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3. When did deforestation occur? A historical perspective on Himalayan forest-cover changes

Widely held perceptions about the mountain forests of the Himalayan region



This chapter and the following three chapters are devoted to an examination of a selection of the salient linkages within the Theory of Himalayan Environmental Degradation. The selection, in part, is a reflection of the unevenness of the available information and, in part, is related to the fact that some of the primary linkages - for example, the relationship between population growth and poverty: which is cause, which effect? - are topics that are too complex to be handled exhaustively and competently within the format of this book. Nevertheless, by introducing them, however briefly, we hope to reinforce our concern about the scale of the uncertainty that pervades the entire Theory of Himalayan Environmental Degradation.

We will include here, therefore, a synthesis of material produced as background papers and case studies for the Mohonk Mountain Conference, held on 6-11 April 1986 (Ives, J. D., and Ives, P. 1987), and also material derived from a general, but by no means exhaustive, survey of the literature. We will also draw on personal experiences in the field, and group discussions at all levels.

Widely held perceptions about the mountain forests of the Himalayan region

Climax forest cover, or even extensive secondary growth, or plantation forest, is perceived the world over as one of society's most important natural resources. This perception is based not only upon an appreciation of the directly available forest products, such as construction timber and fuelwood, but also upon the aesthetic and recreational importance of forests and the protective role that forests are presumed to play in terms of reducing soil erosion, modifying runoff of precipitation, and providing security against avalanche and other catastrophic processes. As the world's natural, or wilderness, areas continue to shrink in the face of excessive exploitation by large-scale industry for short-term monetary gain, or through extension of cultivated land, accelerated fuelwood collection, and overgrazing by the animals of the rapidly growing subsistence populations, widespread concern is being expressed over the likely consequences of progressive worldwide deforestation. Depletion of the gene pool and loss of wildlife habitat, both implying extinction of species, many as yet unknown to science, are additional major concerns. The recent anxiety about the relationship between forest cover and climate, while still imperfectly understood, is perhaps one of the most critical facets of the deforestation debate.

All of these concerns are shared by us. It is perfectly understandable that deforestation has come to be regarded as inherently 'bad'- an emotional response. We are highly sensitive, therefore, to placing ourselves in a position in which we appear to be swimming against the current of conventional thought.

We began our research efforts in the Himalaya in that delectable state of drifting with the current of scholarly and populist conviction. In this, and subsequent chapters, we will appear to have reversed our stand. Certainly, many of the popular beliefs about the role of forests, and deforestationper se, seem to be based upon emotion rather than fact in so far as the specific region with which we are dealing is concerned - the Himalayan region, sensu lato. Thus we must insist that our argument is not necessarily intended to apply to the question of deforestation and the function of forests at large. We do hope, however, that our region-specific questioning of cherished beliefs will provide some food for thought in terms of the broader issues.

The role of the forests, the history of their progressive removal and conversion to arable and grazing land, and the pressures inducing that removal permeate most of the eight-point scenario of the Theory of Himalayan Environmental Degradation (see pp. 3-4). We will examine the claim that massive recent deforestation has occurred in Nepal, and throughout the wider mountain region, and that it was triggered by a population explosion, itself induced by the introduction of modern health care and medicine after 1950. The emphasis will be first on forest history, or the history of deforestation. Perhaps central to this emphasis is the oft-repeated statement that Nepal has lost half its forest cover within a thirty-year period (1950-80) and that by AD 2000 no accessible forests will remain (World Bank, 1979).

To appreciate the importance of the role of the forests in the life of the Himalayan mountain societies it is necessary to understand the general pattern of subsistence agriculture. While hill agriculture takes on many forms according to altitude, latitude, longitude, and social group, it is basically a form of mixed farming, including arable cultivation (of cereals and tubers), animal husbandry, and intensive use of forests. The importance of this threefold component system and the interdependence of each of the three parts cannot be over-stressed. The basic energy intake of the subsistence villagers is satisfied by food crops, usually grown on irrigated (khet) or rainfed (bari) terraces, supplemented by some animal products. At lower altitudes, where irrigation is feasible, the khet produce a winter, or dry-season, crop in addition to the preferred summer monsoon crop of rice. At increasingly higher altitudes, the proportion of bard to khet increases, due to cooler dry-season conditions, cooler summers, and increasing slope angle and difficulty of access to water. Livestock provide draught power and serve as the primary, and often the only, source of fertilizer. Animal dung is usually mixed with forest green, animal bedding materials, and crop residues. The population explosion, over the longer term, must also be viewed as a livestock increase as well as an increase in the number of human beings. Thus, over the past several centuries, as forests have been converted to agricultural terraces to feed a growing population, so the livestock numbers have risen to maintain a viable farming system. It is only recently that increase in livestock numbers, at least in some areas, has been reversed, possibly due to decrease in fodder availability.

This close relationship between human population growth, expanding area under subsistence crops, and increase in livestock numbers is equally closely tied to intensifying demands on the forests, therefore, to supply animal fodder and fuelwood and land for farming. Additional demands on the forests' resources include the need for materials for making wooden implements, house thatch, and so on. The fodder is derived from unrestricted grazing by livestock in the forests and the actual lopping of trees for green fodder. Forest leaf litter provides bedding material for animals, which is eventually mixed with dung and crop residue to provide nutrient replacement for the agricultural terraces. While there are serious problems in determining total available forest cover, biomass productivity, biomass demands, and actual consumption (discussed in more detail in Chapter 4), there are also conflicting estimates of the amount of forested land needed to 'support' one hectare of arable land. While actual figures are expected to vary with altitude and with each specific annual agricultural cycle, it is reasonable to conclude that sustainable use of one hectare of arable land will require between one and four hectares of forest. The primary demands on the forest are first for fodder, second for fuelwood, third for other subsistence requirements (the demands for timber, charcoal, and commercial uses are important but can be set aside from the present discussion, which is concerned primarily with the inter-relationships between subsistence farming, forest cover, and slope stability). Thus the vital role of the forests can be appreciated. Any complete conversion of forest land to agricultural land would require the introduction of an entirely different farming system; if access to forest land were to disappear by AD 2000, as predicted, the existing forms of subsistence farming would collapse totally. In this sense, estimates of forest cover, in terms of quantity, quality, and rates of change, are therefore essential to any prediction of environmental or socio-economic (and presumably political) stability or, as is usually the case, degradation and collapse, bearing in mind that these conditions are also tied to population growth estimates.

From the foregoing brief discussion it can be seen that claims that 50 percent of Nepal's forest cover has been lost in as little as thirty years and a prediction of total deforestation by the end of this century are dramatic indeed: they are central to the prediction that 'eco-disaster' for the Himalaya is imminent. Furthermore, the assumed relationship between forest cover, raindrop impact and soil erosion, Sullying and landslides, downstream impacts, and climatic change imply equally serious consequences.

Nevertheless, we believe that the data supporting the claims for catastrophic deforestation are inaccurate and totally unreliable on several counts. The studies of Bajracharya (1983a and b), Thompson and Warburton (1985a and b), Mahat et al. (1986a and b, 1987a and b); Griffin et al. (1988), and others, support this statement, as do our own observations in several widely scattered field areas.

The various surveys of forest cover in Nepal, using air photography and satellite imagery, are inconsistent. The Nepal Water and Energy Commission study (HMG Nepal, 1983) presents the most comprehensive picture available to date on the extent of forested area and the loss of forest cover in the different geographic regions of Nepal since 1964. Comparison of air photographs dating from 1964 and 1977 suggests a loss of 47,200 ha (1.5 percent of the original cover) of forest in the Middle Mountains. This represents an annual loss of 0.11 percent over thirteen years, a figure that is not statistically significant for any of the major watersheds of the Middle Mountain region, first, because it is a minute rate of loss in itself, and second, because it is smaller than the limits of accuracy of the methods used. For the Terai and Siwaliks losses of 250,000 ha and 148,500 ha respectively (27.5 percent and 10.2 percent of the forest area) are indicated. This gives annual loss rates over the thirteen-year period of 2.1 percent in the Terai and 0.8 percent in the Siwaliks, and these figures are statistically significant. Mahat et al. (1987a) contend that it has been this loss of forest in the Terai and Siwalik regions of Nepal that has given rise to the view that the entire forest cover is disappearing. Moreover, deforestation in the Terai, while of great importance in terms of supply of, and demands for, forest products, is of much less significance in the context of assumed acceleration of soil erosion and landsliding on steep slopes.

Other attempts to determine loss of forest cover have been confounded by the fact that different surveys did not use the same definitions for 'farest' end 'grazing land.'Also, in many instances, areas designated as forest were in fact mere shrubberies or, at a further stage of degeneration, rough grazing land. In mapping exercises, it appears that the distinction between shrubberies and much middle-altitude grazing land is still arbitrary and many areas mapped as shrubberies are actually almost devoid of shrubs and used entirely for grazing. There have also been problems with incomplete or not strictly comparable image coverage, variable quality and scale which add to the difficulties of interpretation. In general, it must be concluded that in recent decades there has been little loss of forest area in the Middle Mountains, as determined from conventional air photography and analysis of satellite imagery. However, while the rate of loss of forest area may have been slight and in some areas forest cover may have expanded, the density, and hence the quality, of the forests is seen to have been seriously reduced (HMG Nepal, 1983). Thus, crown cover has been reduced, suggesting a deterioration within the forest itself. Many of these points, while relating specifically to Nepal, are also relevant to the Indian Himalaya and elsewhere.

The conclusion so far, therefore, is that the linkage: population growth-deforestation -increased soil erosion and landslide activity, specifically a Middle Mountain process driving the vicious circle concept, is open to challenge on the first link alone. That massive deforestation has occurred since the 1950s in the Terai and Siwaliks is not in question. The issue that is central to the present discussion is the extent of recent deforestation in the Middle Mountains. If the fundamental question is now asked - if forest cover in the Middle Mountains has not changed significantly since the 1950s, what was the previous history of forest conversion to arable land? - we can come closer to a more complete renunciation of this linkage.

History of Deforestation of the Nepal Middle Mountains

Documentation for detailing the history of deforestation of the Middle Mountains is very fragmentary. However, important insights can be obtained from the work of Tej B. S. Mahat, David M. Griffin, Kenneth R. Shepherd, and their co-workers. Mahat not only served for seven years as District Forest Officer for the districts of Sindhu Palchok and Kabhre Palanchok, which lie immediately east of the Kathmandu Valley (Figure 3.1), but he worked as a staff member of the Nepal-Australia Forestry Project and completed his doctoral dissertation (Mahat, 1985) on problems of forestry in these two districts. Much of the detailed information from his own and related studies is published in a series of papers in Mountain Research and Development (Mahat et al., 1986a and b, 1 987a and b; Griffin et al., 1988). The two districts provide a representative cross-section of the Pahar region of Nepal (defined as including the Middle Mountains, the Mahabharat Lekh to the south, and the high montane forests up to timberline at about 4,000 m on the flanks of the Greater Himalaya to the north). The single exception to the claim for representativeness of this particular cross-section of the pahar is its proximity to Kathmandu, which will be shown below to have had an important influence on forest use.

Figure 3.1 The location of Kabhre Palanchok and Sindhu Palchok in relation to Kathmandu, Nepal. Chautara is the site of the Nepal-Australia Forestry Project field headquarters (after Gilmour e' al.. 1987: 241. Figure 1).

Mahat, Griffin, and Shepherd describe the process of deforestation as one that extended over several hundred years. Acceleration in the rate of deforestation occurred following King Prithivi Narayan Shah's (1743-75) militant unification of the numerous petty principalities and the founding of the State of Nepal under the House of Gorkha (1769). It must be understood that land, specifically arable land, provided the prime source of income for the State. Various forms of land tenure and taxation policies ensured the progressive conversion of forest to arable land. Arable land was taxed in such a way that half the crop produced was forfeit either to the State, or to the landholder who had been allotted the land in recompense for services to the State. To ensure an acceleration in the rate of conversion from forest to arable land the King declared that newly cleared forest land could be farmed tax free for three years. The rent of half of the produce of a peasant's land, even during periods of good harvest, was very high and reclamation of forest lands was a vital relief. It is also necessary to explain that while deforestation was rampant in the Middle Mountains, the opposite was occurring in at least parts of the Terai. The policy of the House of Gorkha after 1769 was to protect the southern lowland forests of Nepal, and to encourage natural regrowth in formerly cleared areas so as to develop a dense, impenetrable and malaria-infested jungle as a defence against British expansion (Michael Thompson, personal communication, April 1987). A detailed account of the forms of taxation, land tenure, and compensation to military and civil servants is presented in Ludwig Stiller's histories of the Rise of the House of Ghorkha (Stiller, 1975). M. C. Regmi has also produced an invaluable series of books on the political economy of Nepal (Regmi, 1964, 1963-68, 1978).

Another important form of taxation was a requirement for provision of iron. Local low-grade ores were extracted, smelted, and carried to Kathmandu to supply the armouries of the rapidly expanding militant state which, by 1815, extended from the River Teesta in the east for some 2,100 km westward to the Sutlej River in what is today Himachal Pradesh (see Figure 2.9). The smelting of iron ore required large amounts of charcoal and, since the annual demand was heavy and the iron-smelting process very inefficient, depredations on the forests of Sindhu Palchok and Kabhre Palanchok were extensive. Remnant evidence of iron smelting and charcoal making is widespread throughout the two districts today.

These pressures that encouraged deforestation continued throughout the Rana Period from 1845 until its collapse in 1950. In addition, the great templeand palace-building episode in the Kathmandu Valley, lasting from the early nineteenth century into the 1930s, placed another heavy burden on the forest resources.

Mahat et al. (1986a) conclude that most conversion of forest land to arable land had occurred by the early 1900s. Since this process had resulted in the conversion of all the better-quality forest land to arable land and had extended onto marginal slopes with poor soils, change in forest cover in the Middle Mountains over the past half century has been largely reduced to fluctuations of the forest margins brought about by cycles of deforestation and spontaneous natural, secondary, reforestation. However, the reforestation process has been retarded in areas where livestock grazing has been intensive.

From the foregoing discussion it can be concluded that in Sindhu Palchok and Kabhre Palanchok districts deforestation has a long history, that it became very intensive after about 1769 (at the latest), and that it climaxed between about 1890 and 1930. Little subsequent deforestation has occurred, although some areas of forest under excessive utilization have deteriorated to shrubberies or even, in limited areas, to grassland (the 'nibble effect' of Moench and Bandyopadhyay, 1986). As noted above, some abandoned farmland has reverted to secondary forest. In recent years the pressures of charcoal making for iron smelting and of palace and temple building have been eliminated. Nevertheless, it must be concluded that by the middle of the twentieth century the total remaining area of forest cover in the Middle Mountains had been reduced to a dangerously low proportion. The subsistence population, which had been expanding throughout the preceding two centuries, was faced with a reduced ratio of forest to arable land upon which the various systems of mixed farming depended. This, and the heavy demands of the State and landowners on the peasantry, also induced extensive migration to Sikkim, the Darjeeling area, and Assam, a process that is not without serious repercussions today. The progressively decreasing quality of the remaining forest is critical, therefore, to the survival of subsistence farming. But this is not central to the present line of argument, where our intent, in the present context, is to raise two questions: (1) how accurate (or inaccurate) is the claim for extensive deforestation of the Middle Mountains during the past thirty to fifty years? and (2) if, as we believe, we can show that much of the deforestation actually occurred during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, how can assumed recent increases in soil erosion and landsliding be accredited to deforestation?

Another relevant question is: how representative are Sindhu Palchok and Kabhre Palanchok districts of the rest of the pahar, bearing in mind the effects, especially during the period 1769 to 1950, of their proximity to the Kathmandu Valley? Bajracharya (1983a), following a detailed study of the fuelwood-food nexus of Pangma Panchayat in the eastern pahar of Nepal, came to conclusions similar to those of Mahat, Griffin, and Shepherd, as far as fuelwood pressures are concerned. While the emphasis of Bajracharya's study was to challenge the claim that demand for fuelwood was the essential driving force behind deforestation, he was also able to demonstrate a long history of deforestation; nevertheless, he does conclude that deforestation has continued up to the present. In the Karnali Zone of far western Nepal a similar pattern of deforestation over a very long period has been established (Bishop, 1978,1986, personal communication). Nevertheless, neither Bishop nor Bajracharya underestimates the current precarious balance between a depauperate remnant forest and the sustainability of traditional subsistence agriculture. This theme is also central to much of the work of Mahat, Griffin, and Shepherd, and the Nepal-Australia Forestry Project will be discussed in more detail in Chapter 4. More recent work by Gilmour (1989, in press) in Sindhu Palchok and Kabhre Palanchok districts, and by Gurung (1988) in the Kakani area close to Kathmandu, provide extensive indications of an actual improvement in the extent and quality of tree and forest cover in certain localities over the past twenty years or so. That this process is the result of a direct response of the local people both to their growing awareness of forest depauperization and progressive government decentralization, rather than due to 'outside' aid and development activity, is highly significant. It is also strongly supportive of our defence of the 'ignorant' subsistence farmer who has so often served as a convenient scapegoat. The next logical question is: can this line of reasoning be extended beyond the limits of Nepal? A partial answer can be provided through examination of a few case studies the Dehra Dun-Mussoorie area of the Garhwal Himalaya, Sikkim, Bhutan, and two areas in the Hengduan Mountains of southwestern China. In addition, to provide some insights into the high mountain forest situation, as distinct from that of the Middle Mountains, the case of Khumbu Himal is introduced.

Table 3.1 Changes in vegetation cover of Dehra Dun district, 1880-1980. Vegetation categories in left column have suffered losses, those in right column, gains (from Richards, 1987.300).

  Hectares   Hectares
Forest woodlands -27,421 Arable +22,729
Major wetlands 4,607 Human use/transition  
Grass/shrub - 2,269 woods +4,982
Semi-desert shrub - 442 Woods/shrub +7,382
Total 34,739 Total +35,093

Table 3.2 Dehra Dun district 1877-1971. Changes in area devoted to officially designated reserved and protected forests (increase of 96%) (from Richards, 1987.301).

Date Dehra Dun Tahsil Chakrata Tahsil


      Total % of Area
1877 77,000 - 77,000 24.9
1901 77,002 36,778 113,780 35.2
1950 77,287 36,518 113,805 35.2
1961 70,082 45,089 115,171 37.3
1971 - - 150,803 48.8


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