During my first visit to Sikkim in the winter of 2010, I went to a place called Dzongu – a land which is revered and considered sacred by the indigenous Rong, or Lepcha, people. It was dark, and I was outside taking in the fresh, cold mountain air. As I looked around, I could faintly see three lights far apart from each other shining dimly at a much higher elevation. Too distant to be able to make out easily, I asked my host in the village, Lakpa daju (elder brother), a middle-aged man with a default smile and zeal to do something for Dzongu and the Lepcha people, “What are those lights in the darkness on the other side of the hill?” This was my first trip to Dzongu, and I had reached at night. Somehow in the darkness of night, I had the impression that this house was at one extreme of the hill and nothing lay beyond it. Lakpa came out curiously, looked in the direction I was pointing and said, “Oh those? Lights from the houses…” He went in promptly, perhaps because of the biting cold outside.
I stayed out for a while, trying to enjoy the dark silhouette of the mountains and valleys nearby, but it was very cold and I had started to shiver, so I went in looking for some warmth in Lakpa’s wood-fire kitchen. After taking a sip of raksi (rice wine) he said, “Those are newly built houses, they were not there earlier. But soon there will be many more.” He went on to explain his understanding of village expansion: “People got married; now they cannot live together with the family. Nuclear family is the reason; everyone wants to build their own house.” The property, mostly land, in the hills of Sikkim gets distributed among the siblings. Many people use it when they want to build a new house, while some prefer to save it for the future. Five children for a family can translate to five more houses in the near future for which they would likely have to use a patch of land that was earlier designated for agriculture. Lakpa started counting the probable number of houses he expected would be built on that hillside in the next year. He reminisced about seeing bharal, or Himalayan blue sheep, every time he would go down to the river, and tried to recall the last time he had seen a musk deer near the village. He then promised to show me around the following day.
I got up early the next morning and walked to the hilltop to get a better view of the landscape with Lakpa. I was introduced to some of the villagers and also to my local guide Pema, a man in his early thirties who had finished his bachelor’s degree and had to return to the village because of family responsibilities. After some formal exchanges, the villagers responded to my interest and started talking about the reasons for forest fragmentation and depletion. According to them, the increased demand for land related to various purposes such as building houses, agriculture and road building, along with natural disasters like earthquakes and landslides had resulted in the fragmentation of forest areas. Nearly 50 percent of Sikkim is covered with forest, most of which lies outside protected areas, in a highly dynamic, human-dominated landscape in the form of Khasmal, Gaucharan, reserve forest and private forest. In Khasmal forests, local people have free access to procure required timber and firewood after obtaining formal permission from the Forest Department, while Gaucharan areas allow for animal grazing and collection of deadwood and fodder. However, in the case of Sikkim, grazing is not permitted except for a few sites.
Human and ecosystem benefits
While highlighting the value of forest fragments, the villagers explained that even building materials for construction – planks, building poles, bamboo, etc. – come from forest areas, both private and government controlled, with prior approval from the concerned department for extraction. People depend heavily upon these forest patches in deriving materials for their daily needs such as fuel wood, fodder, food, medicines, and dry leaves to mix with cow dung to make manure, among other things. Some people even collect and sell non-timber forest products (NTFP) including vegetables like ferns, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and fruits like wild avocado, lapsi (Nepali hog plum), and acorns from the forest patches for their sustenance. Apart from these direct benefits, many forest patches contribute valuable ecosystem services such as providing drinking water sources and pollination and dispersal to cash crops, while wild plants help to regulate an area’s micro-climate and at the same time enhance the aesthetic quality.
Pema recalled his stay in the town during his Bachelor’s degree study and said, “I felt like it was the end of the world when I had to buy drinking water in town; I missed my village so much.” Considering villagers to be hardier than townspeople, he added, “It is because of these trees and greenery around us that we are much healthier. We get fresh air, water from natural springs, fresh fruits and vegetables from our own gardens. If there was no forest then this land would have been too dry to support any cultivation; natural springs would have dried too.” Others nodded their heads in concurrence. Showing me a large cardamom field Pema told me, “Large cardamom is dying and in its last stage, people will not be able to make money from this. We all are looking for alternatives and trying oranges.” It is unfortunate to know how farmers themselves have started to lose hope, as well as a very important source of income.
In the previous decade, researchers working in Sikkim reported that the production of large cardamom had decreased dramatically as a result of ‘pollen theft’ by honeybees combined with a decline in the population of bumblebees, the only pollinator of the plant that had been identified. I later learned that fungal or viral diseases have also negatively affected the plant. When I mentioned the bumblebee and its connection to large cardamom to the villagers, it did not take them long to recall how they used to go to the cardamom fields and nearby forest patches and “would come across many bumblebee hives, while now they are missing even during the flowering season”. They are curious to know if this is also the case with Sikkim’s mandarin oranges considering the decline in production in recent years. Unfortunately, I had no answer as there is a lack of studies on this issue.
Need for recognition
Like Pema and Lakpa, most people in the village feel that with the present management system and increasing human population, these forest patches and the array of ecosystem benefits they offer will soon disappear. These patches act as a source of income generation for many poor families in the rural parts of Sikkim, and provide goods that people use every day, which they are prohibited from collecting in protected areas. These forest fragments also provide habitat to animals such as civets, barking deer, and yellow-throated marten, and also to many insects like bees and butterflies in a fragile landscape that is part of the Eastern Himalaya Biodiversity Hotspot. Furthermore, forest fragments have served as a link for a variety of species to wider forest areas in different parts of the world. While the value of forest patches is clear for the above reasons and also for conserving flora and fauna is clear, this has not translated into policymaking and proper management decisions aimed at preserving these areas.
Infrastructural development, with the promise of a better and easier life, is inevitable. However, this is likely to lead to further fragmentation of existing forests, both inside and outside protected areas. Instead of being recognised for contributing to human and environmental well-being, these forest patches are mostly ignored in terms of management practices. With hope in their eyes, both Lakpa and Pema looked at me and said, “We do not want to lose these forests, but then they do not belong to us. We are willing to help in its conservation and protection but we need someone to lead us, to tell us how and what we should do.” For someone like Lakpa, who has spent all of his life in a small village, practising agriculture and depending on the forest for fuel wood and other NTFPs, just the thought of not having forest patches around in the near future leaves him in a sense of despair.
Considering that over 60 percent of Sikkim’s population is still dependent on agriculture as a primary source of income, reduced forest fragment areas can have real consequences for the socioeconomic condition of farming communities as well. Several studies have pointed to the pollination services made available by forest fragments as playing a role in better agricultural output, for example with coffee production. People also sell forest products procured from fragments in nearby local markets. These positive effects on income generation can contribute to better living standards and basic facilities such as education for farmers’ children and other comforts, which often are not available to rural communities.
Managing the path ahead
I have travelled widely across Sikkim from the time I was young, but in the last four years, after coming back to conduct my doctoral research, the pace of change and environmental destruction in the name of development is alarming. In the more than one hundred interviews conducted as a part of my research between 2010 and 2014, each respondent highlighted the same issues I had seen and heard about in Dzongu. When asked about their willingness to participate in the protection of these forest patches, the answer was uniformly ‘yes’. Although the government of Sikkim has tried a variety of ways to keep the forest cover intact (31 percent of the state’s geographical area is under protected area network), the future holds more developmental projects for the state given Sikkim’s strategic location. This implies further deterioration of forest areas and biodiversity. But it is high time that the government and the policymakers begin to understand the value of forest fragments which are degrading rapidly in a highly dynamic, human-dominated landscape.
Working together with local communities for better management of these patches is a possible way to achieve the preservation goals that protected areas have not been able to fulfil, particularly in supporting human needs along with providing habitat to wildlife. Sikkim is famous for its tranquil and serene monastery forests, where monks work closely with local communities for protection of forest areas around monasteries. Historically, this management system has helped in conserving forest and biodiversity. At present, these are some of the most pristine forest patches outside protected areas. Given that community conservation is not a new concept for Sikkim, it is necessary to incorporate this framework across the state with the clear objective of biodiversity conservation along with socioeconomic well-being of local communities.
Reflecting on forest fragments and their concomitant benefits, Lakpa offered a stark assessment: “We are careless about the hen which gives golden eggs.” Management practices for forest fragments outside protected areas have been very weak not only in the state of Sikkim but all over India. Lakpa, doubtful about the future, looks at me and says “Bahini, sometimes I feel that my children will not have access to these golden eggs because to meet our extra needs we will end up killing these precious hens.” To the farming communities, this means reduced access to ecosystem services, less income generation, and ultimately a decline in their quality of life.
~ Urbashi Pradhan is a PhD scholar at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bangalore, India. Her ongoing doctoral work, including this survey, is part of a DBT funded project ‘Technological Innovations and Ecological Research for Sustainable Use’.