The flowering of bamboo forests in northeast India could set off a trail of famine and ecological havoc. AARTI DHAR looks at the issue.
The beginning of the end -- a bamboo grove.
WHEN the bamboo flowers, death and destruction follow, goes a traditional saying in Mizoram, the tiny hill state in northeast India. Way back in 1959, bamboo flowering in the State set off a chain of events that ultimately led to one of the most powerful "movements" against the Government spanning over two decades.
Folklore apart, scientists say that the strange phenomenon of bamboo flowering, called "gregarious bamboo flowering", causes ecological havoc. The bamboo plants die after flowering and it takes a few years before bamboo plants produce seeds again, leaving bare exposed soil which could be disastrous in mountainous states and also leading to food scarcity, since animals depend on bamboo plants. The second factor is that rats feed on the flowers and seeds of the dying bamboo tree. This activates a rapid birth rate among the rodents, which leads to the huge rat population feeding on agricultural crops in the fields and granaries leading to famine.
This was what happened in Mizoram in the late 1950s, when the authorities "failed" to respond with quick famine relief. The disillusionment and anger finally resulted in the Mizo National Famine Front, an organisation created to help people get over the crisis then, changing into the Mizo National Front, an ethnic political party which involved the Mizos in 20 years of conflict with India, ending with a peace accord in 1987.
Now, the bamboo is flowering again. And this time, it's not going to be just in Mizoram, but in the huge forested areas across the other northeastern states of Tripura, Manipur and Southern Assam as well, an occurrence that has attracted national and international attention. In Mizo, the phenomenon is known as Mautam literally meaning "bamboo dying" (mau meaning bamboo and tam meaning to die).
Mitigating the impact
The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests is working with experts including some from the International Bamboo and Rattan Network (INBAR) and the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) on how to handle this natural growth cycle of the bamboo, which has such an extraordinary socio-economic and long-term ecological impact. The pulp and paper industry, construction, cottage industry and handloom, food, fuel, fodder and medicine consume about 22 million tons of bamboo annually.
Often called poor man's timber, bamboo is one of the most important forestry species having wide distribution throughout the country and contributes in a major way to the rural economy. Of the 1,250 species (75 genera) distributed throughout the world, bamboo in India is represented by 125 species belonging to 23 genera under the sub-family Bambusoideae of family Poaceae. Bamboo forests in India occupy approximately 10.03 million hectares (mha), which constitutes almost 12.8 per cent of the total forest area. About 28 per cent of the total bamboo area is in northeast India.
Although a wide range of research is going on, the flowering of bamboo is still unexplained and mysterious. There are several theories on the causes of flowering and death of bamboos. Physiologically, the bamboos differ significantly from other vegetation because of the mechanism of flowering. Generally, most bamboo species flower gregariously at fixed intervals and all clumps including those of current year die after flowering. Most bamboos fall between the two physiological states of constant flowering (Bambusa atra) and constant sterility (Bambusa vulgaris). Some die two years after flowering (B. arundinacea) while others do not die but their growth slows during the flowering period as in Phyllostachys and Arundinaria species.
The flowering is like an alarm clock set to go off at a particular time when all populations of a given species raised from the same seed source, no matter where they are situated, start flowering at the same time. For example, seeds of Thyrsostachys oliveri that flowered in Burma in 1891 were sown at Calcutta and Dehra Dun 1,500 km apart. The clumps flowered simultaneously at Calcutta and Dehra Dun in 1940 and again in 1987-88 indicating a flowering cycle of 48 years.
What history records
Although no detailed scientific study is available, there are reports that document the historical occurrence of bamboo flowering and famine in northeast India, particularly Mizoram. The recorded bamboo flowering in Mizoram suggests that the two earlier events of gregarious flowering occurred in 1911-1912 and 1959-1960 respectively. The last gregarious flowering of muli bamboo in Mizoram, Tripura, Manipur and Barak Valley of Assam was reported in 1958-59 and was followed by famine in those areas.
The documented history of bamboo flowering in Mizoram dates back to 1881. An extract from the Military Report on the "Chin-Lushai Country" by Col. E.B. Elly, assistant Quarter Master General says, "1881 ... .. shortly after this the pressure of famine began to be felt, and three principal chiefs, Poiboi, Khalkom, and Lalhai, met and agreed to a cessation of hostilities, and at once sent men into the Cachar district to obtain supplies of food. The famine arose from the depredations of rats, who multiplied exceedingly the previous year owing to the ample food they obtained from the seeding of the bamboo."
An extract from "The Lushai Hills" (culled from History of the Frontier Bordering on Assam from 1883-1941) by Sir Rober Reid, Governor of Assam, 1937-1942, "... .the partial failure of crops in 1910-11 as an indirect result of the flowering of the bamboos was followed by serious scarcity all over the district. The effect of this flowering was to cause a tremendous increase in number of the rats who destroyed all crops."
The Rain Forest Research Institute (RFRI), Jorhat one of the institutes under the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE), Dehra Dun has estimated that gregarious flowering of Melocanna baccifera will occur in about 18,000 sq. km. in Mizoram, Tripura, Manipur and parts of Assam, Nagaland and Meghalaya. In 1959, there was gregarious flowering of this species followed by severe famine in 1960 in Mizoram. Again when there was large-scale flowering of B. tulda in Mizoram in the latter half of the 1970s, there was a phenomenal increase in the rat population. About 2.5 million rats were reportedly killed in just 1978. It could be an indicator to the magnitude of the problem that is likely to arise during 2004-07. RFRI has estimated that out of a total 26 Million Tonnes (MT) of bamboo available, about 10 MT occur in accessible areas and can be harvested before flowering between 2004 and 2006.
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