Over the last four decades, the forest cover in the Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka has declined due to the rising number of unplanned infrastructure and agricultural activities. Studies have shown that power projects, construction of dams and encroachment of forest land for horticultural and agricultural practices in the district have affected the ecology and biodiversity of the region.

According to a study by the researchers of the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, and Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, the forest cover in Uttara Kannada had reduced to 48.04% in 2018 from 74.19% in 1973, with evergreen forest cover dropping to 24.85% from 56.07%. The loss of forest cover stated in the study is owing to activities such as the construction of dams along the Kali river after 1975 without appropriate rehabilitation measures.

The increase in single-tree or monoculture plantations such as teak, eucalyptus and acacia by the state forest department as part of social forestry scheme, conversion of the area under forests to agriculture, horticulture or private plantations, setting up of forest-based industries and the nuclear power plant at Kaiga amid the evergreen forests are some other major reasons of deforestation cited in the study.

TV Ramchandra, a professor with the Centre for Ecological Sciences, IISc, and the lead author of the study told Mongabay-India that Uttara Kannada is among the districts with the highest forest cover in the entire country. As per the record, 80% of the area is supposed to be forest land but the shrinking forest cover shows the lack of government regulations and intention to preserve the environment.

Biodiversity hotspot

Located in the central Western Ghats, Uttara Kannada district is among the eight biodiversity hotspots in India and hosts many species of flora and fauna. The natural forests are home to species of more than 4,600 flowering plants, with 38% endemic species; 330 butterflies, 11% endemic; 156 reptiles, 62% endemic; 508 birds, 4% endemic; 120 mammals, 12% endemic; 289 fishes, 41% endemic; and 135 amphibians, 75% endemic.

Ramchandra explained that the field ecological survey suggests that the area consists of 1,068 species of flowering plants. The flora in the contiguous forests of the interior parts of the district includes the most threatened and vulnerable species such as Wisneria triandra and Holigarna beddomei. Wild animals such as tiger, leopard, wild dog and sloth bear, and prey animals like barking deer, spotted deer, wild boar, sambar, gaur were also found in the area.

Several rivers such as the Kali, Gangavali or Bedthi, Aghanashini and Sharavati originate in the area, ensuring water and food security for 24.5 crore people. The regulation of water flow for rivers Kali and Sharavati for hydro-electric power generation has large-scale impacts on the landscape structure and the ecological integrity of the area. The monoculture – both forest plantation and horticulture –plantations and exploitation of timber in the Aghanashini river basin have led to the decline in forest cover to 50.65% in 2018 from 86.08% in 1973, the study noted.

It highlighted that while the moist deciduous forest cover in Aghanashini riverscape has increased to 25.76% from 9.79% within the same period, the evergreen forest cover has declined to 24.09% from 72.15%. Agricultural activity increased to 16.38% from 4.46%, while horticultural practices, such as areca nut gardens, have increased to 10.68% from 3.63% during the same period, especially along the river valleys and stream courses.

The study noted that during the last 40 years, about 64,355 hectares of forest land has been diverted for various non-forestry activities such as paper industries, hydroelectric and nuclear power projects and commercial plantations.

Rapid urbanisation

The spurt in urban growth can be seen around major towns such as Sirsi, Siddapura, Karwar, Hubballi, Ankola, Kumta, Honnavar and Dandeli. In these areas, the encroachment of forest lands and conversion to agriculture, horticulture and private plantations are prevalent throughout the district. This has led to the loss of native vegetation and straying of wild animals into human habitations, leading to higher instances of human-animal conflicts.

Sathodi waterfall in Uttara Kannada. The district is among the eight biodiversity hotspots in India. Credit: Hema Priyadharshini/Wikimedia Commons

There has also been an increase in constructed area to 4.87% from 0.1% in the Gokarna-Kumta area and Sirsi. There has also been a reduction in the interior forest cover to 17.78% from 73.28% in the 1973-2018 period, the study noted.

Construction of a series of dams in the Kali river basin at Supa, Kodasalli and Kadrahas resulted in a loss of forest cover to 54.24% from 87.26%, while the evergreen forests cover dropped to 30.5% from 61.82%. Similar levels of stress by human-related activities were witnessed in the Sharavati river basin, where the forest cover has declined to 47.55% from 61.97%.

Government apathy

The famous Chipko Andolan of Uttarakhand in the Himalayas, where villagers hugged trees to prevent them from being cut, inspired the people of the Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka in Southern India to launch a similar movement, named Chipko-Appiko movement, to save their forests. In September 1983, people of Salkani village “hugged the trees” in Kalase forest to prevent them from being cut by state authorities.

Pandurang Hegde, an environmental activist who has been a part of the Chipko-Appiko movement, told Mongabay-India that a forest area has to have a canopy cover greater than 40% but in Uttara Kannada it has been reduced to below 10%.

“The methodology of the study is different as they have used the satellite images, which capture plantation like open forests, shrubs and non-forests as well but a person like me who is living here for the last 40 years and [has been] analysing the forests, the forest area left here is not more than 10 percent,” Hegde explained. He added that since the plantation does not serve the purpose of the forest, it’s not right to count it as a forest area.

Karnataka politicians have a reputation for ruining world heritage sites and these politicians are not willing to save the environment at all, Hegde added.

Impact is apparent

IISc’s Ramchandra emphasised that the impact of unplanned activities is evident by the existence of barren hilltops, conversion of perennial streams to seasonal streams, flash floods during monsoon and droughts during summer, pollution of ecosystems, changes in water quality, soil erosion and sedimentation, extinction of endemic flora and fauna, and loss of habitats, breeding grounds.

This has also led to an imbalance in the ecosystem, loss of habitat and alteration of water quality for the 61 fish species from Kali estuary, 55 species of fish from Gangavali, 86 species from Aghanashini, 43 species from Sharavati, he added.

Ramchandra further added that the government has to do an Environmental Impact Assessment when they are doing a large-scale project like dam construction or railway lines, but in a country like ours, the EIA is only done for the dam area. He said the government does not look at how the dam will affect the downstream people.

“Aghanashini is a free-flowing river whereas the Kali and Sharavati have a dam and in both of the rivers the fish yield has come down, species diversity has come down, affecting the lives of people. When the free-flowing of the rivers is not allowed, it won’t go to the ocean and there is a particular amount of water that must go to the ocean otherwise the ocean water will come inland and increase the salinity of the soil, further impacting agriculture,” Ramchandra noted.

However, RV Deshpande, a member of the Karnataka Legislative Assembly from Haliyal, a town in Uttara Kannada, rejected the study and assertions of environmentalists. Deshpande, who belongs to Indian National Congress party, said the government has been working towards the environment and that in the last two years, the green cover has actually increased.

Construction of dams along Kali river without appropriate rehabilitation measures has led to loss in forest cover. Credit: Amoghavarsha/Wikimedia Commons.

When asked about the opposition by environmentalists, Deshpande said, “It is their personal opinion and these environmentalists are our friends and we listen to them but we are giving proper attention to the environment that the forest cover has increased.”

Infrastructure projects

In the recent times, there are three major projects that have been passed in the area: the Hubballi-Ankola Railway line, which will affect 596 hectares of pristine forest; the Kaiga Atomic Power Plant expansion, which would lead to cutting of trees in 54 hectares of forest area; and the Sharavati pumped-storage hydroelectric plant, which requires clearing of 150 hectares of forest in the Sharavati Lion Tailed Macaque Sanctuary, home to the endangered lion-tailed macaque which is endemic to the area.

AN Yellapa Reddy, the governing council member of the Foundation for Ecological Security of India and former conservator of forest in Uttara Kannada, stated the government does not want to save the environment. He said the legislators just want to fill their pockets by these projects. He said the destruction started in the early 1980s when the government constructed various dams in the area.

Reddy said that he protested against many projects but the government didn’t listen to him, forcing him to resign. “The projects, which are approved now, if implemented, will end biodiversity in Uttara Kannada and the Western Ghats completely. Once these projects are implemented, there will be no human existence remaining in the area as the floods and droughts, various diseases like Covid-19, Nipah virus, Zika virus will destroy everything,” Reddy warned.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.