Identification of drivers of deforestation in Meghalaya

Jhum cultivation in Nokrek biosphere reserve, Meghalaya (Image: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)
Jhum cultivation in Nokrek biosphere reserve, Meghalaya (Image: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)

Though drivers of deforestation and degradation follow a general framework and pattern, in many cases, they are region-specific. On a global scale, these have emerged as one of the major causes of greenhouse gas emissions resulting in large scale biodiversity loss, global warming and subsequent climate change.

Three-fourth of Meghalaya’s area is under forest cover. Of this, about 40% is degraded open and secondary forests. About 6.56% of its total forest area is under the control of the State Forest Department. The rest of the area is either private or clan (or community) owned and is under the indirect control and management of the Autonomous District Councils.

This report is based on a study initiated to understand the various drivers of deforestation operating in Meghalaya and their ecological and socioeconomic cause-effect relationship. The study was done by the Rain Forest Research Institute, Jorhat an institute of the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE).  

The study was supported by the Meghalaya Basin Management Agency (MBMA), which is implementing the World Bank assisted Meghalaya Community-Led Landscape Management Project (MCLLMP), of the Government of Meghalaya since May 2018. This five-year project is aimed at strengthening rural communities and traditional institutions to empower the community to take charge of their natural resources and implement community-led sustainable natural resource management plans.

The major drivers of deforestation and degradation like mining and shifting cultivation (jhuming) in the state were to be scientifically identified. The objective of the assignment was to identify potential drivers leading to deforestation in the state of Meghalaya viz. faulty agricultural practices, social and cultural practices, mining activities, industrial pollution and other forms of developmental activities.

As a prerequisite, the identification of drivers requires an in-depth understanding of the process of deforestation and degradation. Addressing such diverse issues require an integrated approach. The study tried to understand the drivers of deforestation operative in Meghalaya following five approaches. These are a review of existing literature, GIS mapping, household surveys, ecological study and expert consultation.

In Meghalaya, as a whole, moderately dense forests, which is the biggest category among all forest cover classes, was found to have decreased. Open forest, on the other hand, exhibited an increase in the overall area indicating degradation; a slight increase in the dense forest was also recorded. Overall, the forest cover in the state has decreased during the last decade (2009-2017).

While decrease in forest area is an indicator of deforestation, the decrease in the dense and moderately dense forests is a sign of forest degradation, with the resultant increase in open forests and is a matter of concern. While deforestation is immediately noticeable and remedial action can be taken, degradation is slow and not noticeable; and when the system is fully degraded, most of it is irrecoverable.

The key findings of the present work may be summarized below:

  • An extensive literature review reveals that the direct drivers of deforestation in Meghalaya are: shifting cultivation, permanent farming, wood collection, road network development, settlement expansion, charcoal making, mining and other minor drivers (irrespective of rank/ impact).
  • On the other hand, the following indirect drivers of deforestation are observed to impact, viz. - poverty, less awareness, increase in population, weak forest law enforcement, lack of employment, promotion of agriculture, non-availability of alternatives and other minor drivers (irrespective of rank/ impact).

With the advent of modern tools and technology, research on various issues related to natural resource management is going on. However, the information gap in various sectors is still a major drawback. For example, the latest data of shifting cultivation for Meghalaya is available only for 2008-09 and not updated yet. Similarly, the latest data/ information is not available on rubber plantation (area and productivity), wood collection (both, commercial and illegal), charcoal production, forest vulnerability issues (forest fires, encroachments etc.), land-use change, immigration etc.

  • While most drivers were common to all the three regions of Meghalaya, the relative importance (weightage) of some drivers varied among the different regions.
  • The 5 key direct drivers of deforestation in Khasi Hills are: Wood collection > Shifting cultivation> Settlement expansion> Permanent farming> Charcoal making.
  • The 5 key direct drivers of deforestation in Garo Hills are: Shifting cultivation> Permanent farming> Wood collection> Settlement expansion> Road network expansion.
  • The 5 key direct drivers of deforestation in Jaintia Hills are: Wood collection> Mining> Shifting cultivation> Charcoal making> Settlement expansion.

The 5 key direct drivers of deforestation in Meghalaya, as a whole, are Wood collection (fuelwood and timber)> Shifting cultivation> Settlement expansion> Mining (in mining-affected pockets of State)> Permanent farming (conversion of the forested area into monoculture permanent farming of cashew nut, betel nut, tea and rubber).

  • The key indirect drivers include poverty, overpopulation, non-availability of alternatives, lack of employment and several issues related to governance including - inadequate enforcement, inadequate policies or policies not followed and lack of harmony among forest departments of State and Autonomous Councils.

The ecological study carried out in select villages and nearby forests indicates that the diversity of plant forms (in terms of Shannon – Weiner Diversity Index) increased with the decrease in the level of biotic interference and disturbance. Large-scale deforestation or degradation induced by biotic disturbance was found to disturb the ecological balance and biodiversity profile of the region. However, further study with greater sampling intensity is required to draw any final conclusion.

Strategies to address deforestation

There are many challenges to check the deforestation in the state of Meghalaya, viz.- community ownership of forest, very less area with the State Forest Department to manage, inadequate capacity of Forest Department as well as of Autonomous District Councils and ineffectiveness of many existing policies and measures.

The sheer complexities of direct and indirect drivers demand multiple strategies to reduce deforestation. The major direct drivers include wood collection, shifting cultivation, settlement expansion, mining and permanent farming; whereas indirect drivers were poverty, overpopulation, lack of awareness, weak enforcement of forest laws and policies and lack of land use plans. The scientific organisations need to work on the development of protocols or models, enhancement of productivity, livelihood sustainability and educate the society, to secure and support the livelihoods of the people.

The key recommendations and specific interventions that can be taken up under the MCLLMP project are detailed in the report.

Wood collection

The key recommendations include (a) Control of illegal wood collection especially in community-managed forests (b) Plantation of indigenous fast-growing species especially in home gardens, farmlands, jhum lands, fallow lands, etc. to meet the increasing demand for wood (c) Promotion and use of energy-efficient cooking devices along with the alternative fuel like liquefied petroleum gas and (d) Promotion of the use of seasoned/treated wood as well as composite wood to increase the life of wood products.

The suggested interventions are - Increase watch and ward by the creation of village forest protection volunteers; Increase availability of saplings of indigenous fast-growing species; Training on the cultivation of indigenous fast-growing species; Distribution of energy-efficient cooking devices; Awareness on energy-efficient cooking devices, alternative fuel and ill effects of indoor pollution due to use of fuelwood; Training on seasoning and preservation of wood and bamboo; and Large amount of fuel-wood is needed for heating the bitumen used for road construction. The concerned authority should ensure the application of bitumen heaters instead.

Shifting cultivation

The key recommendations include: increase the productivity of shifting cultivation fields; annual monitoring programmes on shifting cultivation; transfer of technology from one tribe to another; development; promotion and practice of agroforestry models to enhance overall productivity; and marketing of products of shifting cultivation.

The interventions are - increase availability of seeds of high yielding varieties of indigenous crops, training on improved cultivation techniques and bio-fertilizers, collection of latest data of shifting cultivation, preparation of annual monitoring plan, documentation of different improved technologies, training of tribal communities, documentation of improved agroforestry models, promotion of improved agroforestry models, marketing skill development in local youth and development of marketing strategies

The full set of recommendations are detailed in the report. The full report can be downloaded below.

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