Man's attempts to play with nature have now gone too far
(pic courtesy: The Ecologist)
As if the nationwide debate on Genetically Modified brinjal was not enough, we now have international agencies like the FAO rooting for GM trees. Surprisingly, while they suggest this, they presume that a forest full of GM trees will not lead to any more angst among the people.
According to the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization) State of the World's Forests report (2009), a global pattern is emerging that reflects a correlation between economic development and the state of the forests. Forests around the world are under severe stress due to numerous demands caused by rapid economic development.
Those countries that have achieved high growth of economic development are able to stabilize or increase their forest area, while countries like India, that are undergoing rapid economic development, tend to struggle with immense pressure on their forests.
With their economic and financial muscle power, rich countries have conserved their forests to provide ecosystem services while meeting their timber demand from the forest-rich regions of Asia or Latin America
It would be too naïve to conclude that rich countries have stabilized the forest cover on their own. With their economic and financial muscle power, they have conserved their forests to provide ecosystem services while meeting their timber demand from the forest-rich regions of Asia or Latin America. Thus they have successfully and conveniently transferred the pressure to poorer countries, causing more harm to the indigenous population.
The demand for tropical hardwood from Europe and USA is the main cause of destruction of natural forests in tropical countries. It is this voracious appetite for tropical hardwood that is playing havoc in the agrarian economies of countries like Burma and Cambodia.
India, while following the same model of development, also has a large middle-class population that has put tremendous pressure on the existing forests. The expansion of mining in forest areas has threatened the existence of forest-dwelling tribal populations. Conflict over natural resources in forest-rich belts of states like Jharkhand, Orissa and Chhattisgarh has resulted in a long-drawn battle between locals and industries, creating fertile hotbed for Naxalite insurgency. Ironically, the very forests that served as their lifeline have become a curse for these locals.
At this juncture, international forestry experts at FAO are looking at forests as an alternative source of fuel for the automobile sector after having burnt fingers with the agro and bio-fuels as a panacea to replace fossil fuels.
International forestry experts at FAO are looking at forests as an alternative source of fuel for the automobile sector after having burnt fingers with the agro and bio-fuels as a panacea to replace fossil fuels.
Jan Heino of FAO Forestry Department predicts, "Developments in science and technology will have an enormous impact on the future of forests and forestry. Trees may become the major source of fuel for cars, replacing oil." In many developed countries the research is geared towards developing genetically modified super trees that can overcome the slow gestation period with high capacity to produce cellulose fuels. This strategy has the added benefit of producing wood fuel on forest land without any negative impact on agricultural crops as with agro fuel, and unlike GM food crops, GM trees will face little opposition.
Sundarlal Bahuguna has termed GM forests as fuel mines
Nevertheless, there are apprehensions about these giant GM trees. The monoculture plantations might have a negative impact on forest biodiversity and on those indigenous communities that have forever lived in the forests. Sunderlal Bahuguna, pioneer of the Chipko Movement, says: "Commercialization of forests led to the destruction of biodiversity and introduction of exotic monoculture plantations. These are not forests but timber mines, as they cannot perform the multiple functions of a natural forest. Similarly, GM trees would accelerate the process of conversion of existing diverse forests into fuel-generating plantations. These should be called 'fuel mines'."
Clearly, the FAO approach is based on the narrow, parochial understanding with commercial benefits as the main objective. In contrast, the Chipko approach is based on the holistic understanding of forests as a source of soil, water and air.
It would be appropriate to look at the future of forests in terms of safe deposits for humanity that provide ecosystem services. The crisis of global warming has heightened the need to conserve and raise bio-diverse natural forests.
The ecosystem services of forests are no more evident than in case of the national capital Delhi, which depends on the Yamuna to meet its water requirement. The water flow in Yamuna is dependent on the forest catchments in Himalayas. Similarly, in the south the Cauvery meets the water requirement of cities like Bangalore, pumping it from a distance of 250 kilometres. The forest catchments for Cauvery lie in the Western Ghats. But in both cases neither Delhi nor Bangalore is interested in paying for the ecosystem services provided by the forests.
It is unfortunate that both the state governments and the people have ignored this basic principle of payment. Ignoring this factor may have long-term consequences for water security in the coming decade.