India’s growing energy requirements have made Kinnaur a major hub of hydro projects in Himachal Pradesh, particularly over the past two to three decades. As a result, there has been a large-scale diversion of forest land and cutting of trees, including chilgoza pine trees, for the construction of dams.

Chilgoza pine (Pinus gerardiana), called the champion of high mountains, has grown and survived for centuries on high slopes, inaccessible and difficult terrains. The International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2011 categorised chilgoza tree as near threatened as they continue to decline throughout their range, with an estimated decline of close to 30%.

In India, these trees are mainly concentrated in the Kinnaur district and are important cash crops here.

High slopes of Kinnaur mountains that once had tall chilgoza trees look fragile these days. Photo credit: Tashi Chewang Lippa

Jangram valley of Kinnaur district has the highest concentration of chilgoza trees in the country. In 2018, the state government gave the approval to set up the 804-megawatt Jangi-Thopan Powari Hydro Electric Project, which has become a major point of discontentment among the locals with campaigns protesting against hydel projects in their area.

Recently, all the six gram panchayats affected by this project summoned gram sabhas and passed a resolution to reject permission for the project, which, as per the initial project report will take over 350 acres of forest land.

Jiya Lal, convenor of Kinnaur-based conservation group, Himlok Jagriti Manch, told Mongabay-India that if this project is allowed to set up, it would not only destroy area’s biodiversity, including more cutting of already endangered chilgoza trees, the very existence of the locals would come at stake.

Lal said that the climatic conditions of the region have changed over the years with an increase in temperatures which are impacting the chilgoza. He said trees like chilgoza only grew in Kinnaur because climate conditions remained suitable for these species for a long time. But now, with changes in climate such as sudden rainfall, snowfall and even forest fires in summers, it will have long-term impacts on the growth of chilgoza. “These trees will literally suffocate to death if there is a further rise in temperature,” he added.

More than 3,000 megawatt capacity of projects are already commissioned in Kinnaur on Sutlej river and are a growing threat to chilgoza, indicate reports and researchers studying the area.

A 2019 study by environmentalists Manshi Asher and Prakash Bhandari, on the impact of hydro projects in Kinnaur’s ecology, revealed that more than 11,000 trees of 21 species were cut (till 2014) to pave way for nearly a dozen power projects. Of this, nearly one-fourth (2,743) of the trees cut were chilgoza.

Growing chilgoza is done through a seedling and planting technique as explained in a 2018 booklet on chilgoza tree by Himalayan Institute of Forest Research, but this is a complex phenomena, which makes the tree’s revival and growth very difficult.

As per the study, there is a provision of compensatory afforestation to mitigate the biodiversity loss because of these projects. But not more than 10% of saplings survived after plantation, which suggests that attempts towards artificial regeneration of this otherwise naturally grown species have been unsuccessful.

Reginald Royston, District Forest Officer, Kinnaur, told Mongabay-India that there is no readily available data on the number of chilgoza trees lost due to development activites or otherwise. In contrast to what Asher and Bhandari’s research indicates, Royston said that most of the chilgoza plantations have very good (70 % and above) survival. When asked about the independent study claiming the survival rate of the tree is worrisome, he said he has not read that study.

Asher told Mongabay-India that what is discussed in her study is the formal loss to chilgoza and other species trees as a result of hydro projects. But there is informal loss to these trees that is not even in discussion. She said that the increased regularity of landslides in Kinnaur, besides claiming several human lives has also resulted in further uprooting of rare chilgoza trees in high slopes that have not even properly mapped by government agencies. Chilgoza is not only ecologically important to the area but, being a cash crop, also contributes to the socio-economic conditions of the local communities.

Effect of overharvesting

A section of forest conservation experts have also blamed the overharvesting practices of tribal communities for affecting natural regeneration of the chilgoza tree.

The cone-bearing chilgoza produces highly nutritious nuts called neoza, which are extracted by locals every year in September and then sold at high value in the domestic market. The current annual trade of neoza from Kinnaur is estimated at more than Rs 15 crore.

A 2020 research paper by SS Samant the director of the central government-run Himalayan Forest Research Institute highlighted that destructive harvesting practices of collection of chilgoza nuts coupled with the incidence of extraction of timber and resinous torchwood has not only caused serious damage to trees but also affected its natural regeneration and future crop production.

The population assessment, ecological niche modeling, awareness programmes and sustainable harvesting of cones are suggested for its conservation, said the study.

Talking to Mongabay-India, Samant said that at least 30% of cones must be left on the tree while harvesting so that it keeps sustaining itself every year.

The pine cones of chilgoza trees harvested for the nuts, by residents of Kinnaur. Overharvesting of the cones is also a threat to the trees, apart from felling for power projects and increasing temperatures. Photo credit: Sumit Mahar/ Himdhara Collective

But these days, locals have evolved a system of hiring contractors to extract the nuts, who then leave no cones left on the tree, thereby halting their natural growth, he added.

Royston said there is a threat factor associated with chilgoza but it can be minimised by plantations and ensuring scientific harvesting of cones. Local people exercise their rights over chilgoza and in the process trees do get damaged.

But since their livelihood is also dependent on chilgoza it is a lose situation for both us if trees are damaged. Keeping this in mind people have begun to exercise restraint in damaging trees, he added.

Locals fear extinction

Narendra Negi is 70-years old farmer from Rarang village in Kinnaur’s Jangram valley.

He told Mongabay-India that when he was young, the income from chilgoza trees not only took care of their ration and education but other domestic expenditures as well.

He added in recent years, apple and vegetable farming has started in Kinnaur but there are families who are still heavily dependent on the income of chilgoza nuts for survival.

According to him, the local people are aware about bad impact of over-harvesting on the tree but there are reasons that they continue with it. The people, he said, are forced to lease out the harvesting to private players under a contract system because the harvesting of apples and chilgoza takes place during the same time. Their focus is then more on apple harvesting.

He added this forces them to leave the chilgoza harvesting to contractors who try to pluck each and every cone from the tree for extracting maximum neoza nuts, leaving little space for its regeneration. They also cut branches in haphazard manner.

Negi said this problem can still be regulated both at community as well as state government level. For instance, in their village, the panchayat has made a rule that harvesting will be carefully done and at least one cone is to be left in every branch so that the tree sustains itself. This system can be followed in other villages as well.

“But what is more problematic is the cutting of chilgoza trees that will only lead to extinction,” he added. “This tree has a life of nearly 200 years but it takes years to grow and bear fruit. Once this tree is cut, chances of its revival are very less as seen in the past.”

Tashi Chewang of Lippa village in Kinnaur said that the cutting of trees must be stopped if this tree has to be saved. Otherwise, it will soon be part of history.

Cones over chilgoza trees ready for harvest in Kinnaur. Photo credit: Sumit Mahar, Himdhara Collective

He said that there is no tributary left where a hydel project is not planned. Major loss, he said, happens when either dams are constructed or later transmission lines are laid.

Meanwhile, the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 can also address the problem of over-exploitation of chilgoza trees, it is learnt.

The forest department of Himachal never stopped local communities from harvesting the chilgoza tree. In every village, there are two-three groups of 50-60 people each that have equally divided the chilgoza trees falling within the forest area of their village for harvesting.

Environmentalist Manshi Asher said that one of the arguments given by state for not implementing the Forest Rights Act is that they have already given forest rights to tribes.

“But Forest Rights Act is not just about forest rights, it is about involving communities in forest conservation too. If the state officially gives forest rights to local inhabitants under the Forest Rights Act here in Kinnaur, this will help conserve the trees in a better way and the practice of overharvesting may also be dealt with effectively,” she added.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.