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Farmers 'rapidly removing' trees viewed as hindrance to raise rice production

By Vikas Parsaram Meshram* 

A new study has found that millions of large trees have disappeared from Indian farmlands over the past decade, raising concerns about the impact on the environment and agricultural practices. Researchers have noted that more than half of the large trees in farmlands have been destroyed in many areas between 2010 and 2018.
The paper, "Rapid Decline of Large Trees in Indian Farmlands Over the Last Decade," published in the journal "Nature Sustainability", has analyzed satellite images from 2010 to 2022. The study identifies regions in central India, particularly Maharashtra and Telangana, as hotspots for disappearing trees. 
Approximately 2.5 million trees were lost in these areas between 2011 and 2018.
Between 2018 and 2022 alone, more than 5.6 million large trees with a crown size of around 67 square meters vanished from farmlands. 
This is alarming because agroforestry plays a significant role in providing socio-ecological benefits. Trees like mahua, coconut, sangri, neem, acacia, shisham, jamun, vegetables, hummingbird, karoi, and jackfruit offer fruits, fuelwood, sap, medicine, leaves, fiber, fodder, and timber for both human and animal use.
Researchers highlight an example mmmmm trees can grow tall, have a canopy diameter of up to 20 meters, and live for hundreds of years. The recent changes in farming practices, which view these trees as obstacles to crop production, are concerning for both the environment and farmers. 
Trees such as banyan, beem, shisham, arjuna, moh and peepal are disappearing from farms, despite their importance to both the environment and agriculture.
Unfortunately, they are not receiving adequate attention for their care and maintenance. Alongside the trees, related cultural traditions are also fading.
The findings published in "Nature Sustainability" say, nearly 5.3 million trees, including neem, jamun, peepal, banyan, and shisham, have disappeared from Indian farms in the past five years. Farmers are rapidly removing these trees, viewing them as hindrances to increased rice production. 
Remarkably, researchers map and model 600 million trees in Indian farmlands. The study notes that the difference between forests and farmlands in India is not very distinct, but a significant portion of these trees has been lost from these lands and scattered into urban areas over the past five years. 
Researchers record an average of 0.6 trees per hectare in the country, with the highest density in northwestern Rajasthan and southern Madhya Pradesh, where tree presence was recorded up to 22%. 
During the study, these trees were closely observed. These large trees are especially prevalent in central India, particularly in Maharashtra. About 11% of the large shade-giving trees mapped in 2010-11 had disappeared by 2018.
Additionally, during this period, several hotspots were noted where half (50%) of the trees in farms had vanished. It is concerning that 56% of the country's land is suitable for agriculture, yet only 20% is forested.
To maintain and expand agricultural greenery, planting shade trees like mahua and other shade-providing trees is essential as they play a significant role in balancing climate change and heat. 
Agroforestry has substantial potential to maintain and expand the green cover of agricultural areas. However, this potential is being systematically reduced by cutting down shade trees, which are crucial not only for providing relief from heat but also for maintaining biodiversity and stabilizing the climate. 
The consequences of deforestation are already evident. Urban areas are deprived of their natural shade and are suffering in intense heat. It would be foolish to destroy shade trees that play a crucial role in maintaining environmental balance, ensuring the sustainability of agriculture, and protecting public health. 
About 11% of the large shade-giving trees -- crucial to fight climate change -- mapped in 2010-11 had disappeared by 2018
These trees provide habitat for many species of birds, insects, and other wildlife. Their roots help prevent soil erosion, maintain soil fertility, and conserve water. By cutting down these trees, we are not only disrupting the immediate environment but also endangering the long-term sustainability of the land. 
Additionally, with the increased melting of ice, there is a fear that cities along the coast could be submerged. Humans are falling prey to diseases caused by inhaling high amounts of carbon dioxide produced by pollution. Despite this, adequate attention is not being paid to their care. 
Along with the trees, related cultural traditions are also disappearing. Now, traditional worship and rituals associated with these trees are no longer practiced, and swings during the Sawan season are not seen anymore. 
The indiscriminate cutting of shade trees reflects short-term thinking in agricultural practices, providing immediate benefits in terms of increased crop production but leading to long-term severe environmental consequences such as soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, and increased climate change challenges that future generations will have to face. 
To address this crisis, people should be encouraged to adopt agroforestry practices that integrate these trees into their farming systems. Government policies should promote the conservation and planting of shade trees by providing financial and technical support to farmers willing to adopt sustainable practices. 
Urban planning should prioritize green spaces with shade to ensure cities remain livable despite rising temperatures. The disappearance of shade trees from Indian farms is a serious issue that needs immediate attention. 
Trees are an integral part of human life, providing not only clean air but also healthy fruits, flowers, timber, bark, leaves, and effective medicines. According to the researchers, the last census showed that over 86% of Indian farmers are smallholders, owning less than two hectares of land, with 67% of them owning less than one hectare. In such situations, trees play a crucial role in their livelihoods. The study's findings highlight the disappearance of trees from large farmlands between 2010 and 2022.



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