Deforestation and Changing Landscapes in the Darjeeling Himalayas

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By Evan Rosenlieb

The winding roads and cutbacks built on steep slopes en route to the Darjeeling foothills reminded me in some ways of canyon highways in Colorado that I have driven countless times. The environment that I found outside of my window, on the other hand, could hardly have been less similar. With my eyes used to the open pine forests of home, the vegetation-packed landscape of Northeastern India seemed close to a jungle. The hills were lined with all shapes and sizes of flora; conifers that would seem at home in the alpine Rockies, palm-like trees that seemed to belong to a more tropical setting, a thick groundcover of ferns reminiscent of Maine or the Pacific Northwest.

During our first day in Kalimpong, Save The Hills briefed our group on the human causes of landslides in the region. One of the hot topics was that of deforestation. According to Save the Hills, wide-scale deforestation in the area has coincided with rapid urban growth in the last three decades or so. In fact, the magnitude of deforestation was considered to be so high that when asked about whether wildfires were an issue in the region, the President of Save The Hills half-jokingly responded, “How could there be a wildfire if there are no trees to burn down anymore!?”

Deforestation is known to be a large driver of landslides around the world for many reasons: tree roots help hold the soil together and regulate the soil moisture, the canopy cover lessens the direct force of raindrops hitting the soil, thus reducing erosion. But deforestation conjures images in my mind of completely denuded hillsides, such as seen in rainforests in the East and West Indies, and I couldn’t help but feel a mismatch between the deforestation problem as described by Save the Hills and the luscious vegetation I saw on my drive the previous day and outside my hotel window.

Travelling across the district in the following two weeks revealed that the issue is not so black and white. In visiting large urban centers and small rural villages, we did find areas of hillsides that had been completely cleared of trees for agriculture, but we also found that the term deforestation was often used to refer to changes in the density and form of the forest, not just a complete disappearance. So much of the variety of the forest that wowed me turned out to be due to invasive species: the conifers were brought in by the British a century ago to provide quick lumber; many palm-like trees were bananas planted by the local villagers for food.

Despite not fitting my image of deforestation, these changes in the landscape nonetheless can drive landslide risk. Non-native species may have different root structures, which are not as well suited to the mountainous landscape of the Darjeeling Himalayas. This can lead to increased erosion and make the non-native species possible liabilities during landslides as they add weight and debris to the hillside without the same level of stabilization. In turn, planning of the area is a challenge with managing a complex problem that is the result of changing social and environmental patterns. Simply “reducing the local wood used for construction” won’t in and of itself solve the problem of deforestation. As outsiders in our short visit to the area, it is clear that this is an issue that deserves more attention as both Darjeeling municipalities and villages search for a solution to their common problem.

(The banner image above depicts forest changes in Darjeeling. Notice areas of dense forest, agriculture, thinned forest, and peri-urban development.)

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