Combating invasion, restoring forest through turmeric plantation?

Combating invasion, restoring forest through turmeric plantation?

  • Muna Bhattarai and Lila Nath Sharma
  • March 24, 2023
Mikania invaded forest patch in Pathibhara Kalika CF, inset: Mikania roots in the air

Turmeric cultivation in the forest

On August 16, Dr. Shiva Devkota was exploring mushrooms while strolling along a trail in Jalthal forest. A little off the trail, on his approach deep into the forest, he spotted a Besar (Turmeric) patch. He inquired with curiosity, “Is there Besar cultivation in the forest?” whilst pointing at the Besar field.

Yes! Turmeric was cultivated in the forest.  For visitors like Mr. Devkota, it was an oddly positioned crop. We’ve had numerous inquiries from other forest visitors wondering why turmeric was cultivated there. In order to understand the background of turmeric cultivation, it would be better to have an enriching virtual-tour of the forest to get insights on the condition of the forest and its biodiversity.

Turmeric cultivation in Durgabhitta CF

Jalthal: A biodiversity ‘hotspot’

Jalthal is a forested island in the agricultural landscape in Jhapa District in southeastern Nepal. It is a relic of a once lush tropical forest that spanned Nepal’s southern plains. In the country known for high mountains, the forest lies at the lowest elevation point and encompasses diverse ecosystems and habitats like swamps, lakes, rivers, hillocks, forests, and open areas. It is a high-biodiversity area with endangered flora and fauna such as the Asian elephant, Chinese pangolin, and Elongated tortoise. The forest is known for its exceptional richness of tree flora in Nepal; it covers just 0.1% of Nepal’s forest but is home to about a quarter of the country’s total tree species. In a fresh article, we claimed the forest as a capital of tree diversity of Nepal.

The forest is also an important source of environmental services, including water and multitudes of forest products for people living around the forest. The forest is currently being managed by 22 Community Forest User Groups (CFUGs) and is an important livelihood source for over 80,000 people, including marginalized indigenous groups (Meche, Santhal, and Rajbanshi).

Jalthal: A capital of Mikania invasion

I never imagined a South American weed would cover a forest here on this scale. It’s bloody everywhere! “And it has covered almost every seedling and sapling in every corner of the forest.

And that’s exactly how Dr. Norbert Holstein described his observations on the abundance of Mikania in Jalthal Forest in the Jhapa District. Dr. Holstein, the curator of the Natural History Museum in London, visited Jalthal forest in the second week of September. He traversed dense bush of Mikania during a hot and humid day of fieldwork in the forest for four days.

Dr. Holstein’s impression  provides insight on the scale and depth of the invasion of Mikania in Jalthal area. When Dr. Him Lal Shrestha of the Kathmandu Forestry College (KAFCOL) examined the Mikania coverage three years ago, he calculated that more than half of the 6100-hectare forest had been affected. When Mr. Ramkrishna Gautam- an MSc student at Tribhuvan University, recently mapped Mikania in the forest, he encountered the weed in  almost all of the sampled points. He spread 228 sample plots covering the whole forest.

Mr. Shyamlal Meche, leader of the Pathbhara Kalika CF and an inhabitant of Jalthal who belongs to an indigenous minority, has witnessed the transformations in the forest over years. During forest transect walk in August 2020, he demonstrated us how terrible the weed is.

He further added,

“I literally have no idea where this Pyangri lahara (a local name for Mikania) came from and now it has blanketed the whole forest. Although its green, but it is a matter of celebration for the environment enthusiast like me. Seedling growth has been suppressed, our trails have been erased, mushrooms, leafy vegetables such as adders-tongue (Ophioglossum) and majur khutti (Helminthostachys zeylanica) have declined, elephant encounters have increased, and wildlife habitat has been degraded as a result of its expansion. Our access to forests and its resources have been limited by it”

Mr. Meche has also witnessed more pyangri lahara-related alterations and added:

Python populations in the forest has surged as the bush cover expanded.” As a consequence of increase in python population, other wildlife species including deer mouse and spotted deer have experienced a decline.”

Extending to 741-hectare area, Mr. Shyam Lal’s forest is the largest CF in Jalthal. More than half of the forest is infested with Mikania and other invasive species, with about half of the forest suffering the worst. If we venture deeper into the forest, there are several spots of degraded forest where trees are sparse and with green floors, the latter actually being a green desert.

With all these observations of the veteran researchers, it’s evident that weed invasions have almost engulfed the biodiversity of Jalthal at its utmost level.

Notoriety of the notorious

Mikania micrantha, a vine of South American origin, is an invasive plant species. It grows fast, produces enormous tiny seeds, disperses seeds easily by wind, and reproduces by both stem and seeds. It can develop its roots in the soil, air and even in water. It’s extremely effective photosynthesis has been noted in a recent study. All of these factors combine to make it an invasive species. Additionally, the weed is included as one of the worst invasive species in the world.

The species is on the move. It’s moving northward and westward in Nepal. Bharat Babu Shrestha, a professor of botany at Tribhuvan University and a pioneer and prominent researcher on invasive plants in Nepal, has lately made observations as far north as the Pokhara valley and as far west as the Dang district. And it’ll probably advance even more into its frontier.

Well! The observations, experiences, and mayhem on Mikania micrantha above tells only a portion of the forest’s story. The forest is not only degraded by invasion; it still holds a legacy of its biological diversity, ecological uniqueness, and socioeconomic significance.

Jalthal unquestionably illustrates an example of significant biodiversity and synchronous forest degradation. This paradox of “diversity and degradation” has been discussed in a paper published by ForestAction researchers last year. Among the many challenges in managing forests, invasive species, especially Mikania micrantha, is  a serious problem. It spreads swiftly when the crown cover is sparse, especially in bare forests. It inhibits the growth of other plants and stifles the regrowth of native species in high-impact areas. Furthermore, it has an impact on how easily locals may acquire fuelwood and fodder, two crucial sources of forest products for people who live adjacent to forests.

Bush control: A herculean task

In September 2019, Mr. Chiranjibi Paudel, the chair of Pathibhara Kalika CF, led our group for a forest walk. He was struggling to go through a dense bush while along the trail.

Only eight months ago, we removed the bushes in this area, including Pyangri lahara, but nobody believes it was cleansed. We attempt to eradicate it repeatedly, but each time it reappears and blankets the floor and vegetation. Nearly the entire area of our forest is covered. It is a cancer of the forest, and I have no idea where this demonic weed originated from.”

Local people have tried to control the weed by using every possible means. Mr. Haka Limbu, a forest guard at Kamaldhap Rampokhari community forest, summarizes their effort to control the weed.

“We are trying to control it by burning, slashing, uprooting, and even using chemicals, but all these methods turn out to be like nurturing it” .

“Shortly after we remove it, it comes again, and more vigorously”.

The community forests and locals have made every effort to bring the bush under control. They had been practicing slashing and uprooting the Mikania out of the ground. Additionally, in the region where Mikania-infested bushes have been removed, medicinal herb cultivation and the planting of exotic tree species like eucalyptus, teak, and mahogany have been done in an effort to eliminate it. In this effort, deliberate burning and weedicide and herbicide treatments is adopted.

Mr Chiran Paudel showing Mikania regrowth in cleared area

However, local efforts remain in vain, as bush control is a herculean task. Community forests and other stakeholders have already invested a significant amount of money and labor to control it, but no appreciable improvement has been witnessed. Local attempts to suppress the weed are not having the desired impact, primarily as a result of ineffective, covert, and irregular activity. Their effort is not coordinated or properly planned, and it is not reinforced by any long term perspective. Additionally, neither the ecological attributes of the species nor those of the native ecosystem are taken into account by the actions aimed at regulating it.

Lessons from the interventions

The project implemented by ForestAction Nepal, initiated piloting invasive species control in several CFs, but we could look into detail in only a few places. At the Pathbhara Kalika Forest, one of the patches was under close scrutiny. The intervention will take place in a 2.5 hectare area of a forest that is extensively infested  with Mikania. In coordination with CFUG, the bush cleanup and natural regeneration rescue were completed in October 2020. It took 20 days and more than 300 labors to clean up the initial area of  Mikania invasion. By uprooting them, the invasive species were eliminated.

The second author of this essay visited the patch while about a dozen local youths were cleaning it. Someone from the group said, “We are cleaning the bush which may be older than I am ” Another member added that people were afraid to enter the area because it was so dense that if a person went inside, he or she would be stuck. The area was cleaned and 400 naturally regenerated seedlings and saplings were released.

We anticipated that after the initial round of intensive cleaning, the weed growth would slow. But the rate of growth surprised us. The vine blanketed the field in three months and began smothering tree seedlings and saplings. After drawing this observation, we concluded that while Mikania’s dismissal is required, it is insufficient on its own. To clean it just once and then leave would be a waste of time, resources, and effort. Therefore, we cleaned the same area again, this time in February 2021. Based on the lessons we learnt, we switched the cleaning process from uprooting to slashing. Slashing was more efficient than entirely uprooting the plant in terms of speed, ease, and most importantly the cost. In comparison to the first time, it took half the labor this time, and cleaning was much smoother. Following the second cleaning, the field opened up and the seedlings started to grow to the point where they could be seen from a distance. The area was accessible to people.

Mikania cleared area in Pathibhara Kalika CF

However, growing seedlings and saplings struggle to survive the strain of biomass collection. Fodder collectors can now find low-hanging fruit in a convenient, accessible area. Unfortunately, saplings were cut down. This was so distressing. The forest provides firewood and fodder to the vast majority of the CF’s 800 users. These users uncovered simple access to fodder after clearing the bushes, which was formerly difficult to reach due to dense mat of the bush.

We investigated additional methods of Mikania control and natural regeneration protection after learning from our experiences and realizing the importance of taking into account local users for our planned restoration. The demand for fodder was so intense that we were unable to manage or control it, so awareness among users alone was insufficient for conservation. We started looking into, researching how to best serve local users while also controlling Mikania and promoting natural regeneration.

Based on our own lessons, users’ experiences, and the traditional dependency of users on forest biomass, we decided to use an agroforestry approach to control Mikania and grow and protect natural regeneration in the forest. Our strategy was to create an environment to grow seedlings and saplings that would eventually control the invasive species. The logic is simple, yet powerful. The weed is light-loving, and any sustained shade would reduce its vigor, growth, and reproduction.

Searching for the most plausible!

A Darwin Initiative UK-funded project entitled “Uprating Community Forest Management in Nepal: Enhancing Biodiversity and Livelihoods” (Jalthal Biodiversity Management Project) has been implemented by ForestAction Nepal since mid-2019 in Jalthal Forest, which has prioritized managing IAPS—one of the most pertinent management challenges of the forest. Among other things, the project’s goal was to restore forests while managing the IAPS. Capitalizing on forests’ natural regeneration for restoration is an important strategy of the project. Natural regeneration protection, in turn, is an easy, reliable, and simple method of forest restoration.

Invasive species problems are often like those in Jalthal. It’s like next to impossible to get rid of them after they’ve invaded. To control them, continuous, well-planned, and ecologically conscious actions are needed. Such efforts are costly because they involve continuous processes rather than one-time interventions. We contemplated about enduring the effort of controlling the weed. Many people suggested cultivating medicinal plants in cleared areas. Others advised planting broom grass, while some proposed cultivating cash crops like lemons. We were seeking a strategy that would control weeds, rebuild forests, and provide advantages to the communities involved in the weed management operation.

Agroforestry was unquestionably a viable option. Mr. Sanjay Raj Tamang, then a field officer at ForestAction, quickly assessed the status of past interventions in Jalthal. He came with the report that such interventions have neither benefited locals nor promoted forest restoration. There was no forest regeneration in areas with broom grass and citronella. Some crops requiring regular care would not qualify in the forest.

In order to benefit the forest and nearby populations while requiring the minimal efforts, we sought out the most promising species for intercropping in agroforestry. In addition, animals like elephants, monkeys, deer, porcupines, and wild boars wouldn’t damage the crop.

Even birds are there, which would bring a notable loss to fruits. We were also looking for something that posed a low risk to the user even in the event of failure.  We were aware that there is a wide disparity (disconnect) between expectations and results for many development programs promoting cultivation of NTFPs. We weren’t looking for plants that need a few, if not many, years to produce, like horticultural trees or perennial crops.

We organized a series of meetings with stakeholders, mainly community forests, to search for the most suitable species for agroforestry in Jalthal.

And finally, Besar (turmeric) qualified for all these screenings!

Yes! Turmeric cultivation appears to be a promising option. As it is short-term and farmers won’t have to wait for years to get a harvest. It’s locally used and traditionally grown at homesteads by local people. It does not require intensive care. It does not require expert knowledge either, as all travelers are experts on it. It just required sowing, weeding, and harvesting! Farmers are happy and enjoy doing it.

The cultivation

With the aim of supporting local livelihoods and bringing local people into conservation, a small portion (0.5 ha) of the Mikania invaded patch (the 2.5 ha cleaning site mentioned earlier) was allocated to the 17 local poor and disadvantaged households of the Pathibhara Kalika CF. The selected portion was divided equally among the interested users with a formal, binding agreement between CF and the farmers. The Forest Act 2019 and Forest Regulations 2022 provide the foundation for allocating degraded parts of forest for poor users in community forests. However, this should be for the benefit of forests and people without changing the land use of forests.

Besar Cultivation and Sal regeneration along with Besar

Turmeric cultivation began in the first week of April 2021, after several preparatory works (from field preparation to paper work) at various levels. Before cultivating the turmeric seed, the users slashed and burned Mikania on their allocation. They also plowed the ground and prepared the cultivation site. The forest soil was rich in nutrients and fertile, necessitating no additional fertilizer.

Some users weeded the turmeric field once or twice, while others did it on a regular basis. They cleaned up the invasive species present in and around turmeric and also protected natural regeneration.

For observers who were unaware of the background of the whole story, turmeric cultivation inside a forest was an oddly placed practice. We had to explain it to several people.

The results

Comparison (before after)

Even while we were routinely monitoring the progress in the pilot area, it wasn’t until July of 2022 that we could thoroughly assess the state of natural regeneration. For the assessment, Mr. Chiran Paudel and a few farmers were also present. Standing next to a Kadam (Neolamarkia cadamba) sapling, Mr. Poudel, Chairman of Pathibhara Kalika CF, was informing the visitors about the site. The expansion of Kadam exceeded our expectations. Using a bamboo stick, Mr. Chiran Paudel began gauging the sapling’s height. In just one year, the specific seedling of Kadam, which was organically regenerated, had grown to an astounding height of 4.5 meters. Majority of Kadam saplings reached above two meters in height within a year.

Comparison (before after)

Mr. Gudanath Koirala a beneficiary of the agroforestry site and Paudel began to count numbers of seedlings and sapling present in the site. They counted seedlings taller than half meter. The figure was staggering!

With the result of the count in hand, Mr Koirala said, “There are so many Kadam Lathra (saplings),  I never thought Kadam seedlings would grow at this rate”.

There were over 680 naturally regenerated saplings of 14 different tree species, of which 470 were of Kadam and the remaining 210 were Jamuna, Kaulo, Kalikath, Malato, Rakbrikhsha, and others.

The land has been available to the users for two to three years. Continued weeding and site cleanup are being done. Only 50% of the users harvested their turmeric this year. After the first year of cultivation, Mrs. Harimaya Tamang collected all of her product. She sold half of her products within her neighborhood. She harvested turmeric equivalent to Rs 25000.  She is delighted with the outcome and intends to continue for another year. The other seven CFUGs in Jalthal are currently implementing this intervention. Government officials and other stakeholders are thrilled with the intervention’s effects as well.

A farmer practicing agroforestry stands with Kadam saplings

 At Last

The piloting of invasive species management through agroforestry in Pathibhara Kalika CF has demonstrated a pragmatic model of forest restoration by engaging forest-dependent poor people. In this approach, people benefit during the transition period of forest restoration through agroforestry and, in the long run, through  enhanced ecosystem services of the restored forest. The approach of suppressing invasive Mikania by fostering natural regeneration of native trees is also ecologically sound, as it capitalizes tremendous natural regeneration potential of our forests. The resounding success of natural regeneration calls into question our traditional strategy for restoring forests through plantations, which includes even exotic species.

There is a dire need to maintain the piloting’s early positive results until the forest landscape is restored. Marketing and branding of turmeric and other produce would not only provide cash return to the farmers but also gain wider support for forest restoration. Provided we produce a good-quality organic product, the public might purchase the product to contribute towards forest restoration.

This very place-based, ecologically sound, socially acceptable, and economically feasible approach to agroforestry can be scaled up as an effective way of restoring forests in other parts of the country too. In order to be effective, this approach should be acknowledged by forest management programs, which should embrace forest restoration as one of their objectives. Currently, forest management is narrowly focused and centered on timber management. The Forest Act of 2076 should be implemented legitimately, especially the provision that at least 25% of funds be allocated to forest management and conservation. This model would also benefit greatly from the effective application of agroforestry.

Last but not least, putting forest restoration at the forefront of forest management would unquestionably help with meaningful forest restoration and advance the UN’s decade on forest restoration.

Bhattarai and Sharma work in Jalthal Biodiversity project in Jhapa!

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