Land of unusual biodiversity

By Arpiyush Ch. Sangma

A team of experts from the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources — an organisation under the Indian Council of Agriculture Research specially set up to work as a nodal organisation for management of the plant genetic resources in India way back in 1977-78 — discovered that the area located in the Tura range in the Meghalaya plateau is a reservoir of a large variety of wild relatives of cultivated plants of citrus fruits. The experts, therefore, suggested that this area is the most suitable site for establishment of a biosphere reserve.
As per the Garo customary laws, the land in this area is owned by communities through Nokmas. The state government by a notification in November 1986, declared its intention to acquire about 4,748 hectares of land along the ridge of the Tura range from 20 A’king Nokmas to establish the Nokrek National Park.
The Ministry of Environment and Forests in September 1987 designated Nokrek National Park and 168 surrounding villages located in the tri-junction of East, West and South Garo Hill districts as a biosphere reserve. After completion of land acquisition, a final notification to declare the area a protected zone was issued on December 23, 1997.
Twenty-three of these villages, covering about 228 sq km, constitute the buffer zone of the Nokrek Biosphere Reserve (NBR) that covers 820 sq km. The remaining 145 villages covering about 544 sq km constitute the transition zone of NBR, which is among the 18 biosphere reserves in the country and 11 around the world (UNESCO’s World Network of Biosphere Reserves). The latter recognition came in 2009.
NBR is a rich gene pool of citrus species. Citrus indica tanaka (wild orange), believed to be the most primitive and perhaps the progenitor of the citrus plants, is endangered and found in abundance in NBR. Other related cultivars of the Citrus indica tanaka such as Citrus latipes tanaka, Citrus reticulate Blanco, Citrus aurantifolia Swingle, Citrus grandis Osbeck, Citrus jambhiri Lushington and Citrus limon Burm are also naturally found here.
Apart from several other species of wild animals like elephants, gaur, Himalayan black bear, serow, barking deer and clouded leopard, NBR is home to a large population of the Western Hoolock gibbon, the only ape found in India. The reserve and its surrounding areas reverberate with the calls of the primates. The rivers and water bodies are also home to several species of fish, including the rare and endangered chocolate mahseer.
NBR is a catchment of several rivers and streams which are the source of drinking water in Tura, Williamnagar, Baghmara and other major towns in Garo Hills. Many important rivers like the Simsang, Ganol and Dareng originate from the Nokrek forest.
Apart from the future of the cultivation of citrus fruits in the world, the future of the entire Garo Hills is intricately linked to the health of NBR.
For centuries, tribal residents here were dependent on the slash and burn cultivation, also known as jhum, for subsistence. In the past, enough time was available for rejuvenation and restocking of forests between two successive jhum cycles.

Degradation

With the fast increase in human population, the agricultural cycle in the area has drastically reduced to as low as 3 to 5 years. Forests do not get enough time between two successive jhum cycles to rejuvenate and regenerate, resulting in their qualitative and quantitative degradation. In several areas in the NBR, natural forests are being replaced by cash crops such as tea, coffee, areca nut, cashew and rubber.
Degradation of forest in the catchment is resulting in heavy soil erosion and extinction of several species of wild flora and fauna. It is also causing unfavourable change in the hydrological regime manifested by drying up of perennial streams leading to water scarcity during the dry season and flash floods during the monsoon months.
Even after causing immense damage to the flora, the fauna and the biodiversity, the jhum cultivation yields very little economic returns. It is an urgent need to promote ecologically prudent, environmentally sustainable and financially remunerative livelihood options in NBR to achieve the twin objectives to save and conserve the rich biodiversity and also to uplift the living standard of the locals.
Concerted efforts are needed to promote apiculture and cultivation of mushrooms and cardamom, handicrafts and handloom and high-end and responsible eco-tourism.
Efforts are also needed to discourage and prohibit replacement of natural forests by monoculture plantation of cash crops requiring high dose of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. NBR is an ideal place to promote organic farming. Efforts are needed to ban use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides in the reserve.
The Forests and Environment Department, from the funds available under a centrally sponsored scheme of ‘Conservation of Natural Resources and Eco-Systems’, has initiated measures to promote sustainable livelihood here. It has provided assistance for apiculture, mushroom and cardamom farming, handloom and permanent wet paddy cultivation.
The department has made efforts to create awareness about the importance of and need for conservation of the rich biodiversity. For tourism, it has created infrastructure like visitor’s trails, view points and rain-shelters. Due to limited availability of funds, the scale of activities undertaken by the department is too less.
But it is making efforts to upscale activities in the NBR for promoting ecologically prudent and financially more remunerative livelihood practices by convergence of government programmes. With the support and cooperation of all concerned, the department hopes to ensure long-term conservation of NBR’s biodiversity.

(The authors is Divisional Forest Officer, Garo Hills Wildlife Division)

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