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Axed: How losing old farm trees hurts the ecosystem

Economic pressures and changing agriculture have led to the felling of farmland trees, sparking concerns about long-term ecological impacts.
Last Updated : 15 June 2024, 20:16 IST

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Bengaluru: In July last year, Praveen Patil had to make the tough decision to remove trees which had stood for decades in his three-acre land in Kutaganahalli near Koppal town. Aged over 50 years, the neem trees had been part of the landscape for his entire life. 

Patil said he has seen big trees being cut down in his village. “I wanted to retain the trees. My father had planted the saplings when he was young. We had no intention to remove them. But the storm of Aashadha month took its toll on the branches and there was nothing left to save,” Patil said.

What Patil describes is an example of an increasingly common phenomenon of cutting down old farmland trees due to shifting agricultural methods. However, experts have sounded the alarm, explaining that the loss of old trees would create a void in the ecosystem. Most old trees were native species, had multiple purposes and often catered to different needs: They bore fruits, provided agroecosystem services and wood for farm equipment and furniture. 

The loss of these trees will undoubtedly impact soil health and agriculture according to experts. While government schemes have started to encourage farmers to grow trees in their lands, new saplings do not provide the same ecological services. 

“A tree that has been living for more than 50 years would have gone through several cycles of floods and droughts. Trees with such survival capabilities need to be conserved. Moreover, old trees host a diverse set of bacteria, fungi and microbial flora in addition to birds, bees and butterflies," said Chandrashekhar Biradar, country director for the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry. 

He added that the importance of the germplasm (genetic resources like seeds, tissues and DNA) of the old trees has been lost in the race to achieve the 33% green cover target set by the National Forest Policy due to monocropping or plantation cropping. 

Trees have played a major role in ensuring soil health traditionally. They prevent soil erosion, besides providing shelter for cattle and wood for farm equipment. Researchers point out that removing old trees also means that farming culture will become less sustainable and more cost-intensive. 

The major reason why old trees continue to disappear is due to farm distress and the mechanisation of farming. “Farmers are under pressure not to lose even a square metre of cultivable area, which is reduced due to the shade provided by old trees with large canopy. During my work in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, I have seen maize and soybean farmers pulling down 60 to 70-year-old trees,” he said.

Social anthropologist A R Vasavi, who anchors a rural rethinking organisation, located off of Chamarajanagar, said the model of agriculture has become anti-nature. "The mechanisation and industrialisation of agriculture means they do not want natural shade. In the villages of Chamarajanagar, we have seen trees on farmland being bulldozed. They bring earth movers and flatten the land. Then there is an increased use of synthetic materials, like plastic sheets for mulching," she said.

Adding to this trend is the amalgamation of small lands by leaseholders or land buyers, who often replace a variety of crops with a single crop or plantation. 

Earlier this month, 11 researchers from the University of Copenhagen, Université Paris Saclay and the University of Manchester, published a study in the journal Nature Sustainability, stating that India has lost 53 lakh large trees with crown sizes of 10 square metres and above in the period between 2018 and 2022. Researchers believe most of these are old trees of native species.

The study did not count young trees and block plantations. Therefore, it does not contradict official figures of the net increase of trees outside forest areas. As per the Forest Survey of India (FSI) report, ‘tree cover’ outside forests has gone up by 2,000 sq km in five years, from 93,815 sq km in 2015-16 to 95,748 sq km in 2019-20. 

The official version of increasing green cover was echoed by senior officials in the Karnataka Forest Department. An official said over the last 10 years, several agroforestry schemes have been launched to distribute lakhs of saplings and also provide small incentives to farmers to protect the saplings. 

The researchers, however, noted that the young trees planted as part of afforestation projects will not compensate for the ecosystem services provided by the old ones. “Newly planted trees do not always contribute to biodiversity and it can take a long time until they efficiently contribute to livelihoods. It is also unclear how newly planted trees survive in times of climate change,” the study said.

Martin Stefan Brandt, one of the 11 researchers in the Nature Sustainability study, said more than the newly planted trees on bunds, block plantations might have led to an overall increase in India’s green cover outside forests. “Small trees contribute almost nothing to the overall cover. Old trees have the most resilient germplasm and are important in many ecological and cultural aspects. They cannot be easily replaced,” he said.

Shifting agricultural scenario 

Biodiversity and ecology have ceased to be prime concerns for farmers, faced with unpredictable weather, crop losses, inflation and survival. A majority of farmers own small plots and can hardly afford to lose cultivable areas for big trees. As per the last agriculture census, 68.45% of Indian farmers are marginal landholders, cultivating less than 2.5 acres. The share of marginal landholders has increased by 10% every five years between 2001-02 and 2015-16. Another 17.62% cultivate between 2.5 to 5 acres.

Patil said no farmer in his village was in a position to dedicate space for a large tree, since the shade cast by the canopy would impair cultivating conditions. “Every farmer has his own story of distress,” he said, adding that most of his neighbours have shifted to maize while he started cultivating bananas, hoping for better returns.

V Bhaskar, officer in charge of All India Coordinated Research Project on Agroforestry, University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS) Bangalore, said trees with wider branches affect crops sown below by intercepting the light.

“Naturally, farmers will be concerned. They either trim the tree or remove it when they know that a big tree can fetch some cash to offset an immediate crisis," he said.

He said farmers were also wary of diseases and fungi attacks. "In Kolar and Chikkaballapur, we have seen farmers cutting down teak, silver oak and other trees on the bunds following powdery mildew and downy mildew disease. This shows that even in agroforestry, there is a need to avoid monoculture,” he said. 

Faculty members of silviculture and agroforestry from both UAS Bangalore and UAS Dharwad said that social media and private nurseries have become a major reason for monoculture. “There are farmers who see YouTube videos and decide to take up plantation. One farmer from Kanakapura has planted teak saplings with 1-metre space, less than half of the required area. We are not even able to educate farmers on what to plant let alone educating them on biodiversity,” a professor from UAS Bangalore said.

The Forestry and Environment Science department of UAS Bangalore has taken up a project to study the right saplings to plant in the 10 agroclimatic zones of Karnataka. However, researchers believe they have a long way to go in reaching farmers, half of whom are wary of agroforestry due to the permits they have to take to cut trees on their land.

Restrictions

Within the state, the Karnataka Forest Rules, 1969 and the Tree Preservation Act, 1976 have strict rules, mandating various permissions for felling even trees grown on their own land. Over the years, the government has amended the rules to provide relaxation. Farmers can cut 27 species of trees without permission and are exempt from as many as 42 species of trees from requiring transit permission.

Forest officers are divided over the idea of regulating trees on private land. “Experience from the ground shows that farmers embrace agroforestry when there is less regulation. At the same time, relaxing the laws fully will lead to rampant misuse. Despite stringent rules, we routinely see scams, especially in the Western Ghats districts where a permit system is used to legalise the looting of forest trees. The law has enough provisions to help preserve old native trees on farmland,” a senior forest official said.

Agroeconomist and retired professor T N Prakash Kammardi noted that farmers cannot be forced to bear the burden of carbon sequestration. “There is nothing wrong if a farmer cuts a mature tree for some emergency cash. He will definitely plant a sapling in its place. Considering that there is no incentive for keeping an old tree, the cycle of removing old trees and planting new ones should be seen from the perspective of farmers’ livelihood,” he said.

Sources said the Karnataka Forest Department was in the process of finding a way to incentivise farmers to plant and save trees through the carbon credit scheme, which allows companies to fund forestry schemes to offset their carbon emissions. One of the pathways was to empanel companies and link them to farmer-producer organisations (FPOs). The department is expected to hold a meeting with World Bank officials to discuss a mechanism to roll out the scheme.

Replying to a question, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Head of Forest Force) Brijesh Kumar Dikshit confirmed the development. “As of now, the scheme is in the early stages. We will be able to share more details in the coming days,” he said.

The pathway is similar to one of the recommendations of the now-forgotten committee set up by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2016 to double farmer's income by 2022. The committee's report recommends that “specific interventions that use technologies or institutions (FPOs) for commodity aggregation and connecting them to business to business, business to consumers and farmers to consumer platforms may be encouraged.”

An official acknowledged the challenges in setting up such a scheme. “The carbon credit scheme has run into troubles worldwide due to some companies misusing the credits to further damage the forests. However, it is now being reviewed and hopefully, the new guidelines will address the gaps that led to irregularities. Ultimately, those who are protecting biodiversity should get some benefit, that’s the aim of the scheme,” he added.

There is an urgent need to recognise the role of native species of trees, especially the old ones, as part of the rich biodiversity outside of the protected forest land, besides their contribution to agriculture. Apart from spreading awareness, the government needs to address the main problem of agrarian distress to arrive at solutions.

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Published 15 June 2024, 20:16 IST

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