During my time as an undergraduate, I became very interested in the relationships between human populations and natural resources. I was fortunate to study under the guidance of Dr. Alan Richards who pushed his students to realize the absolute dependence of society on natural resources, and to see that at this point in time, this relationship may be as stressed as it’s ever been. The examples are numerous and all around us whether we see them or not, and studying these issues as they are happening on a larger scale strongly influenced me to choose the career path I am currently pursuing. It’s been a few years now since my days of being a zealous student of international environmental issues. The fire and radicalism in me has died down a bit and my lectures have become fewer, much to the relief of my family.
Living in the Kumaon Himalayas has shed new light on the issues I studied in school as I encounter them in their most raw form almost everyday. In a way I almost feel silly that I spent so much time reading books and listening to talking heads when I could have just come to India! But I am grateful for the background now as I pass women chopping trees and collecting wood to fuel their cooking stoves and warm their hands. The story around these parts is that the make up of the forest has changed dramatically since the time of the British who generously introduced fast-growing pine trees for timber. Traditionally, these hills were home to oak and other broad-leafed species which held together the sides of the mountains and protected the watershed. Over time the oaks have largely been cut and replaced by Pine and other coniferous trees. While some may argue that a Pine tree is a better source of timber, this change has undermined the health of the entire ecosystem, including the human communities who reside here. Pine trees acidify the soil in an area that is naturally alkaline. As a result, native species are unable to sprout and take root in the soil, significantly decreasing the biodiversity of the forest. Another effect of this is the diminishing quality of watersheds. Oak and other broad-leafed species are masters at holding and filtering the spring and ground water, a quality that has been recognized and revered for generations. Pines do not have this ability however and this, coupled with climate change, has lead to widespread water scarcity and contamination in the region.
But what to do? Even if locals are aware of the benefits of oaks and other native species, the need for cooking fuel on a daily basis inform their decisions regarding the forest. And who can blame them? In the short-term their lives are seemingly made easier by perpetuating a pine forest, but all the while they are consuming contaminated water on a daily basis, the amount of which is steadily decreasing*. To counter water contamination, boiling the water is encouraged, but this requires even more wood for fuel. The cycle continues and I wonder how this place will have changed after another 20 years. Humans are adaptable creatures but at what price to the natural environment that is so intricately connected to our well-being? These are the questions that plague me as I walk in the woods…
*The explanation I’ve provided only scrapes the surface of the multifarious and complex nature of these issues. There are many other factors that I have not mentioned such as the increase in human populations and house-hold behaviors which are also important to understand the bigger picture of these challenges.