Category Archives: Environmental degradation

Why is shifting cultivation being blamed for land degradation? 

I’m on a study tour through South India, visiting different National Parks and scientific institutes. Today was my first day, and already, the lectures we had were extremely interesting…

One of the lectures I really found fascinating was given by Amit Jose Kurian, a research scholar at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE). It was about shifting cultivation, also called slash-and-burn cultivation or jhum cultivation. The question he intrigued us with was this- 

Does shifting cultivation really lead to land degradation or is that a misconception? 

WHAT IS SHIFTING CULTIVATION? 

A simple Google search gives us this definition for this form of agriculture- 

Shifting cultivation is a form of agriculture in which plots of land are cultivated temporarily, then abandoned so that the land can revert to it’s natural state, while the farmer moves on to the next piece of land.

Patches of cultivated land and fallows.

The farmer then returns to this land (called fallow) after a few years to repeat the process. In this way, he goes round and round an area of land reusing and managing different patches of land. 

THE ISSUE OF FALLOW LENGTH

The time taken for a farmer to return to a plot of land to recultivate it, is called fallow length. Ideally, this should be about a few years. Every plot of land is cultivated for about two years (or two harvests), before moving on. And then, the farmer returns to the this plot after 4-5 years. During this time, the forest in this plot regrows and renourishes the soil.

Recently, reports have indicated that the fallow length has been decreasing, and the plots of forest land are being increasingly cultivated and much higher frequencies. Why is that so? Is it just because of increasing demands from population growth or is there another reason behind it? 

THE “PRIMITIVE” FORM OF AGRICULTURE

The British were very surprised to see this form of agriculture being practiced, and called it primitive and unsustainable. Since then, the disadvantages of shifting cultivation has been widely publicized. The shortening of fallow lengths has been accused of decreasing productivity of the land and ultimately, the land becomes infertile.

 

The British solution to this was the lucrative plantations of timber species, and other trees that are widely used for a variety of purposes. They argued that this would maintain the forest cover, as well as provide livelihoods for the people using shifting cultivation. 

THE FLIP SIDE

But shifting cultivation has not stopped. Instead, shifting cultivation as well as plantations are being practiced side by side. 

The problem with this is that plantations take up years to produce a harvest. Meanwhile, the land on which the plantations are planted are out of the usable area of land. It cannot be circulated back. This leaves very little land left to practice agriculture in. THAT is why, fallow lengths have been decreasing. And this could ultimately be the reason for the decreasing productivity in the plot lands and the fast decline of forests and regrowths. 

So, the “advanced” form of agriculture turned out to be a huge reason for the disadvantages of shifting cultivation. If not for this alternative, may be the fallow length would be around a decade, allowing for a better, more sustainable use of resources. 
All images from Google Images. 

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Coastal Dead Zones: Killing coastal ecosystems worldwide

When you think of coastal ecosystems, a region of thriving life generally comes to mind. This image, however, is being slowly corrupted because of human activities. The “life” out of these zones is being sucked out, creating what is referred to as “dead zones”.

Can coasts die? In a way, the life associated with coasts, human activities dependent on coasts are directly because of the organisms that live there. Take these away, and not only does the natural ecosystem collapse, but human economic activities like fishing and tourism will also fall apart. That may not seem like a big deal, but coasts play a huge role in our economies (see here and here for more). Continue reading Coastal Dead Zones: Killing coastal ecosystems worldwide

How does tourism affect the coastal ecosystems?

When you think about going on a holiday, one of the first things that comes to your mind is the beach. Be in Goa, Andaman, Pondicherry, Miami, Sydney or the amazing beaches of France, it seems to attract everyone (63% Europeans prefer the coast as a holiday destination). A thriving tourism industry exists in almost every beach in the world. Whether you want to simply bathe in the sun or do the more adventurous stuff like surfing and scuba diving, beaches appeal to everyone’s interests. In fact, coastal and marine tourism is the fastest growing sector of tourism in the world!

What many people overlook is the effect it is having on the coastal ecosystems. In fact, this is one human activity that does not only harm the coasts; it has a few good effects as well. Let’s take a look at that in this post.

Continue reading How does tourism affect the coastal ecosystems?

Human habitation in coastal environments

In a previous post, I talked about how climate change is a major threat to the coastal ecosystems of the world. But I also said that that’s not the only threat….

Truth is, most of the effects of climate change can be buffered by the ecosystem itself. That’s because climate change is not a new phenomenon. Ecosystems of the past have learnt to deal with it and have even survived it. The real reason why the current climate change poses a threat is that it is coupled with something that has never happened before in geological past: human effect.

Humans possibly pose a bigger threat to the coastal ecosystems than climate change, because our intervention is more direct, more rigorous and more continuous…

In this post, I will specifically look at the effect of human habitation on coastal ecosystems.

Continue reading Human habitation in coastal environments

Ever wondered what happens when you sweep fallen leaves?

Autumn has just passed us by. Every autumn, we see a spectacle of colors all around us. In most temperate regions, leaves change into many different colors. Then, they fall off.

The only irritating thing about autumn is the fallen leaves. It can clog up drains, create a mess in our gardens and roads, and make things minutely uncomfortable for all of us. But, it is uncomfortable enough for us to do something about it. What do we do?

We sweep away these leaves and collect them in a pile. Here, the leaves are covered up so that they don’t fly and spread in the wind, and eventually they are burned. An innocent response to mess, you would say. But have you ever thought what it can cause?

Continue reading Ever wondered what happens when you sweep fallen leaves?

Explaining coral bleaching: Draining the colors of the oceans

Coral bleaching has been heavily discussed in every climate-change blog, environmental journals and among the academia for the last few months. In fact, reports that the Great Barrier Reef is dead went viral on social media and caused mass uproar. People began posting updates lamenting the terrible things we have done to nature (which is a good thing. People need to be shocked into reality) and how “diving into the reefs” will never be ticked off of their bucket list.

However, these reports were false. The coral reefs of the Great Barrier Reef, and other parts of the world are not dead. But, they are dying. 

Coral bleaching has been occurring with increasing frequency as a world phenomena for the last 20 years. The first mass bleaching was in 1998 (which destroyed 60% of the reefs in the Arabian Sea) and the second one was in 2008.

Today, another, much bigger coral bleaching event is underway. This one is longer and therefore, much more dangerous than the previous bleaching events. What makes it worrying is that the corals of the world have not yet fully recovered from the 2008 bleaching event; the one that lasted for 2-3 years around the world. We are looking at a 40% permanent loss of coral reefs all over the world because of the current bleaching event.

40% of the coral destruction is being caused by these human activities, as opposed to only 10% caused by climate change.

What is coral bleaching? Why does this happen? What are its implications? Lets answer these questions in this post. Continue reading Explaining coral bleaching: Draining the colors of the oceans

Mining: Environmental degradation caused by improper practices

Mining has been an done on Earth since humans realized the potential of metals and non-metals in improving the quality of their lives. However, mining has taken humongous proportions since the industrial age. The uses of mined materials, ranging from metals to radioactive elements to coal and petroleum, has expanded into fields that were previously untapped. If you think about it, most of the things around you has some quantity of mined material in it (look around and see for yourself). If you tell me that paper has nothing mined, then think about how paper is made. It’s made using machines, that are made of….metals. Indirectly or directly, they rule our world.

But in a universe where karma Continue reading Mining: Environmental degradation caused by improper practices