Unspeakable destruction of the Sigur Region

Near Mavinhalla: this is supposed to be a Reserved Forest. Where is the forest?

For years, we have seen enormous destruction of forests in the Sigur Range, a prime elephant and tiger habitat – by name. But the forest is gone. Not just the forest, the soil as well. Elephants are starving and we learned that hundreds of cows have died of starvation. The ultimate cause of this catastrophe is a poverty alleviation program that encouraged the distribution of goats and sheep to poor people.

Let us say at this juncture that we are not against poverty alleviation programs. On the contrary, we encourage policies that help people out of difficulties. But two questions must be asked about any poverty alleviation program: (i) is it effective and (ii) are there hidden consequences?

About the effectiveness of this poverty alleviation program, it is difficult for us to speak, not being social-scientists. The only knowledge we possess is rather general. Firstly, it is unanimously acknowledged that poverty is reduced primarily through quality education. Secondly, very small enterprises are usually sustained by “nurseries” where people are taught how to become self-sufficient and can manage their small “business” properly. There is no indication that the present program has had any such precaution introduced.

The “hidden” cost of this program in our region is plain obvious. In a few years the forest has vanished. The Forest Survey of India cannot fail to detect the deforestation with remote sensing technology. How such rapid degradation is possible?

Goats and sheep eat leaves. These small animals can easily detoxify tree fodder. As we have wild herbivores and a large number of cows, there is very little to eat on the ground. In these circumstances, the goat herder must provide tree fodder. Consequently, the entire day, the herders will cut branches, take fire wood and eventually, lay traps for wildlife. After a few years of such treatment, a forest that produces little wood and fodder will start to collapse. Trees become rarer and do not reproduce. Since there is no dead wood, the soil become less fertile. It losses its capacity to retain water. Some areas have already become semi-desert. What will be the consequences?

In the Sigur Nature Trust, the remaining trees are now exploited: will elephant catch leaves?

Since we are talking about prime protected forests, wildlife is starving. Elephants for example, do not have grass any more, nor tree fodder, because the tree branches on which they could rely upon have vanished. The recent wave of mortality in cows was due to the drought and now, to starvation. Cows do not eat tree fodder and are at complete disadvantage against goats who also eat grass. Cows end up eating plastic bags dropped by tourists and die by the dozen. One of the undetected cost is therefore the collapse of the cow dung and milk production. By helping some people, the project has made other people poorer…

Again in the Sigur Nature Trust (this is why the vegetation is still abundant with dead material on the ground). We cannot protect any more. Imagine the Sigur Reserve Forest.

If this trend continues, the forest will entirely disappear together with the soil. Only a few invasive species will resist. Then, goat herders will themselves suffer from the ecological conditions because herd size will have to be reduced. The poverty alleviation program will turn out to be an unsustainable failure. The ecological cost of this program can probably be counted in millions of dollars and one wonders whether it would not be better to simply distribute this money directly to people instead of causing so much environmental damage and imagining an economic transition happening. What could be done?

It is important to remember that the law itself says that there should not be goat herding in the vicinity of tiger reserves or in elephant corridors. Goat herders should be helped to find alternatives to their present destructive occupation. There are plenty of solutions available. The reserve forests could be used to produce medicinal plants in an extensive manner – among others. By contributing to ecosystem restoration (there were plenty of native medicinal plants in this region), we could rapidly be in the position of generating income sustainably. This kind of possibility, should be taken seriously before irreparable damages are committed. But the question is: does anyone care about protected areas? And finally, because this is the real question: does anyone care about the effectiveness of poverty alleviation programs?

Jean-Philippe Puyravaud