At 60, Bairagi Patra does not need a book or a white paper to understand the value of the environment. Patra, a marginal farmer and daily wage earner, who lives near the Balukhanda reserve forest in Odisha’s Puri district, is scared. The after effects of Cyclone Fani, which destroyed the district and the forest in the region, are now impacting his daily life.
With the green shelter belt gone, the houses in the area where he resides have been, in the last two months, getting warmer. Life has also been affected by the constant sea winds and regular conflict with wild animals. And once the monsoon sets in, the situation, they believe, will become even worse.
“The cyclone took away many of our belongings. Our homes, cows, goats, crops and trees have all gone. It will take us years to get back to a normal life. I have seen cyclones in the past, but this one ravaged the barrier of trees and shrubs that provided us protection from the wind and storm, and now I am scared for more reasons than one,” said Patra in his native Odia language. He wore a dull, peach coloured
gamchha (thin cotton towel) and a gray lungi reflecting his foggy state-of-mind.
Standing in his backyard, which is now nothing but a heap of broken trees, branches and trash, Patra pointed to the destroyed Balukhanda forest that had worked as a shield between human habitation and the Bay of Bengal.
Bairagi Patra in his backyard. Photo by Shweta Thakur Nanda.
“Earlier, the wind coming from the sea was pleasant. But now that the forest shield has been destroyed in the cyclone, the wind feels harsher and more intense. And this is having its effect on our houses and crops. After the cyclone, with the green cover gone, it has also become hotter,” said Santosh Das, Patra’s neighbour.
V.P. Upadhyay, an advisor and environmental scientist in the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change (MoEFCC), who has worked extensively in Odisha and the northeastern states said: “The purpose of the shelterbelt along the coast is to protect people, property and environment. It guards the human and animal habitations against the high-velocity winds by impeding the wind speed and re-directing it. Green shelterbelts help curb soil erosion, restrict the movement of shifting sand and decrease the impact of salt carried by the wind on farms and human life.”
Farms badly hit
Everyone in Puri, which was ravaged by the severe tropical cyclone that struck the region this May, has been affected. Agricultural yields have gone down by at least 30 percent due to the saline water that has contaminated the farmlands. The harsh and sandy winds have also hit farming badly. A formal government study on the impact of Cyclone Fani on farm output is yet to be undertaken.
“After the cyclone, the yield from my fields has been quite low. The yield from my karela (bitter gourd) and parwal (pointed gourd) farms has been 25 percent to 30 percent less compared to last season. To increase the yield, I have been using more fertiliser, but other than adding to my expenditure, it has not produced the desired result,” said Lakhmana Bhola, a resident of Nimapada, a suburb near the historic Konark Temple, which is not far from the Balukhanda forest.
As salt water percolates, soil salinity increases and agricultural yield is adversely affected, explained Upadhyay. Not all plants can handle high salt concentration, and as a result, crops get destroyed. And over a period of time, the character of the soil changes, biodiversity reduces and a green land turns into a barren one, he added.
What can be done to improve the fertility of the soil? According to Upadhyay, organic manures can neutralise the soil if they are used after the soil has been tested for quality. Cost effective methods like cultivating salt-tolerant crops for a few seasons or letting monsoons restore the character of the soil too would work, he added.
While using fertilisers to neutralise soil salinity is an expensive method, which the farmers in the region will not be able to afford, other methods are time-consuming and may push them to debts, rued Bhola.
According to a report by an Australian environment group, Basalt to Bay Landcare Network, green windbreaks can help in increasing crop yields by 25 percent, pasture yields by 20 percent to 30 percent and dairy milk production by 10 percent to 20 percent. In other words, the absence of, or the destruction of, a greenbelt will have an identical negative impact on farm, dairy and pasture yields.
Effect on wild animals and human-animal conflict
The ecological damage, authorities and experts in Odisha believe, will significantly impact the people and their livelihoods, as well as the wildlife in Puri for many years to come. According to forest officials, over two million trees (mainly casuarina and cashew) in that shelter belt, home to at least 100 animal and bird species, were destroyed. Villagers say snakes, porcupines, golden jackals, hyenas, honey badgers (ratel) and spotted deer are now coming out into the open, increasing the threat to them as well as to the people.
“The green cover in around 3,100 hectares of forest was severely damaged — either broken or uprooted — in the cyclone. The shelterbelt was a huge shield for both human beings and animals. We are trying our best, but it will take almost a decade to get back to the pre-cyclone scenario,” said a Puri district forest official, requesting anonymity.
A Balukhand forest signage amid uprooted and broken trees. Photo by Shweta Thakur Nanda.
Environmentalist Sankar Pani said the area was the habitat of several animal species including spotted deer, striped hyena, jackal and mongoose, but that after the cyclone it had become difficult to track some of these animals as their habitat had been fragmented. With the green Balukhanda forest gone, animals would increasingly come into farmlands in search of food. These animals do not pose any threat to human lives, but destruction of crops and livestock could lead to human-animal conflicts.
According to Pani, human-animal conflict in the region started many years ago with the building of the Puri-Konark marine drive, but with the cyclone destroying the animal habitat, this could intensify. If rebuilding shelterbelts are not given priority, it will impact species like the horseshoe crab and olive ridley sea turtles which have been using the area as breeding grounds, he added.
A black buck in Ganjam district, Odisha. Photo by soumikbiswas/Wikimedia Commons.
Meanwhile, in Bhubaneswar, authorities in the forest department are getting ready to recreate the shelterbelt with millions of new plants. An awareness drive to urge people to join the afforestation initiative has also been planned. With the monsoon season ahead, forest officials believe, a joint effort will help in improving the local ecosystem, which will be beneficial for both animals and people.
“The forest department is planning to create a coastal shelterbelt in a 6,000-hectare area in the next five years,” the Disaster Management and Relief Department said in an email statement after a review meeting of forest officials in early June.
Could take 6-7 years to regrow
Natural or tropical forests take nearly two decades to regrow fully on their own, but if there is human intervention and exotic casuarinas and cashew trees are planted, it will take only 6-7 years to regrow fully, said Pani, adding that such plants, however, had their limitations.
Biswajit Mohanty, chairman of Greenpeace India who is a native of Odisha, warned against authorities repeating “wrong plantation practices”. According to Mohanty, instead of casuarinas and cashew groves, they should plant stronger and more resilient indigenous trees like banyan, neem, pongame oil (karanja) and tamarind. Mohanty also said that when the plan is executed, care must be taken to plant trees 300 meters away from the high tide line.
“The choice of trees will be crucial for dealing with future cyclones and in curbing damage to ecological habitats. The present damage has been devastating for animals. In the last couple of months, the number of invasions by animals has gone up considerably. Hyenas are now more visible, and soon you might hear about hyenas killing domestic animals like goats, calves and sheep in villages close to their damaged habitat,” said N. A. Shah Ansari, an activist in Puri.
Damage to the shelter belt as seen on both sides of Puri-Konark Marine Drive. Photo by Shweta Thakur Nanda.
Ansari, who also manages a community media organisation, argued that though trees like casuarinas and cashew might grow faster than indigenous varieties, they would restrict the movement of spotted deer. Moreover consuming cashew fruits would result in native animals getting afflicted with mouth and throat infection. Trees like Eucalyptus and Acacia are too tall for native herbivorous animals to feed on, he added.
Even in the absence of an ecological shelter, people in Puri might survive, but a constant struggle to sustain themselves and conflict with animals will be the new normal in this part of the country.
(This story was first published on Mongabay)