Has anybody ever wondered how transportation of plants in a globalized world affect the environment? Perhaps not everyone has had a sense of it since the notion of globalization in this modern era is symbolized in terms of people and products transported across the globe. Movement of products, including plants and animals were common right since, or perhaps even before, our great explorers discovered regions and continents. That however was done without the knowledge on the range of outcomes it would have. Coming to this point of time, we can see how transportation of seeds and plants has impacted our environment. One of the most prominent example is the pervasive invasive plants that have had a huge impact on the ecology of forest, cropfields, pastures, wetlands and beyond. In fact, it has caused billions of dollars of economic loss globally. Among them is Mikania micrantha, popularly known as mile-a-minute, due mainly to its fast-growing and rapidly-spreading nature.
Native to South America, Mikania is believed to have spread across South and South-east Asia, and even in Australia and dozens of Pacific Islands. One would be mulling over how it travelled such a long distance to cause mayhem. Some believe that it was deliberately brought over to continents for plantation, primarily aimed at controlling landslides and as cover crop. The rapid growth and strong rooting makes the soil less prone to landslides. Others believe that natural causes brought them to various spots which later spread across wider geographical regions. Nepal has not been spared off this problem where it is believed that Mikania has spread to 30-plus districts across eastern and western regions of the country. It was first seen in the east and overspreading toward the western region and even toward the northern parts of the country. Its cover is higher in wetland-rich habitats in southern lowland mainly Jalthal Jhapa, Koshi Taapu Wildlife Reserve and Chitwan National Park. The spreading of Mikania in Chitwan National Park has in fact obstructed the movement of rhinos and other wildlife in addition to destroying their habitat.
Our forests in crisis
So much can be heard about deforestation or forest fire ruining our forests in Nepal. But very little is known or talked about invasive species wrecking our forests. Jalthal, a swath of natural remnant forest spread over 6000 hectares area in Jhapa is a living example. Because of its size, bioldiversity and species assemblage, Jalthal is a critical biodiversity hotspot of Nepal. Not limited to that, Jalthal is place where trees and culture meet, where the forest has been crucial for maintaining cultural diversity in the region. Jalthal forest is a source of wide spectrum of ecosystem services people living around. Overshadowing this essential ecosystem, people have been striving to save their forest from Mikania. And it’s not static at all. The more they remove it, the more rapidly it reappears in a few months. As you walk through the lush green jungle of Jalthal, a Kathmanduite who is accustomed to crowd and concrete building, will have a feeling of serenity. For a rookie, even the invasive plants looks like a green bush, and appears to have co-existed with the trees for a while. But in reality, it is killing the forest, by not allowing the regeneration of new trees. In fact, the entire forest biodiversity is bolted by the invasive species and nothing seems to be penetrable through it.
Frustrated with little hope on reviving their forest, people of Jalthal are desperate to get rid of it. Fed up of volunteering, they have sought help from agencies including the Divisional Forest Office in Jhapa, but to no avail. A strong claim for adopting scientific forest management is what they get in response, as if a panacea for the problem has already been tested. ‘Forest officers are trying to promote teak plantation, which is believed to swipe out the invasive species from forest’, says one of the locals in Jalthal area. While ecologists believe that teak might be a choice in getting rid of invasive species, however on the darker side, it prohibits regeneration and growth of any desirable plants around it. It also creates green desert within the forest. A rather ‘quick-fix’ solution is in attempt while a much needed deliberation is set aside. For those who believe attaining prosperity from forestry is possible only through timber, this would definitely be convincing. But this would overshadow the very notion of biodiversity and value of natural forests.
Possibly the very first idea to get rid of cancer cells would be to do away with it from the human body. That perhaps could be the case of forests infested with Mikania. However, that merely won’t make a permanent solution. Its removal should come along with regeneration of native tree species, and for this, periodic removal is important to allow new growth. Now this does not happen without the involvement of communities. There are 22 community forest user groups operating in and around Jalthal area. Mobilization of the user groups would be of utmost importance. But, the question is would they invest their time and effort just to save forest. Perhaps most of them may, but for others voluntarism could be costly. While there have been attempts to tie up forest conservation with livelihood generation across Nepal, the idea of turning trash to cash might work here. Turning invasive species to compost will have a dual benefit, first Mikania will be removed from the forest, and second compost can be later utilized in farms and even sold in the market. This would likely get in some share of the 150,000 tons of fertilizers that Nepal imports.
Most importantly, management of Mikania should not be an add-on to forest conservation. It needs to be an integral part of forest management because we may not know to what extent it would break our forest, but what we already know is that it is catastrophic to our forests and biodiversity. The very notion of attaining prosperity from forests will only be possible if our forests sustain and remain healthy. Overlooking the issue of invasive species will undermine the potentiality of our forests. It is therefore time for the policies to reflect this.
A greater action and collaboration is very much needed at the local level. The government, primarily the Division Forest Office and other local agencies need to create an enabling, and collaborative, environment to engage local forest user groups. Creating an incentive mechanism would be an added value. It should not merely be about ticking off an activity out of the list, after all, we are here because our forests area here. So it's about saving our forests and all of us who live on it.
(Karki and Sharma are researchers at ForestAction Nepal)