Dangerous Beauty: The Story of Pine Trees in the Himalayas

Aayush’s Fellowship is made possible by the Rural India Supporting Trust.

The Himalayan mountains attract people from all over the world. Thousands of people come every year to visit and spend time in some of the small hill stations located in the large area of Himalayas. One sees a large area of monoculture pine trees when one enters into the Himalayas. They are long, perfect, and often described as beautiful. But this beauty has been costing Uttarakhand a lot in the last 300 years. This blog post is about the pine trees, how they became invasive, and why the current social, economic, and environmental nuances of Uttarakhand can be understood only by understanding the story of this “dangerous beauty.”

A pine, locally known as Chir ka ped, (scientific name: Pinus roxburghii), is a conifer that covers about 16% of the forest area in Uttarakhand [1]. It is one of the six pines in India that have maximum occurrence and area [2]. Pine has been in the Himalayas for a long time, but the expansion of Indian Railways and resin-tapping during the colonial times gave it a big push [3]. The number of pine trees plantations started increasing steadily by clearing the local forest vegetation [4].

Both the Garhwal and the Kumaon Region of Uttarakhand have an abundance of pine trees [5]. Being a pioneer species that love the sun, it is very easy for pine to grow in exposed sites where many other broad-leaved varieties do not exist [6]. The root system of pine is shallow and it doesn’t require a lot of water [7]. That is why the majority of the places with an abundance of pine forests have a high chance of becoming seriously drought-prone in summer months [8].

Pine tree is exclusively used for resin-tapping [9]. The resin, locally known as lisa, is used for making turpentine oil after distillation [10]. The wood is used by the people as a source of firewood and locally sourced timber for their houses and other wooden furniture needs [11]. There is an ongoing debate between the issue of declaring pine as a native or a naturalized species [12]. Pine has been there for a long time to be treated as a native species, but the large scale plantation seen in the last 300 years has made some people raise eyebrows on the invasive nature of the plant [13].

Written below are the effects of pine trees in the Himalayas.

  1. Forest Fires — The pine needles are highly inflammable and are the leading cause of forest fires in the region. Being fire-resistant, pine tree doesn’t burn in this fire and sheds leaves again next year, continuing this cycle every year.
  2. Lack of Water Retention — Because of the lack of bacteria, the water holding capacity of the soil decreases. Unlike areas which have a lot of oak trees, the region with the pine trees is mostly drought-prone and women have to walk sometimes 10 km to get the water for their normal use.
  3. No Bacterial Growth, thus Degraded Lands — Because of the pine presence, bacterias in the soil die and are replaced by a parasitic fungal relationship which only helps pine thrive and grow, and takes away resources available for other plants which could possibly grow.
  4. Biodiversity Loss — Due to the forest fires every year, a lot of animals and useful plant species which are not fire-resistant die leading to fauna and flora loss in the region.
  5. No Use for Livestock — Pine needles are not used as a cattle feed, or bedding material for the livestock of the people, thus it is effectively of no use to the locals for their animal welfare.

But there is always a solution. My host organization, Alaap, is working to break this vicious cycle by converting it into a virtuous cycle. Alaap works at the intersection of forest degradation and poverty [14]. They create mixed forests using Miyawaki Method, and through that create income opportunities for people [15]. Their goal is to go beyond forest creation, and ensure that forests and people can grow together, and not at the cost of each other. Named after the Japanese scientist Dr. Akira Miyawaki, this methodology has been extremely successful with over 17 million trees planted in 1700 locations [16]. Such forests are multi-layered forests and mimic the densest parts of native undisturbed forests [17]. Since the methodology rests on providing the best possible start to the forest, such forests can grow up to 10 times faster, be 30 times denser and 100 times more biodiverse [18].

Alaap’s work generates employment and income opportunities for the local communities who create these forests. This includes direct wages, seed-banks, nurseries and long term carbon offset based income streams [19]. Creating a forest today is an only job half done. Alaap also invests in people today, so that they can create and protect a thousand forests tomorrow.

References: 

  1. Dobriyal, Manmohan J.R. “Why Cutting down Chirpine is not a Solution to Uttarakhand Forest Fires.” DownToEarth.org, 21 Sept. 2015. Accessible at: https://www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/forests/why-cutting-down-chirpine-is-not-a-solution-to-uttarakhand-forest-fires-51178.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Kala, Chandra Prakash. “Indigenous Uses and Structure of Chir Pine Forest in Uttaranchal Himalaya, India.” N.d. Accessible at: http://www.fao.org/3/xii/0060-a1.htm.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. “Chir Pine.” ENVIS RP on Forestry and Forest Related Livelihoods. Forest Research Institute, Dehradun and Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change. Government of India, 2011. Accessible at: http://www.frienvis.nic.in/WriteReadData/UserFiles/file/pdfs/Chir_Pine.pdf.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Singh, Aadya. “Reforesting the Hillsides of hte Himalayas.” Environment and Econolgy. Vikalsangam.org, 17 Apr. 2019. Accessible at: http://www.vikalpsangam.org/article/Aadya-Alaap.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. “About Alaap.” Alaap.in, 2019. Accessible at: https://alaap.in/about-2.

Aayush completed his post-graduate degree from Tata Institute of Social Sciences Mumbai with a major in Social Entrepreneurship. His studies focused on sustainable development, development policies, and business development for social enterprises. He researched the consumer preferences about organic processed foods with a focus on small and medium enterprises. During his studies, Aayush has worked with organizations like Stanford University, Teach India, Snehalaya, and Global Youth. He loves teaching and has been giving English, Mathematics, and Social Sciences tuitions to the kids who cannot afford regular tuitions. Originally from Muzaffarnagar, Aayush currently resides with his family in Sahibabad, close to the East of Delhi. When he is not working, one can find him cooking, exploring the cities, or simply practicing calisthenics

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