Trees as Heritage: Redefining the Social Identity of Trees

By Ranjit K. Sahu and Ravi Shankar Behera

Trees form an important and indispensable component of our environment and our existence, more importantly in the tropical and subtropical regions where several communities depend on the forests and forest related resources for their livelihood.

Traditionally in southwestern parts of Odisha, (as in most parts of India) trees were planted by the ruling monarchies on the roadsides apart from the ones that grew in the forest and these trees usually provided shade or fruits. The trees from the forests were also harvested in a sustainable manner. A small population and low pressure on the environment for providing products essential for livelihood ensured that trees were protected and propagated, by the localities and sufficient time was given to the trees to mature where required. However with the change in lifestyle from sustenance to luxury and the concept of unbridled   consumerism encroaching the public mentality, trees have fallen victim to the axes of both private owners as wells corporate sectors. In this regard it becomes essential to innovate ways to revive the concept of tree protection and propagation. Mandatory in this regard is the creation of awareness about the importance of native trees. With the scenario of global warming and climate change looming large it is now more than ever essential that native trees with a higher adaptability to local conditions be promoted. Invasion of commercial, alien specie has been on the rise in ecologically sensitive zones like the Eastern Ghats which further jeopardizes the fragile balance and availability of natural resources in these areas.

The concept of trees being an important component of any ecosystem is neither new nor unknown. The prevalence of sacred groves in tribal communities is a testimony to preservation of trees. Similarly the planting and nurturing of trees like banyan and peepul in temple premises along with other tree species deemed scared is common. However, there are several indigenous species of trees like wild mango and wild berries that have been vanishing from both the forests and the public and private spaces. The main reason for this is the availability of commercially viable varieties and improved technology that has been replacing the wild fruit varieties with commercially compatible varieties. Thus, many of the existing trees are not being cared for or are being cut down unceremoniously without realizing their importance.

Firstly any tree takes. A long time to grow and while a replacement can be made for a tree, it is impossible to turn back the time that the tree has grown for and compensate for it. While commercial stands are routinely nurtured and cut and planted, these trees that have been standing for decades or even centuries need protection and preservation.

Secondly trees are not individual organisms though they seem to be so from a narrow vision. They are entire ecosystems in themselves supporting many creatures. Thus, any tree that is destroyed will also lead to the collapse of an entire ecosystem.

Thirdly, preserving wild trees maybe an important aspect of dealing with the requirement for germ plasm, creation of trees better adapted to climate change. Although conservation of wild varieties and traditional seeds of commercial crops like rice has been gaining attention and seed banks are being set up but no such approach for saving the wild varieties of trees have been yet formulated.

Figure: Most trees in the rural landscape today are the efforts of past generations and are of commercial nature, mainly being fruit trees and existing in the orchards.

Fourth and most important is the fact that most old trees have sturdy root systems that help them to withstand severe climatic conditions. Moreover the trees help to circulate the nutrients form the deeper layers of the earth to the surface when they shed their leaves, helping to nuture the local environment.

The utility of trees has in recent years been evaluated only from a commercial point of view, mostly by vested interests, without acknowledging their long term contributions to the health of the environment as well as the communities where they exist. This attitude prevalent in the society has to be changed by inculcating a culture of tree growing and management in the younger generations.

An evaluation report on the social forestry program that was supposed to help both communities and the environment has shown how minimal community participation, unequal sharing of benefits, absence of transparency in planning and decision control by the government officials from forest and revenue department resulted in outcomes different from the objectives of the proposed project. It shows how absence of proper perspective minimized the actual benefits to people and the environmental effects were incompatible with the ecosystem. Planting of mono cultures of commercial tree species vis a vis wild tree species (better adapted to local agro-ecological conditions) resulted in altering ecosystems.

Fodder availability was limited and mostly the people benefited out of fuel supply and the industries from the poles. Thus, tree planting was seen in terms of its economic rather than holistic contribution and after the project grant support was over, the state governments did not continue the initiative leading to huge questions about project sustainability and community ownership.

Keeping in view these aspects of trees, several steps may be undertaken to continue the rich Indian tradition of tree care and propagation which is prevalent in the rural areas. Children can be asked to plan and participate in planting activities in schools that helps them become aware of the importance of trees in their locality and get an understanding of the trees’ role in environment.

Nature camps, essays and debates can be organized to help exchange ideas about trees among school children. At the village level, people can be alerted to the existence of old trees that need care and suitable measures undertaken to protect them from falling to natural or artificial causes.  Steps like declaring the old trees as “heritage trees” maybe undertaken to preserve them along with construction of structures to protect them from getting uprooted during adverse weather events.

About the Author: 

Dr. Ranjit K. Sahu is a freelance writer currently located in Virginia, USA. His interests include education, environment, sustainability and health care in the underprivileged regions of the world.

 Ravi Shankar Behera is a free lance consultant in the development sector and affiliated to several organizations, currently based in New Delhi.

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