[Commentary] Forests, ecosystem and human services


  • From drinking water and medicinal plants to regulating the climate and wood used for building houses, humans derive ecosystem services from forests in many forms.
  • With the immense human-induced pressure on the ecosystem and its services, a decrease in pollinators has affected the pollination of many wild and cultivated plants, writes Urbashi Pradhan in this commentary.
  • The rapid decline in the number of pollinators like bees, birds and animals has had a cascading effect on our ecosystem, our economies and our societies.
  • The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author.

It was in November, last year. You could feel the cold in the air. Dal Bahadur, a beekeeper from Turuk, Sikkim collected honey from his traditional beehive. He owns five traditional beehives and collects honey twice a year, in April and November. This, he says, is enough for his family and for the occasional gift of friends and relatives. As one might wonder, bees cannot foraging in cold weather, so how do they survive the cold, harsh winter season in the hills? To answer this, Dal Bahadur seals the entrance to the hive with cow dung to keep the hive warm and always leaves some honey in the honeycomb for the bees to survive and see the following spring. He said, “That’s all I have to do for the bees, in return I get free honey.”

These “free goods and services” that we obtain from nature, in academic parallel, are called “ecosystem services”. Honey is just one of them. Humans derive ecosystem services in many forms. From drinking water to medicinal plants, to climate regulation, to the wood we use to build our homes, to the natural vistas and related recreational activities we do in the wild that we city dwellers may know, are all part of the ecosystem services provided by nature.

About a third of our diet is actually made up of animal pollinated plants. It is also another form of ecosystem service provided by insects and animals.

Ecosystem services from forests

According to the 2011 census, there are nearly 170,000 Forest Villages (FFV) which are located near forest areas. Forests are an integral part of the socio-economic and cultural life of the inhabitants of these villages. It is estimated that about 275 million Indians depend directly on forests for a variety of ecosystem services, which provide food, shelter and security.

These ecosystem services that range from edible flora and fauna to freshwater sources also contribute to the nutritional needs of rural communities that live in or near forests. They also help people maintain good social relationships. For example, Dal Bahadur uses natural honey as a gift when visiting family and friends.

According to According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, around 150 species of wild plants, essential to many rural subsistence households, are consumed in India, Malaysia and Thailand as emergency food sources. These plants or plant products are either eaten raw or cooked and processed using fuelwood, also from forests.

In addition to human food, the transformation of livestock feed also requires fuelwood. Therefore, fuelwood is one of the most important ecosystem services that people derive from forests. According to State of India’s Forests Report (2019), about 85 million tonnes of fuelwood from the forest are used each year for cooking, heating or generating electricity.

Read more: No honey, no beehives, but solitary bees have important lives

Dependence of livestock on forests

India is also home to around 535 million head of cattle and 38 percent of them depend on forests for their fodder as they graze in wooded areas or are barn-fed (livestock census report, 2019). Dry fodder is also collected by rural communities and used for mulching and manure produced from barns is used in their agricultural fields.

In fact, animal husbandry contributes around 3.7 percent of household agricultural income in India. Therefore, fodder becomes an important ecosystem service to support the socio-economic well-being of rural communities. Cattle provide animal protein in various forms, such as milk and dairy products as well as meat.

Forests provide a range of ecosystem services to humans, but the impact of their contribution is often overlooked or miscalculated. Photo by Thangaraj Kumaravel / Flickr.

Although India is often seen as a vegetarian country, around 70 percent of the total population of India is non-vegetarian with diverse eating habits which are mainly decided by the habitat in which people live or are near, the economic context and of course the climate.

Game is another form of food and ecosystem services provided by forests. Although the main source of animal meat for most Indians is poultry, fish, goats, pigs, and cows, there are communities that also consume wild game – ranging from porcupines to snakes, insects, frogs and toads, birds and in some cases large mammals.

But why? Why do they have to eat wild meat? Why can’t they just limit themselves to eating poultry and other available options? Answering this question may not be so simple, as replacing wild meat with other commercially available options that are ‘accepted’ by the urbanized mass may not be an option for many people living in the city. or near forests, as the consumption of wild game is not only food for them, it is part of the culture and identity of many people living in and around forest areas .

For example, in some tribal communities, if one wants to marry the girl, the groom has to woo his future stepfather, with a chase. In many cases, the hunting and sharing of meat among tribal members also ensures their social status and good relationships. Similar to the conservation of animals to a wildlife enthusiast, there are anthropologists and social scientists who fear that these cultures will one day disappear.

In general, eating or killing wild animals is not considered acceptable by law in India, which also reflects popular sentiment among the public. However, research papers that have examined the socio-cultural aspects of hunting emphasize that the cultural and social part of hunting must be addressed before banning hunting altogether.

In fact, in most tribal communities wild meat is only used for subsistence and we should be able to distinguish between subsistence hunting and illegal hunting / poaching. Local communities have lived with nature since time immemorial and have a deeper sense of connection. They have their own ways of celebrating, thanking and bargaining with nature.

Even in today’s world, in a bustling city of Darjeeling, people perform Sansari puja – thanking nature for all the goods and services it provides in the form of rain, forest, good crop yield and atmosphere. healthy. Water sources are often revered by local communities, people feel best when they are in natural and scenic places like hills, breathing fresh air away from busy cities. This sense of connection with nature is also a cultural ecosystem service that nature provides. Abruptly severing this connection can disrupt the connection and harmony between man and nature, endangering both parties.

Read more: Forests that heal: Medicinal plants as an ecosystem service

What is the way back?

With immense human-induced pressure on the ecosystem and the services it provides, an alarming decline in pollinators has affected the pollination of many wild and cultivated plants. The unpredictable weather conditions, the increased frequency of pest attacks like the recent locust attacks in parts of western India, the rapid decline in the number of pollinators like bees, birds and animals are having an effect cascading over the ecosystem, economies and societies.

There are several theories regarding the coronavirus epidemic, but one school of thought advocates that forests and natural spaces have always acted as a barrier between humans and wild animals. However, due to deforestation, the conversion of forest land to agricultural fields supported by global economic changes which lead to climate-induced poverty, brings people closer to wild animals, resulting in such diseases. If this trend continues, researchers fear there will be no more COVID-like illnesses in the coming days, leading to an unprecedented loss of health, social and economic assets.

India’s total forest and tree cover is approximately 807,276 km², or 24.56 percent of our nation’s total geographic area. According to the State of the Forest Report (SFR) 2019, there has been an increase of 3,976 square kilometers (0.56%) of forest cover, 1,212 km² (1.29%) of tree cover in the country since 2017.

What is more encouraging is that the forest cover in the mountainous districts of the country amounts to 284,006 km², or 40.30 percent of the total geographic area of ​​these districts. This area increased by 544 km2 (0.19%) in 140 mountainous districts of the country.

As people become more aware of the need to live healthier and happier lives, positive change is inevitable. We can all help by making those unfamiliar with the ecosystem services provided by forests aware of our interdependence and dependence on nature.

The author is a post-doctoral fellow at the Biodiversity Collaborative at the National Center for Biological Sciences (NCBS-TIFR), Bangalore. This is a result of the preparatory phase of the National Mission on Biodiversity and Human Well-being project, which is catalyzed and supported by the Office of the Senior Scientific Advisor of the Government of India.

Banner image: The decline of pollinators like bees, birds and animals has a cascading effect on our ecosystem, our economies and our societies. Photo by slgckgc / Flickr.


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