Trees and forests have been on my mind a lot lately. The most recent trigger was the unexpected (thanks to our son’s school holiday), impulsive long-overdue midweek visit to Nature’s Nest, the splendid nature resort run by my friend, expert birder and nature-lover Pankaj Lad in Surla in the Western Ghats.
In that brief yet much-needed commune with nature at Surla and the nearby Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary and Mollem National Park, we spotted a plethora of bird species that included the State bird, the flame-throated bulbul, the Malabar grey hornbill, Asian fairy bluebird, Malabar blue-winged parakeet, racket-tailed drongo, and many more.
At dusk, just as we were preparing to exit the national park, we were blessed (and this is something I had long awaited for decades) to sight (or ‘spot’) not one, but two leopards within just a few minutes of each other.
Trees and forests have a spiritual peace and aura about them. It is no coincidence that our ancient scriptures and the tales within them are situated within sacred groves and forests. When seers, thinkers and saints seek enlightenment, they go deep into forests. They possess a profound cosmic wisdom that all the libraries of the most advanced civilization cannot hope to rival.
The other reason that they are on the brain is the government plan, already underway, to axe (chainsaw or bulldoze is perhaps the more accurate term) around 22,000 trees in the mindless, ruthless push for the ill-conceived, ill-sited, unnecessary Mopa airport. Environmentalists estimate that even more, perhaps 100,000 trees could be felled for this project.
We possess the flawed ‘intelligence’ to be able, with chainsaws and bulldozers, to mow down in hours or days, whole tracts of life-giving rainforests that Nature took centuries or millennia to painstakingly generate.
This folly is not unique to Goa; we see it in Mumbai with the proposed destruction of the Aarey colony, in Bengaluru and in so many other locations in India where myopic politicians, bureaucrats and industrialists measure ‘development’ solely in terms of concrete and tarmac, in pursuit of the mirage of ‘progress’, thus brutalising timeless natural legacies that had been safeguarded by our ancestors.
Have we even researched the medicinal potential of the flora and fauna native to the nearly 1500 acres of the proposed Mopa airport project before its tens of thousands of trees are leveled and end up in a timber yard?
Dipcadiconcanense (Dalzell) Baker is a perennial “tuberous herb with large white flowers” endemic solely to the Mopa region within the Western Ghats and is already listed as ‘Critically Endangered.’ The airport project will ensure the extinction of this plant and untold numbers of other as-yet-undocumented species, and any untapped medicinal potential will be lost to science and future generations forever.
Enough forest cover has been lost already to mining, and despite the stipulation that the mined land be “restored to its original state” afterward, this has not happened. Instead we revel in photo-ops of tree-planting ceremonies of short-lived scrawny saplings at each Vanamahotsav. We are a nation of hypocrites.
The irony peculiar also not just to Goa is the simultaneous denudation of forests, known repositories of precious ground water, throwing away our own vital resource within our borders while entering into protracted disputes with our neighbours over water rights.
In the 2017 BBC documentary ‘My Passion for Trees’, Oscar-winning actress Dame Judi Dench explores the amazing lives and histories of trees, their remarkable communication systems and demonstrates that trees are truly social living beings, “a real community that help each other, humans and the planet.”
Each tropical tree sequesters a minimum of 50 pounds (22.6 kilograms) of carbon each year in its trunk, branches and root system, producing life-nourishing oxygen in exchange. More than 50 per cent of a tropical tree’s woody biomass is sequestered carbon, and that’s why tropical trees are so important in the fight against global warming and climate change.
There is mounting scientific evidence that trees are sentient beings – they look out for each other. A tree having its leaves eaten by an herbivore is capable of emitting ethylene gas, warning other trees of imminent danger. They register pain when even a tiny caterpillar nibbles on a leaf.
Trees “scream” at ultrasonic frequencies when under extreme water deprivation. In the BBC documentary, a sophisticated machine enables one to “hear” water ascending up a tree trunk xylem under the bark.
To give an idea of ecosystems we stand to lose each time forest cover is erased: There are more life forms in a handful of forest soil than there are people on the planet. A forest is teeming with life, more than we know.
I remember Fr Bismarque Dias forcefully making the point at a heritage conservation conference in 2011 that forests, woodlands and wetlands, hills and water bodies are heritage too and should be zealously safeguarded.
In his election campaign Kindness Manifesto, Fr Bismarque presciently anticipated the core philosophy of our current Pope Francis’ path-breaking, hard-hitting ‘Laudato Si (Praise Be to You): On Care of Our Common Home’, his 2015 encyclical on the environment and climate change.
Pope Francis pulls no punches in criticising our capitalist obsession with production and profit: “The principle of the maximisation of profits, frequently isolated from other considerations, reflects a misunderstanding of the very concept of the economy. As long as production is increased, little concern is given to whether it is at the cost of future resources or the health of the environment; as long as the clearing of a forest increases production, no one calculates the losses entailed in the desertification of the land, the harm done to biodiversity or the increased pollution.”
He is scathing in his observation on the loss of forest cover in particular: “The earth’s resources are being plundered because of short-sighted approaches to the economy, commerce and production. The loss of forests and woodlands entails the loss of species which may constitute extremely important resources in the future, not only for food but also for curing disease and other uses. Different species contain genes which could be key resources in years ahead for meeting human needs and regulating environmental problems.
It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential ‘resources’ to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves. Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.”
Indeed we don’t.