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Heritage Matters: Saving India’s Botanical Heritage

Heritage Matters: Saving India’s Botanical Heritage

India is often celebrated for its rich cultural and historical heritage, but how often do we stop to appreciate our diverse and valuable natural heritage? Here’s something that might make you sit up and take notice: According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, India has only 2.4 per cent of the world’s land mass but it accounts for 7-8 per cent of all recorded species, of plants and animals. Quite amazing, isn’t it?

Yet, barring a few initiatives focused on preserving and conserving our natural heritage, most people fail to recognise the country’s natural assets. Is it surprising, then, that the air we breathe is getting worse, our rivers more and more polluted, our seas filling up with plastic, our forest cover is rapidly shrinking and the earth is filling up with more and more concrete?

Did you know that India lost over 1.6 million hectares of tree cover – that is, about four times the geographical area of Goa – between 2001 and 2018 alone?

In Saving India’s Botanical Heritage, an edition of our online show Heritage Matters, we took a look at the challenges confronting our environment, our biodiversity in particular; at some of the campaigns working towards the preservation of our natural heritage; and what we can do to save the environment from further damage.

Our guests for this session included Manu Bhatnagar, Principal Director, Natural Heritage Division, INTACH; Dr Louiza Rodrigues, Environmental Historian; and Prabir Banerjea, Co-Founder & Managing Member, Balipara Foundation, a Guwahati-based environmental non-profit. With their expertise and research in different areas of environmental conservation, our expert panelists helped us understand the situation on the ground and how we can treat the environment with the respect it deserves.

What are the issues that our natural heritage is facing?

Climate change is a compelling challenge we are facing today and one of the primary reasons is deforestation. Yet, large tracts of forest land are still being cleared to make way for cities and infrastructure to grow and expand. Prof Dr Louiza Rodrigues has done in-depth research into the Western Ghats, the range of hills running down the west of India and is an expert in domains like the commercialisation of forests, timber extraction and deforestation of the Malabar region in the early 19th century.

Trees of Western Ghats | Dr Rodrigues
Trees of Western Ghats | Dr Rodrigues

Rodrigues has shown how, with the advent of British rule in India, large forest tracts in the Western Ghats were destroyed. This range of hills was known for its great variety of wood, which included teak, blackwood, Babool and more. She said in our online discussion: “The entire landscape (of Western India) underwent restructuring with the advent of British rule. The magnitude of deforestation did increase with the British, who carried out several infrastructural projects in Bombay, like ship-building. Even in the 19th century, timber became the most important commodity of the British state.”

She explained how ship-building, the construction of public buildings and the setting up of the railways required great amounts of wood, leading to deforestation. While Bombay developed on one hand, there was large deforestation on the other, she remarked. Sadly, the reality is no different today. If anything, the destruction of our forests has only escalated.

Manu Bhatnagar, who heads many projects relating to restoration and conservation as the director of INTACH’s Natural Heritage division, shared some poignant insights. As a result of climate change, extreme climatic conditions are becoming frequent these days. Rainfall, for instance, used to be well-distributed and well-dispersed but now there are intense and frequent bouts of rain, he pointed out.

Urban flooding is getting more and more serious, he added. As our cities become warmer due to climate change, we compound the problem by pouring more and more concrete into the earth and cutting more and more trees.

“We are pulling down our hill ranges to extract building material from them, our rivers are scantier, our air quality is poor, our wildlife population is getting endangered, more and more species are getting extinct – and these are just a few issues,” Bhatnagar said. “We are in a serious predicament, with the multiple crises we are living in.”

Mentioning that we don’t include our natural capital in our national capital, Bhatnagar said that while analysing the economy, the damage done to nature is not included, when it should, because it directly affects the economy.

Prabir Banerjea, who has been leading many campaigns for preservation of the Eastern Himalayas, said we talk of wildlife conservation when we should actually be talking about ecological conservation; wildlife is only a part of it. The big picture includes the conservation of biodiversity, culture and landscapes. He said that recent studies have revealed that 60 per cent of India’s Gross Domestic Product is directly linked to biodiversity. “The concept of conservation, landscapes and heritage are so intrinsically intertwined, that people do not understand that the approach must be holistic,” he said.

What can be done to preserve our natural heritage?

There have been many high-profile conservation projects in the past, such as Project Tiger and the Save Silent Valley Project, but in our session, we looked at some of the work being done by the Balipara Foundation in the Eastern Himalayas.Balipara Foundation works with the local communities | Balipara Foundation

Balipara Foundation works with the local communities | Balipara Foundation

For the last 15 years, the foundation has been working very closely with local communities in the region, in various habitation and conservation programmes. Banerjea believes that working with local communities is the way forward, as they know their natural heritage and surroundings better than anyone else. On just how diverse and vibrant the region is, Banerjea said it comprises over 400 ethnic communities, over 40 dialects and over 300 sub-dialects. There are even sacred peaks, rivers, animals and sacred groves.

The Balipara Foundation now manages over 5 million natural assets across 4,000 hectares, positively impacting the lives of more than 10,000 people across seven indigenous communities in Assam. We engage with local communities, not to teach them but to learn from them, said Banerjea. Balipara functions on the principles of a term it has coined, ‘Naturenomics’, which is the interdependence between nature and economics, he explained.

“The one learning we have had is that the custodian of the landscapes, therefore your culture and heritage, are the communities… communities, with their traditional knowledge which span centuries. We have to learn from them. But, yes, we can help them with science, we can help them with documentation, to actually make the process easier and faster,” said Banerjea, highlighting the importance of involving local communities in the preservation of our natural assets.Districts along river Ganga | Manu Bhatnagar via Natural Heritage Division, INTACH

Districts along river Ganga | Manu Bhatnagar via Natural Heritage Division, INTACH

Manu Bhatnagar has worked on various INTACH projects involving water and river management. About the recent project to map the Ganga River across 50 districts, he said it is important that our rivers are replenished because they are in bad shape today. They are polluted and also anaemic as a large amount of water is drawn from them. So apart from tackling pollution-related problems, the policies of programmes like INTACH’s are looking at river basins and at ways to restore or rejuvenate the flow of the Ganga.

Since rivers are the arteries of the landscape, they sustain agriculture, are home to aquatic life and are also a lifeline for many communities. It is therefore crucial that water management be improved, Bhatnagar pointed out. “We need to mainstream the biodiversity approach in all the aspects of our activities, whether in urban areas, development, whether it is increasing our habitat, or even in agro-biodiversity, there is a lot that needs to be done all at once.”

Dr Rodrigues believes that an inter-disciplinary approach, between subjects such as botany and history, can be very effective. She said that the archives prepared by the British on India’s botanical life are very extensive and lamented that there haven’t been any attempts to document it in the same way after that. Documentation and research can help understand the history of our natural heritage. She suggested that exhibitions, walks to gardens and parks, and seminars can make people aware of the rich biodiversity that we have.

We are losing our natural heritage at an alarming rate and things are more dire than they appear to be. The only hope for a better tomorrow is to look at the big picture, to see how our lifestyles are degrading nature – and to care enough to do something about it.

You can watch the complete conversation on Saving India’s Botanical Heritage here:

Through our online talk show, Heritage Matters, we offer a platform to anyone who wants to highlight issues surrounding our heritage as well as showcase work that addresses the many problems faced on the ground, across the length and breadth of India. If you have a story to share, an issue to highlight, or work to showcase, write to us at: contactus@livehistoryindia.com

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