Greening the Himalayas: Is there a 'wrong' place to plant trees?
Women tend to newly planted trees in the cold desert of Ladakh, in India, July 21, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation / Athar Parvaiz
What’s the context?
Villagers are creating forests in the cold desert to grow livestock fodder and curb climate change, but experts say 'mindless' tree planting damages delicate ecosystems.
- Infrastructure development is a key driver of Indian forest loss
- Villagers in Chushul have planted 150,000 trees in the desert
- Experts say adding forest can hurt naturally treeless ecosystems
CHUSHUL VILLAGE, India - As he watches his neighbours watering the tens of thousands of tree saplings they planted in their Himalayan village a few months ago, Gyan Thinlay is excited about turning this patch of bare desert into a lush habitat for insects and birds.
Chushul village sits more than 14,000 feet (4,267 metres) above sea level in the Ladakh region, a cold desert between India and China where less than 4 inches (10 cm) of annual rainfall and extreme seasonal temperature swings make it difficult for much to grow.
But that didn't discourage the villagers from planting 150,000 trees - mainly willow, sea buckthorn and tamarisk - in June, in a project they hope will combat air pollution, boost biodiversity and provide a new income source for locals who traditionally rely on livestock.
"All we see around us are barren mountains. We now look forward to seeing greenery, too," said Thinlay, a Buddhist monk who oversees the effort as the Chushul deputy chairman for Go Green Go Organic, the nonprofit organisation behind the project.
"The trees will also provide farmers fodder for their livestock," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Companies, governments and green groups are promoting and adopting tree-planting in a bid to combat rising temperatures and lessen the impacts of climate change, as forests pull climate-heating carbon from the air, capture and store water in the soil, and provide shade for crops and livestock.
But some ecologists warn that the "mindless" creation of forests in areas where they would not naturally grow can damage fragile and unique ecosystems.
"Planting trees in deserts can be as harmful as cutting trees in forests," said Abi Tamim Vanak, interim director of the Centre for Policy Design at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) in Bengaluru.
Native plants and wild animals, such as Ladakh's famed snow leopards and blue sheep, are not adapted to forested ecosystems, Vanak noted.
"Creating plantations, especially in areas where people don't reside, can harm native habitats and make them unusable for wildlife," he said.
Trees 'stealing' water
In India, a massive development push is intensifying deforestation, a major driver of climate change.
Mining, as well as construction of roads, hydroelectric projects and other infrastructure, ate up a total of 554.3 square km (214 square miles) of forest in the country in the last three years, according to government data.
In the cold desert of Ladakh and other parts of South Asia, climate shifts are throwing off farming schedules and amplifying flooding risks.
"Glaciers are melting fast while rain and snow patterns have undergone changes, with extreme weather events such as cloudbursts occurring more frequently," said Mukhtar Ahmad, a scientist with India's Meteorological Department, adding that it is hard to know how much of that can be attributed to climate change.
Tree-planting projects are fairly new to the communities of Ladakh's cold desert.
It was only six years ago that Tibetan Buddhist leader Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpoche started encouraging people to create plantations and store water from melting glaciers to help curb the carbon emissions caused by increasing tourism in the area, grow more food and make money by supplying wood to the construction industry, said Chushul councillor Konchok Stanzin.
Villages in other parts of his constituency have also been establishing forests in the desert over the past two or three years, he added.
The trees are still young - but once they mature "the villagers are hopeful they are going to be an important source of fodder for sheep, goats and other livestock, besides providing greenery", Stanzin said.
But Vanak at ATREE stressed that growing trees requires a lot of water, so planting them in environments that are unnatural to them can make areas already struggling with low water supplies even drier.
"In effect, trees in the wrong places can 'steal' water from desert-adapted shrubs and herbs, and out-compete them," he said.
A report by a group of European scientists published in May in the journal Nature concluded that while large-scale tree cover expansion can increase water availability by up to 6% in some regions, it can cause water supplies in others to drop by nearly 40%.
As well as potentially taking water from livestock and wildlife - and, as a result, shrinking their food supply - planting trees in desert ecosystems can even exacerbate climate change, said Forrest Fleischman, associate professor in the Department of Forest Resources at the University of Minnesota.
When trees that have been planted in places like the African savanna are killed by fires or large animals, like elephants, they release more carbon into the atmosphere than if it had stayed underground, he explained.
Instead, "avoiding deforestation, improving forest management and protecting grasslands, peatlands and shrublands from land-use conversion should be the priority," Fleischman said by email.
Stanzin said irrigating the plantation in Chushul had no negative effect on the area's water supply.
From June to October, the villagers use water from melting glaciers and the rest of the year they draw groundwater using solar-powered pumps, he said.
"We rather believe (the project) will increase the water table, as the water is used around this land only and gets absorbed here," he added.
Damaging the desert
Jigmet Takpa, joint secretary in India's environment ministry, said concerns about desert greening were overblown.
"If you plant trees in one or two square kilometres out of 57,000 square kilometres, how can it damage the desert?" he asked.
In Chushul, the warnings didn't worry Stanzin Dolker as she tended to the newly planted trees along with a group of other villagers.
More important to her is the hope that the forest they have created will bring plants and wild animals to land that has been barren all her life.
"We will make sure that each of these saplings grows into a tree. This is our resolve," Dolker said.