NE Climate Change: Concerns and solutions

By Toki Blah

The Sunday Shillong Times of the 18th Sept 2022 came up with a much appreciated news item on its front page headlined “Bishops in North east raise alarm over climate change, vows action”. One comes away with three distinct impressions from the above report. First, its indeed refreshing to note the Church stepping out of its cloistered dogma that its only duty is to save the soul. Christ did say “Man does not live by bread alone” meaning the recognition and acceptance that man’s physical and corporeal needs are as important as his spiritual wellbeing. Second, is the Church through its Bishops, calling on a society blinded by greed and avarice to be mindful of it own survival which now faces eminent danger because of our disrespect of the environment around us. This is especially true for the North East of India , defined as one of the World’s prime bio sphere reserves, but which is daily falling prey to unscrupulous timber merchants backed by equally greedy but ignorant politicians. Third and the most interesting part of this news report is the collective vow, pledge , promise , call it by whatever name you like, the conclave of Bishops have made to protect the environment of the North East of India . To quote from the report the pledge goes as “As we pledge to protect God’s creation, let us be protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another, and of the environment.” An inspiring vow no doubt, motivated by a sincere concern over the fate of this beautiful region but question is, do we have the vision, a concept and the technology to do this?
Let us continue with this essay by admitting that the North East region comprising of eight small states except Assam and inhabited by more than 200 different communities with their own individual customs, culture and languages, forms one of the most diverse and fascinating pattern of the colorful fabric called India. Within the region we find almost all types for forests ranging from the Coniferous forests on the upper reaches of the Himalayas to the dense, evergreen rain forests of the Brahmaputra and Barak Valleys. The concern of the Bishop’s conclave is of the steady and rapid dwindling of these forests and their natural resources aside from the environmental services they provide, not only to the region but to the entire world. The reason for the sharp decrease of forest cover in the NE is not hard to find. It started with the British in their search for tea plantations to serve their cup of “chai” and also hard timber for railway sleepers. It is simply the result of the demand and supply Law of Economics. The sad fact is that the supply came from non renewable sources which when destroyed would take years if not centuries to recover. Sadly even after independence a non-visionary, ignorant system of political governance continues with this unsustainable form of natural resource exploitation. It is a system that most are slowly realizing is not the best in the world. In fact it is the worst. Yet the above laws of Supply and Demand continue. So we need to come up with a developmental paradigm for the region that continues to support the above law of economics, without being exploitative. We need a sustainable Natural Resource Management system instead of the unsound exploitative paradigm currently under practice. Question is can it be done? Answer- lets try and examine the answer below.
In the recent past there was a huge uproar over some NE State Governments’ decisions to convert large tracts of land falling under their respective jurisdiction to palm oil plantations. Apparently this was considered necessary because of three main purposes. First it was to augment India’s rapidly increasing demand for palm oil which it is currently importing and proving a drain on our foreign reserves. Second that it would bring the much needed livelihood prospects to the rural areas of the region. The repugnant prospect of cutting down large swatches of indigenous forest cover to accommodate palm oil plantations was simply glossed over in the almighty name of “DEVELOPMENT”. Thirdly and the most probable reason was the spineless bending over and pathetic “Yes Sir; No Sir” mentality of NE political leaders to wishes of those seen close to the throne of the NDA at Delhi. Patanjali and other Indian corporates, in close proximity to the ruling dispensation at Delhi, wanted entry into the NE for massive Palm Oil Plantations and so “Abracadabra”, and it’s done. It’s as simple as that. The negative ecological impact of introducing foreign, alien species into our environment, even if warnings were sounded by forest and environmental experts, was overruled by a pliant political system. Yet it is this very same political entity that is so vociferous and boisterous on saving the environment on every tree plantation day. Hence if there is need to increase our internal edible oil production; if there is simultaneous need to preserve our environment and forests while so doing; if there is also need to introduce sustainable development through proper management of our natural resources, can the NE shrug off this obnoxious plan to deforest so as to give way to Palm Plantations? Let’s see if it can be done.
Wikipedia tells us of a little known fruit scientifically called Hodgsonia and says, “Although the flesh of Hodgsonia fruit is inedible and considered worthless, the large, oil-rich seeds are an important source of food. The kernels are occasionally eaten raw; they are slightly bitter, possibly due to an unidentified alkaloid or glucoside, but “perfectly safe” to eat. More commonly, the seeds are roasted, after which they taste like pork scraps or lard; many mountain peoples consider these roasted seeds a delicacy. In addition to eating the seeds alone, the Naga incorporate them into various types of curry. The Karbi Community of North East India cultivate it in their backyard gardens and consume it as a side dish during a meal. They call it Hanthar Athe.” Further information states, “Chinese lard seed is a fast-growing, very vigorous, large, woody, climbing plant producing stems that can be 30 metres long and supporting itself on other plants by means of tendrils. The plant produces large, edible seeds that are very rich in oil. Commonly used for food within its native range, the plant has only been brought into cultivation since the 1970’s, and is now an economically important oil plant in southwest Yunnan”.
In the Southern slopes of Meghalaya (the Ri War area) cultivators in the Pynursla area call it Soh Ben. It has different local names all along the southern warm slopes of Meghalaya and perhaps too in the warmer reaches of Ri Bhoi. It is a great delicacy for the locals. It is a creeper that claws its way to the tops of forest trees; produces a Football No 1 size fruit whose seeds are what is described above. People collect the fallen fruit, separate the seeds which they then feed their pigs for fattening or roast the same and sell it at the local weekly haats. An attempt to produce an image of the fruit is given here ( in the hope that someone in the state will recognize it ) but a far better description can be obtained from Wikipedia or other knowledge search engines on the Net.
Between 1999 and 2000 the then Planning Adviser of NEC got an analysis of the edible content of the Hodgsonia fruit ( Soh Ben) available from the warm southern slopes of Ri War. The analysis came back with a staggering 50 % + edible oil content. This, by far is the biggest oil content from any natural nut, palm or fruit. Wikipedia again has this to say about the oil content of Palm oil “The oil palm produces bunches containing many fruits with the fleshy mesocarp enclosing a kernel that is covered by a very hard shell. The FAO considers palm oil (coming from the pulp) and palm kernels to be primary products. The oil extraction rate from a bunch varies from 17 to 27% for palm oil”. Hodgsonia as pointed above exceeds 50%+ oil content.
Edible oil has an ever expanding global market and as such we in the NE are literally sitting on a gold mine as far as this economic issue is concerned. Forests in the region belong either to the Government or the communities. The proposal for the sustainable economic management of this natural resource (Hodgsonia) is attempted below. 1. Let us preserve our existing forests in the warm areas where Hodgsonia can be grown. 2. Government should facilitate the concerned communities to plant, grow and care for the creeper in these forests. 3. This should be a community led project with the Government as the prime facilitator. Gestation period for harvesting is three years which is quite short. 4. Government or private parties to set up oil extracting plants of various sizes in areas where the plantation is considered viable. 5. Communities collect the fallen seeds from the forest floor and sell to these extracting plants. 6 . Profit and livelihood is community and not individual based. 7. A sustainable forest cover is thus preserved by local communities that earn a livelihood through ecological and environment friendly management of their natural resources. It can be done.