How green was my valley

[ Dani Sulu ]

Prologue: Paradise entered

If you closed your eyes and cared to travel back to the yonder days of 1944, and took your steps along with the first explorers and anthropologists who entered the forbidden land of Tanw country, you would have had to walk down from the rims of tenderly formed hills and along the gentle slopes into a paradise which nature herself sculpted with her caring hands. The whole valley had the look of a well-tended garden with neatly manicured lawns and hedges, untouched by the magic of modern science and lifestyle.

The hills that stood as sentinels, hiding away a civilization untouched for thousands of years by the outside world, were thick with vegetation and adorned with rhododendron blooms and cherry blossoms that dotted prettily the gentle slopes that formed up deep and high into the mountain. You might as well put your foot soft and tender, so as not to disturb the nature-tended delicate garden of plants and ferns and stopped by to feel the magic of primulas in their full bloom yielding tenderly to the touch of a gentle wind in the meadows that lay where the hill met the fertile fields of Tanw country. This was yet to be explored and recorded, the Tanw civilization, where time stood still. It sat pretty and well-ensconced in the lap of nature.

The village settlements were in the uplands of the valley, while the lower lands were agriculture land where paddy was cultivated. Kitchen gardens and bamboo gardens were established next to the households. And if you had gone into the village and walked towards the far-off fields and hills, you would be walking on the paddy field bunds where millets were planted along with maize, pumpkin and cumber plants. A look to the left and right would have revealed vegetable gardens and millet fields in the upland that dotted in between the paddy fields like baby islands. Here, as you ventured little further, you would have found that

the hills that sloped up was full of grazing grass where the mithuns and cows leisurely grazed. The immediate hillsides and the hillocks that jutted out of valley were devoid of any big trees and was one big swathe of grassland. Beyond the grazing ground lay the sansun (individually owned forest) which was used for emergency firewood and house construction materials, and then beyond it the thick and untouched forest lay majestically abounding in wildlife and birds that provided much-needed protein supplements and tested the masculinity of each Tanwman.

The valley was rich in agriculture practice, hundreds of clear rivulets and streams flowed in the meadows and watered the paddy fields. The natural water springs that were in abundance along the foothills quenched the thirst of hardworking farmers and the animals alike. The grassland and the big treed forest were rich in flora and fauna.

Such was the paradise hidden among not-so-forbidding gentle hills of Ziro. With the advent of the British India-deputed explorers and anthropologists, nature’s own sweet little hidden paradise reluctantly and hesitatingly opened herself to the outside world. Henceforth, the people of Ziro had to march on with the rest of the world for better or for worse. No longer could it thrive and prosper and bask in the glory of its untrammelled beauty and unmired innocence. March the Tanw people did, but where to is still to be seen.

Introspective deliberation: Paradise lost

The Ziro valley as one sees it today is quite different from the sight that the earlier travellers found prior to the 1970s. The wide open grasslands and community grazing lands have been fenced and have become pine groves and bamboo gardens. It looks greener and fresher outwardly. But beneath the green foliage, the ground is turning dry, the natural springs have dried up, and most of the small streams that irrigated the paddy fields have disappeared, leaving agriculture fields dry and perched.

The people of Ziro have started rethinking the need to green up Ziro’s landscape by supplanting mono-cultured and baren pine trees. All that is green is not clean can be aptly said of mass plantation of pine trees that cover the surrounding landscape of Ziro valley.

While discussing how green was my Ziro valley, stopping by to ponder on pine tree plantations and their effects on the economic, environment and aesthetic aspects of life will be my first port of call. It will be interesting to examine how the government policies and programmes have affected the environment.

The economic aspect of pine tree plantation

  1. During the 1960s and the 1970s, many people took to pine tree plantation as a future source of economic security. It was expected that, at the time of need of cash, a villager could sell their pine tree and earn much-needed cash for their children’s education and medical needs.

The results of the pine trees planted during the 1960s and the 1970s are seen today. It will do us good to examine the economic aspect of growing pine trees. An average pine tree covers around 30 sq mtrs of ground area. In one hectare of land, around 330 pine trees can be grown. If each tree is sold for around Rs 5,000, then the 330 trees will be sold for Rs 18,50,000. Now, if the owner decides to sell one hectare of pine trees after 50 years, he will earn Rs 18,50,000. This means that the person earns Rs 37,000 per year from one hectare of pine grove.

  1. Now compare this with kiwi plantation, which can occupy 400 plants per hectare and with produce of average of 40 kgs per plant, one-hectare kiwi plantation will yield 16,000 kgs. If a kilogram of kiwi is sold for Rs 70, then the farmer stands to earn Rs 11,20,000 in a year, starting from the third year itself.
  2. Further, let us compare with a modern dwarf type of temperate apple plantation. Around 1,000 temperate dwarf type apples can be planted in a hectare and, on an average, each plant yields around 40 kgs annually. Now, if the harvested apple costs around Rs 70 (conservatively calculated) per kg, then the per hectare yield will be 40,000 kgs (Rs 70 = Rs 28,00,000 annually from the third year of plantation).
  3. From the above analysis, one can easily gauge that it is economically more viable to cultivate horticulture crops in place of pine trees. Even cultivation of firewood trees like kwra (chestnut) and rwmey tree, which matures within five to 10 years, is economically more viable. Even a person with one hectare bamboo garden earns around Rs 30,000 to Rs 60,000 in a year.
  4. Hence, it will do good to the average Tanw person who is hardworking in a normal way of taking care of their bamboo garden and pine groves to shift from pine tree cultivation in the erstwhile grazing grounds to horticulture cash crops. Apples, kiwis, peaches and plums are endemic to Ziro’s environment and grow naturally in wild form since time immemorial. Their cultivation will not be harming the environment.

Environmental aspect of pine tree cultivation

  1. The pine tree is a monoculture species. It doesn’t allow any other tree or plants to grow in, under and around it. Nor does it support existence of various birds and animals as they don’t find any feed either on the pine tree itself or in its undergrowth. Hence, it doesn’t support rich biodiversity wherever it grows in groves and dominates vast areas. With the growth of pine plantation coverage in Ziro, the varieties of birds and animals that used to visit and enrich Ziro’s environment and forest areas have come down drastically.
  2. The Tanw farmers often complain that they cannot cultivate any vegetable or rice, or for that matter bamboo or any fruit-bearing trees wherever pine trees are around. They also complain that the land around pine tree plantations becomes dry and brittle.

Hence, the unplanned pine tree cultivation is harmful for biodiversity and also for agriculture practice.

Ritualistic aspect of pine tree plantation

The pine tree is an important and an inalienable part of Tanw rituals, culture and tradition. As per legends and folklores, it has accompanied Tanw society throughout its migration route. Pinewood in small quantities is used in almost all the big and important rituals and festivals like Myoko, Murung, Subu, etc. Its uses are more of a symbolic and ritualistic requirement than necessity in huge quantity. The Tanw society of olden times were content with cultivation of one or two pine trees in their bamboo gardens and forests rather than going for mass plantation.

Aesthetic aspect of pine tree plantation

Today, the pine-clad hillsides of Ziro valley are some of the mesmerising attractions of Ziro valley. It gives a look of green and serene natural beauty.

However, it may not always be right to view the hills adorned with pine trees within the definition of natural beauty. Ziro is at its charming best when the hills are adorned with varied hues of colours of different flowers of wild apples, peaches, cherries and berriess during March and April. The naturally-tended forest landscape before the commercially driven pine plantation was much greener, cleaner and beautiful in it’s natural settings.

Traditional aspect of pine tree plantation

  1. The practice of cultivation of pine tree plantation was not practiced by the Tanw people prior to the 1960s and the 1970s. Pine trees grew in the wild and also common forest areas. A few pine trees were planted and allowed to grow in bamboo groves.
  2. Since pine trees did not have much of economic and firewood value, and were harmful for other crops to grow, pine tree growths were well-controlled.
  3. The pine-clad hillsides near the valley, which we see today was lush green grassland and grazing grounds prior to the 1960s. These places like Dolo Mando Hills, Pwsapu Putu, Kwle Pakhi area, Manipolyang-Dilopolyang, Aifu hilloks, Byou Tari, etc, which are adorned with pine trees today were common grazing land for cattle and green grass abounded there.
  4. During the winter, after the cows had grazed, it was burnt, so that new shoots of grass would grow up by spring, which provided abundant cattle feed in the summer.
  5. All these public open grasslands were encroached by individuals and turned into pine tree groves during the 1960s and the 1970s. This mad rush of encroachment and pine plantation led to unplanned plantation and alteration and destruction of natural vegetation, which has led to Ziro facing acute water scarcity. The rich biodiversity has been adversely affected, besides losing out a vast open grassland where cattle could roam free and graze and young men could hunt and lay traps for animals, birds and rodents.

Role of community, individuals and forest department in environment management of Ziro valley

  1. The degradation in the well-preserved natural environment in Ziro valley coincides with hurried and sudden setting up of the department of forest by the government of Arunachal Pradesh. It, instead of facilitating individuals and community towards forest management, encroached on the tribal forests en masse and alienated the original owners of rivers, forests and lands which the people and hundreds of generations before them had owned, tended and roamed freely.

With the government-sanctioned encroachment on their land by the forest department, they were treated and viewed as illegal intruders and thieves when they entered their own traditional land for firewoods and subsistence hunting. In one strike, the government had tried to disconnect the centuries old physical and emotion bonding between the people and their land, water and forests. The sense of belongingness was tested to the limit.

  1. The forest department, perhaps with best of intention, changed the landscape of traditional land and forestry management in many parts of Arunachal Pradesh. It is for all to see that almost none of the reserve forests of the department of forest thrives today. The individual-/community-owned forests survive and thrive with rich wildlife even today. A wildlife sanctuary here and patches of reserve forest there only survives, that too in a fledgling way.
  2. The forest department took to rampant plantation of tress without considering its environment effects, whether it is endemic to the place or whether it will turn out to be invasive specimen and supplant local vegetation.
  3. In the vicinity of Ziro valley, the swath lands of jhum cultivation were planted with pine trees which destroyed its natural flora and fauna. The traditional jhum cultivation was quite scientific. A patch of land was slashed, burnt and cultivated and then left to regenerate in its natural way, supporting it’s natural flora and fauna.

In such a state, there was no scarcity of water and the springs and the streams flowed freely.

  1. The forest department started planting pine trees and eucalyptus all around, which led to dominance of mono-culture tree species and destroyed the original vegetation and habitats of animals and birds.
  2. However, there seems to be a ray of hope with the younger generation of forest officers taking more pragmatic and practical way of forest management and environment preservation. They are shifting away from rampant plantation and greenisation without consideration of its long-term environment effects to need-based and environment-friendly greenisation of degraded forest lands.
  3. The Ziro valley was no exception to the onslaught of the overzealous forest department since the 1960s and the 1970s. The environment degradation of Ziro’s forest areas began with mass plantation of pine trees in erstwhile lush green open grasslands that acted like a buffer zone of water retaining land between the surrounding mountain and the paddy field in the valley. With increase in the number of pine trees in the foothills, the spring dried up, the fields dried and became infertile, the cattle lost their grazing land, the birds and animals lost their natural habitat.
  4. Today, the positive development is that there is less government intervention, more realization of people on adverse impact of rampant pine tree plantation. More people are shifting to cultivation of more water retaining trees and cash crops with a goal of sustainable development which is also environment-friendly.

Epilogue: Paradise retained

Everything that is green is not clean and all that looks beautiful to the eyes might not be environment-friendly. The Ziro valley of the pre-1980s had less trees in the foothills but more green grass, water, animals and birds. It was rich in biodiversity, rich in water and rich in fertile land. Today, hillsides appear greener and more beautiful, but they are devoid of biodiversity and natural spring waters; the streams that irrigated the fields have dried up.

The unscientific and rampant pine tree plantation has brought Ziro valley to this sad state of degraded environment. It needs to be controlled and the land has to be once again returned to more environment-friendly habitat for diverse flora and fauna to flourish.

The pine trees need to give way to the natural and diverse vegetation. The horticulture growth should be encouraged along the foothills which were once a grazing ground and now pine groves. It will help in water retention and give aesthetic look and economic support and also support birds and other insects. The rampant tree felling and timber activity at higher reaches of jungles needs to be strictly regulated. The planting of the naturally growing trees like salyo (teetha chap), sampre (mekai), etc, needs to be encouraged as it is home to many birds and animals and also provides very good quality timber.

Today, every village in Ziro has a village level biodiversity society, besides voluntary youth organizations dedicated to protect their forests. They need to be encouraged to preserve the flora and fauna of their respective forests.

The Ziro valley has a very limited land and the resources are scarce. The ancestors of the Tanw society used its every inch of land judiciously, which gave optimum product per an area in economic terms and also one that was environment-friendly. This practice needs to be carried on by the present and coming generations by aligning with modern development and requirements.

The fragile environment of Ziro demands a more responsible environment management. People’s every commercial activity should also be aimed to enrich the land and water resources where the lofty hills of Ziro meets fertile fields of Ziro valley. Let no future generation dream and lament “How green was my valley.” Let the green that is clean and beautiful be today, tomorrow and remain for all the time to come. (The contributor is Secretary to GoAP. The views expressed are of the writer and not necessarily of this daily.)