants. Because of its extensive shallow rhizome-root system and accumulation of leaf mulch, it serves as an efficient agent in preventing soil erosion, conserving moisture, reinforcement of embankments along rivers and drainage channels. Bamboo dominated forests play a pivotal role in maintaining key ecological functions in tropical and subtropical forest ecosystems. Given such enormous usefulness of bamboo, does it really make sense to disfigure a natural bamboo forested landscape and disrupt its natural succession process?

There are many reasons cited by the Kerala Forest Department for the removal of bamboo – “It’s a fire starter, has led to several incidents of fire in Wayanad, a threat to 107 human settlements residing in the landscape and causes degeneration of the habitat.” Anatomising the reasons cited by the forest department to extract bamboo, the revelations uncovered narrate a complete contrasting history.

Bamboo is highly common across the Western Ghats, but because of its critical ecological functions, its extraction from protected areas is completely banned. At Nagarahole and Bandipur National Parks, which are adjacent to the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, bamboo has not been extracted ever since they were declared “Protected Areas”. P M Muthanna, who leads conservation interventions for the Wildlife Conservation Society-India  WCS-India in the Malenad-Mysore tiger landscape explains, “The flowering of bamboo occurred in Nagarahole and Bandipur between 2009 and 2010 during which, no critical incidents of fire were reported. In fact, in 2013, there have been very few incidents of forest fires reported in Nagarahole and Bandipur, thanks to effective fire preventive measures adopted by the forest department. If fire prevention plan is followed by the forest staff diligently, such untoward incidents can be contained.”

Revoking the threat to families living in the forest and disproving incidents of man-animal conflicts, B M Akarsha, a senior conservationist with WCS-India, cites an example. “More than 450 families resided inside the Bhadra Tiger Reserve, when mass flowering and drying up of the Giant Bamboo occurred in 1999. The Forest Department hired a large number of fire watchers and effective field patrolling resulted in zero incidents of fire from 1999 to 2003. Surely, there is no evidence that the successive years of flowering and drying of bamboo...escalated human-wildlife conflicts!”

This is not the first time such a proposal has  been sent to the National Board for Wildlife, confirms a member, “Several proposals to extract bamboo have been coming in lately from different states, and this is a very alarming trend.” So what’s driving this huge demand for bamboo? Renowned conservationist, D V Girish, who won a legal battle against the extraction of bamboo in Bhadra in 1997, says it’s the money. “Fear is instigated by those with vested interests. When bamboo started to flower and dry out in Bhadra in 1999, there were zero incidents of forest fire in the following three years. Most often, contractors try to garner support from villagers, resulting in forest fires being instituted deliberately,” he asserts.

There is no denying that there is a huge lobby for bamboo. As explained by one of the informers, who chooses to remain anonymous, “In most cases, when permissions are sought to extract bamboo by the forest department, the staff involve contractors, who are given the freedom to extract from non-designated areas too. We have observed and documented on several occasions, contractors exploiting the forests by hunting and logging, besides indulging in other illegal activities. Under usual circumstances, these contractors are registered as members in weaving communities who are to receive bamboo under subsidised rates. But most often, the government does not verify the authenticity of such communities and its members. Hence, without even benefiting the artisans, the illegally extracted bamboo then finds its way to the legal market, where it’s sold at exorbitant rates.”

Conservationist Girish, who has worked relentlessly against the extraction of bamboo in Bhadra from 1993-1997, says, “Bamboo is not a natural hazard, as most forest officials claim. It forms an integral part of the forest.” The threat to large portions of wildlands and wildlife is not just slow and careless elimination in the name of economy and development, but ignorance and lack of knowledge which have proven to be their principal accomplices.

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