We have been told to plant trees right from our childhood. For some, this became a habit later in life. But the point is, is it really beneficial to supplant forests with plantations?
While naturally growing forests help with carbon fixation, improving air quality, preventing soil erosion and so on, plantations are a man-made phenomenon that does not quite give the wholesome benefits provided by Nature herself.
Natural forests provide us with an entirely self-sufficient ecosystem that a plantation cannot ensure. Forests have a mix of various kinds of plants such as algae and mosses, bryophytes and ferns, orchids, shrubs, herbs and grasses and a variety of insects carrying out essential pollination and degradation activities, and organisms ranging from unicellular microbes to a host of predators and lichen and fungi. All these together form a self-sufficient, sustainable, and happy family. Also, we have several geographical and geological structures such as cliffs, hills, mounds, rivers, rivulets, streams, ponds, lakes and springs. All these help a natural forest maintain a balance between death, degradation and rebirth.
Also, several other factors may seem insignificant at first, but play a major role in the overall health of a forest and a productive ecosystem. To explain this in simpler terms, let’s look at an example. A common household of four may have various sections such as a kitchen, a dining room, bedrooms, an attic, a basement, passageways, a study, washing areas, cleaning areas, a living room and countless doors and windows. Each of these sections of a house has a subset that may further have its own subsets. The kitchen may have cupboards, which may have shelves, which in turn may have boxes that hold the goods you need. But the entirety of the house finally makes it what it is, a complete home. It takes years to build a home like this, and it is no easy task maintaining it either. If you were asked to replicate the entire house somewhere else, it wouldn’t be possible. Like this, a forest is built over a period of time, with elements being fine-tuned constantly to create a sustainable ecosystem that grows steadily.
Supplanting a forest with plantations is like putting up a camping tent or a temporary accommodation. It may solve immediate issues such as shading and oxygen recycling, but it cannot replicate a forest. Plantations are poor at maintaining biodiversity. They consist of limited flora and hence, a smaller variety of animals is seen. Plantations usually have fast-growing trees and they don’t do a good job facing adverse weather conditions. In Nature, groundwater holding and prevention of soil erosion do not happen only due to the roots of big trees. Many other factors, such as mulch or debris, burrowing insects and animals and wind cover provided by shrubs and grasses contribute to these vital phenomena, which many believe are directly caused by trees. Plantations also consist of many exotic trees or non-native trees that further threaten the balance of the surrounding forests.
Over the years, our greed has caused extensive forest depletion. Some parts have been replaced by plantations and other green covers such as gardens, landscapes or orchards. But, in reality, these green covers do not provide us with the necessary ecological services. They do not even marginally reduce the impact on the environment caused by the depletion of natural forests.
So what can we do about the situation? How can we take control?
We can still do lots of things to help maintain our natural forests. We can begin by conserving the existing forests, reducing the overuse of forest produce and proactively taking part in forest regeneration projects.
While plantations are not the way to go, depleted, semi-depleted and fragmented forests can still be recovered. With a little love and attention, we can help a forest regrow into its natural state. There are programmes developed by local forest departments under their jurisdiction that understand the ecological needs of forests. We can participate in these projects to regenerate our forests. Tribal communities also have a good understanding of forests and ways to help regenerate them, especially since they have acted as the guardians of such forests for generations. A wide range of forestry techniques has been developed over the years, focusing on the regeneration and rehabilitation of devastated forest areas.
As individuals, we can reduce, reuse and recycle, while as a community, we can participate in local drives organised for the regeneration of forests. Some of the best examples of these drives include seed ball making for native plant species and volunteering at awareness programmes, local forest watchers programmes and seed dispersal programmes. Remember to use forests judiciously and avoid overcrowding in a forest at all costs. Help where needed and let forests take their time. If left untouched, forests can regrow into beautiful, hardworking ecological powerhouses they originally were. After all, forests have been around for a much longer time than we have.