Khasi Hills India: Restoring Khasi Hills forest
Treesisters has been funding the restoration of tropical and subtropical, mixed broad-leaved forests, including montane cloud forests in the Khasi Hills since October 2017. The project is led by WeForest, one of our valued reforestation partners. Khasi Hills forms part of central Meghalaya, a land-locked state situated northeastern India and bounded to the south by the Bangladesh. Meghalaya is a region of scenic hills, like Scotland, but with cultivated terraces. The restoration sites are located in the East Khasi Hills and the North Khasi Hills (Ri Bhoi) districts. 75% of the Khasi Hills is covered with luxuriant dense tropical forests of altitudes and degraded forests with more open tree canopy, which cover approximately 5,500 square kilometers (1), approximately the size of the built urban area of Greater Sidney, Australia. WeForest supports the Khasi tribes through the partnership with the Ka Synjuk Ki Hima Arliang Mawphlang Welfare Society. Simply named the "Federation", it gathers forest dwellers spreading across 11 indigenous governments and 75 Khasi villages . The Federation seeks to release pressures off their remaining forests with forest restoration, community engagement, forest monitoring and research data collection. The project holds the possibility to regenerate over 4 million trees spanning across 5,000 Hectares - about the size of Washington's Dulles Airport, USA. It represents 1% of the Khasi Hills landmass and provides a vital protection for knowledge, wildlife and water sources. This project is highly important to TreeSisters and WeForest, because of the Khasi's deep cultural and traditional attachment and respect for forests.
How the Khasi are restoring their forests with WeForest.
The Khasi Hills is certainly one of the most picturesque places in the Meghalaya. It is a complex landform of rolling uplands, rounded hills, as well as steep slopes and deep valleys. (Map of Meghalaya. Source: Sadiq, M. et al. 2014. REE mineralization in the carbonatites of the Sung Valley Ultramafic-Alkaline-Carbonatite Complex, Meghalaya, India. Central European Journal of Geosciences. 6: 457-475.)
The Khasi Hills is one of the wettest place in Asia. The word 'Meghalaya' translates to 'the abode of clouds' in Hindi and Sanskrit. Because of their high altitudes, forests literally "meet the clouds", which explains why they are called 'cloud forests'. They even live up to its name to the point of hitting rainfall records. Heavy rainfall contributes substantially to the river flow, which is essential to the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna river basin which Indi and Bengal depend upon greatly.
(Images courtesy © WeForest)
Forests cover about 75% of the Khasi Hills, with east Khasi and west Khasi respectively covered at 63% and 75% 1 . This is impressive when compared with England's green and pleasant lands only including 10% forest cover. The largest forests blocks are located in the northeastern part of the Khasi Hills. Forests vary from tropical moist deciduous (generally low elevations below 1,200 meters and lower annual rainfall), to fragments of subtropical evergreen (cloud) forests, or subtropical semi-evergreen forests, persisting as sacred groves or confined to gullies, steep slopes, depending on the altitude and location. Forests found above 1,000 meters are a mix of broad-leaved and needle-leaved trees. Subtropical pine forests found above 1,200m have been planted as secondary forest (not climax forest). (Standing stones close to Mawphlang sacred grove, East Khasi Hills. The picture's background shows that Meghalaya is truly the "abode of the cloud" which is the meaning of the word 'Meghalaya'.)
Plant & Tree Variety
Arising from a diverse topography and climatic conditions, the Khasi Hills are home to a luxuriant variety of plants, some of them only be found in this area, such as pitcher plant Nepenthes khasiana, an insectivorous endemic plant in threat of disappearing due to habitat loss. The Khasi Hills alone are endowed with 75 orchid genera, represented by 265 species. These hills are also considered the center of diversity for several primitive tree genera such as Magnolia and for families such as Elaeocarpaceae. (2)
The Mawphlang Sacred Forest is one of the most famous sacred groves in the Khasi Hills. The Khasi people value their forest for their role in protecting springs, stream beds and conserving wildlife. They house ancient stone monoliths and are linked to similar traditions across India and can be found all around the world. (Mawphlang Sacred Forest © WeForest. The Khasi people attach a spiritual significance to areas of forest identified as sacred forests.)
According to WWF, over 110 large mammals are found, such as endangered tiger (Panthera tigris) or clouded leopard (Pardofelis nebulosa) (2). Moreover, most of the bird life is only found here or restricted to South Asia.
The Meghalaya is not only a high biological and ecological value forest, it is also inhabited by outstanding indigenous tribes with high social or cultural values, namely the Khasi tribe, who are the most represented, as well as the Jaintia and the Garo tribes. Traditionally property and tribal office is passed down through the female line, mother to youngest daughter, though the management has been in the hands of the men and increased conversion to Christianity impacts these traditions. These tribes have been governing the forest lands held by centuries-old, traditional forest management system. The Meghalaya tribes traditional cultivation ways include shifting agriculture ('slash and burn') (3) in and around forests and terrace cultivation (bun cultivation) in the valleys and foothills, in order to improve soil fertility, to conserve soil moisture and prevent and soil erosion.
Drivers of deforestation
The Khasi Hills forests are today being intensively degraded and cleared to make room for shifting cultivation, timber extraction by rotational felling and developmental activities. Between 2000 and 2006, forest loss has even exceeded 5% per year (4) in East Khasi Hills. Today, one third of the Khasi hills area is found barren and shrubby, also used to grow crops, mostly appearing in brown tones on GoogleMaps.
Old Growth and Secondary Growth Forests
Broad-leaved forests represent the original primary vegetation of the region, but today they are only present in small pockets confined to gullies, steep slopes and 10 sacred forests/groves (set up for religious purposes). Nowadays, pine forests and grasslands dominate the landscape. They are signs of past deforestation or forest degradation. They are called "secondary-growth forests" because they regenerate naturally after significant removal or disturbance of the original forest cover.
Development, Population Increase & Agricultural Practices
Forest conversion and forest degradation is due to a complex matrix of reasons including; ramping demography (especially the Khasi) and tempting economic development including 70s-80s timber trade4. In a context of population's rapid increase, (5) the Meghalaya's traditional agriculture practices are no longer sustainable for mass production needs. At this scale, shifting cultivation undermine natural forest structure and natural regeneration.
The traditional forest management institutions have recently given way to privatization of forestland to village individuals. Today, the Khasi are clearing forests for crops, permanently or for limited period. They are leasing their lands for stone, sand and gravel quarrying and forest logging, as well as grazing. Quarrying causes soil erosion and landslides of denuded hill slopes. It has been facilitated by a lessening culture tribal traditions, as well as weakening traditional authorities and institutions. Meghalaya also has deposits of coal, uranium, granite and crystals. (6) (Image Restoration site under mangement.)
Water shortages, Soil Erosion & Climate Changes
"Traditionally, our ancestors preserved the forest, because the forest gave our people everything. But in recent times, we started to take only from the forest and stopped taking care of it. But now it is time to restore the balance". Stated by Tambor Lyngdoh, Head of the Federation and member of the Lyngdoh clan, as provided by WeForest.
Many people within the Khasi tribes are making the connection between deforestation, increasing water shortages, soil erosion and land degradation, as well as changes in microclimates they are now experiencing.
Water pollution is also a huge risk due to absence of sewage systems and manure. Rivers can be polluted with fecal coliform and organic Nitrate from cattle defecating in the rivers. The Khasi know that forest can play a role at absorbing organic nitrates.
Certain Khasi forest dwellers are even afraid of economic development interests and the potential disconnection from nature and their cultural values.
Communities Working Together
When demographic and economic pressures are threatening their ancestral forest heritage, and especially the forested areas near water bodies which are considered sacred, the Khasi have to gather together and replant trees. In 2011, the Khasi created a watershed-level Federation to control deforestation, mostly around the issue of water quality and availability. Supported by Community Forestry International (CFI) since 2010, the Khasi have designed a framework to slow down and stop the loss of communal forests, which involves forest conservation - and a bit of restoration namely "the Khasi Hills Community REDD Project" under the Plan Vivo Standard. The project is nowadays closed. The Khasi communities have then signed a partnership with WeForest to restore degraded land. Let see what motivates them, and how it works.
Peculiarity of the project
Who are the Khasi Hills tribes?
The Khasi are rural. They are nearly self-sufficient as Nature fulfills their essential needs. They rely on locally-grown fresh fruits and vegetables, plant-based medicinal and freshwater products, procured by their forest garden or home gardens, as well as collected and gathered from the natural forests nearby. Some of their drinking water comes from tap water, some from untreated sources. Some is fetched from wells or directly procured from the springs after a long-distance walk. While many Khasi villages are remote, they are accessible by car even if the road conditions are not always very good.
Khasi Faith & Practices
In the Khasi society, faith and culture are highly connected with Nature. To them, the natural world is indeed a sacred web of life. There are many Khasi traditional dances and rituals that demonstrate their intrinsic ecological connection. For the last 500 years, the Khasi have been protecting sacred forests and ancient stone megaliths, set apart for cultural and religious purposes.
(© WeForest. Sacred monoliths in the forested hills are of cultural significance to the Khasi people.)
A Forest Culture
The majority of them are engaged in occupations related to the utilization of forest. (3) Village forests provide villagers with firewood, edible plants, wood materials for houses construction and repair. (7) In particular, Khasi people's practice age-old intercropping/agroforestry, (8) with trees considered a primary source of cash income. They might be cultivating economically useful trees in a natural forest (4) (e.g. betel leaf cultivation in forest).
Age-Old Forest Management
The Khasi nurture forests and trees in the proximity of their habitations, of water sources and on steep slopes. To them, forests are ancestral bounties to be passed to next generations. As a result, they have been practicing "age-old forest management" and forest conservation occurs the vicinity of their habitations, near water sources (sacred groves), on steep slopes with Bun cultivation. They have been rationalizing tree logging and sharing revenues among all community members, in clan forests, village restricted forests, etc.
Most of the forests in the Khasi Hills are governed by autonomous councils called the 'Dhurbars', responsible of small administrative units known as 'Hima' (kingdoms/village cluster). Dhurbars are essentially the general meeting of the clan/kingdom. In practice, the forests in the Khasi Hills are essentially governed and managed by clans, individuals, groups or traditional institutions, under customary rules3. Durbars are traditionally only formed by males. However, Natural Resource Management Plans are developed for each village cluster by a specialized group called the Lower Working Committee (LWC), initiated by the CFI project earlier introduced, which is formed with 50% women and 50% men. The CFI project has greatly benefited the Federation and LWC with important capacity building and community engagement. In particular, they were trained to measure forest
What are the expected outcomes?
The project seeks to restore 5,000 more hectares of degraded forest lands towards reaching 833 trees per Hectare, which is the tree density of the nearby natural forests, in order to tackle poverty and reduce pressure off the Khasi forests. The project also contributes to protect watersheds, improve water availability and water quality. The project creates forest-based livelihood opportunities, through raising awareness and capacity building events, as well as tree nursery development and other activities such as poultry, piggery, tailoring, to limit grazing.
What is the restoration method?
Under this project, the forest restoration involved is called "assisting natural regeneration". It is essentially the protection of wild regenerating tree saplings of over 40 species of trees but the project also plants 10% of trees per year to increase species diversity. Sites are selected when assisted natural regeneration is possible through a technical feasibility developed by WeForest.
Which trees are they planting?
Among the 40 species of trees involved are: Alnus nepalensis, a pioneer (tree often colonizing clearings), nitrogen fixing tree, which is native to the subtropical highlands of the Himalayas. Project is also planting endangered tree species such as critically endangered Ilex Khasiana which is endemic to India.
Who owns the land?
The restoration work is organized in several scattered plots across the Khasi Hills in the South and North of the city of Shillong (the capital of Meghalaya), on newly degraded areas (in different plots than the 'Khasi Hills Community REDD' former project). These are lands held by the Khasi communities, clans, and families, or even Sacred Forest (set apart for religious purposes), and areas surrounding water catchments.
What's the restoration site like?
Under this project, Khasi communities are restoring degraded mixed broadleaved forests and some forests plots where there are currently mostly pines growing. The starting density at the restoration sites varies between 300 and 600 trees per Hectare (degraded forestlands). Fragments of mixed evergreen cloud forest remain in the project area as sacred groves.
How does it benefit the locals?
The project does not generate revenues from paying (back) the Khasi for ecosystem services, such as in the 'Khasi Hills Community REDD project' mentioned above. The Khasi directly benefit through: restored landscapes, employment and additional livelihoods, increased soil fertility under agroforestry systems, and indirectly in the long run, through replenishing water tables and drinking water. It is interesting to note that WeForest has been working with other partners to strengthen the communities' capacity to monitor the forest-water interactions. Indeed, tackling water scarcity in the dry months and pollution has been stated the top priority by many community members.
~ The Federation is responsible for the project implementation. They facilitate and organize the field work and events, with individuals, Self-Help Groups, Farmers clubs and LWCs.
~ Khasi participating villages are employed to operate tree nurseries and do the forest restoration work. This is done by individuals, Self-Help Groups (9) and farmers' clubs. Villagers are actively involved; they participate to designate forest management sites, the best intervention approach (tree species, silvicultural approach).
~ WeForest is responsible of project coordination and reporting to TreeSisters. They are also engaged in capacity building and research to enhance the silviculture practices and water quality and availability. We Forest also organize trainings on sustainable agriculture, including agroforestry, forestry conservation and protection. LWC's Forest Management Plans are solely financed under the REDD project (it is not part of our project's budget).
The distinctive Khasi society is matrilineal (the youngest daughter inherits) and matrilocal (the husband lives with his spouse's family). Because of that, women are primary business holders and entrepreneurs. As a result, they largely benefit from the trainings and awareness programs and 75% of the Self-Help Groups engaged in livelihood activities (including ecotourism initiatives, animal husbandry, food establishments and tree nurseries) are run by women. While, women are not involved in community decisions because they have been traditionally barred from taking part in decision making, (10) the project makes sure they participate in the Dhurbar's consultation meetings regarding decisions about the forest. And thanks to the project, women hold an increasing stake in forest restoration and management, today forming half of the LWC elaborating the Forest Management Plans. Since Summer 2017, the project also employs female community facilitators as promoters of natural resource management. They also serve as managers in the respective villages to keep the restoration activities running and create a bridge between socio economics and forestry.
The Khasi will continue to long-term manage their forest resources - with trees and forest continuing to drive their culture and livelihoods. This is possible because the project encourages forest-based entrepreneurship. Self-Help Groups, farmers clubs and micro enterprises are trained on how to set up, manage and operate tree nurseries, and small horticulture businesses (including the cultivation of plums, peaches & others, under agroforestry systems). (Training of female Community Facilitators on forestry and socioeconomic © WeForest.)
Project partnership agreement signature on October 1st, 2017.
~ Self-Help Group Award held in January 2018 which celebrated the best performing Self-Help Groups. The Khasi Hills Federation recently recognized the best performance and most creative work of the Self-Help Groups engaged in forest restoration and sustainable livelihood activities, acknowledging the success of 75% women groups!
~ Through the restoration of 22 sites (varying in size from 7 to 232 hectares), TreeSisters directly restored 94,173 trees over 127 ha in May 2018, that is the equivalent of around 177 soccer fields. This will eventually after 20 years lead to 21,596 tons of CO2 stored or an equivalent of annual carbon footprint of 2 200 Europeans.
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