As part of our special series on young conservationists, we feature Meghna Agarwala, an ecologist who works on forest degradation and regeneration. As she tells us, due to human use and climate change, the forests that we have today may not provide the same services for wildlife habitat, hydrology, carbon sequestration and human livelihoods in the future.
Agarwala’s work focuses on sustainability of current forest use patterns and tests the impact of different policy initiatives, with the focus on whether forests are going to be able to perform the same services to the ecosystem, as they always have done. She talks about the Uttarakhand fires, why Indians should understand what actually happens when you cut down a forest… and why we should all know what wood goes into our furniture.
Read more on our Eco Warriors here
Meghna Agarwala, 32
1. Tell us a little bit about projects you are working on at the moment
At the moment, I am working on two projects. One looks at what happens when we get people to stop depending on forests. If people stop using the forests, does the forest come back to what it was originally? Does it come back at all? Does it come back in a different way? Why/why not?
The second project I am working on is related with monitoring forest degradation. We were able to use satellite imagery to track changes in forest biomass, and we are trying to implement it with the Forest Department to see how it impacts behaviour.
Another offshoot that came out of our field work this summer was understanding the forest fires in Uttarakhand. We were there at the time of the fires and could collect data to figure out why the fires were so extreme this year. Was it the climate (El Niño year) or were other forces at play? And what impact did the fires have on the forest?
Being in Uttarakhand at the time of the fires was an interesting experience. It impacted movement in the forest by people and animals, and the Forest Department had their hands full managing the fire. Every one was confused about why it was happening. People spouted all sorts of conspiracy theories and used the fires to support the argument that it was not worth it to live in Uttarakhand with its repeated floods and fires. Many people said they would move to the cities if they had the financial resources to do so. It was sad to hear that people were contemplating leaving their homeland because of natural disasters.
3. What can you tell us about your journey — from growing up to being an ecologist?
I think I always wanted to work with the environment. I had originally started out working more specifically in wildlife conservation, but once I did my Ph.D., I became more interested in ecology.
3. What’s a day in the life of… these days?
Our days are divided into two types: field days and non-field days. In the field, we get up early in the morning and go to the forest, and we usually return by 4-5 pm. We eat lunch in the field with the field assistants and any Forest guards or watchers who accompany us. Once we’re back, we drink tea or lassi, and rest with people in the camp/ research station till the next day. If we have analysis or writing, we do that as well (if we have electricity and internet).
Our non-field days are the same as anyone else — reading, writing, analysis, meetings.
4. What are you most passionate about when it comes to forest degradation and preservation
Well, I mean, forests are the basis of all conservation, right? If the forests aren’t there or they no longer work the same way, what’s the point?
Actually, I used to work on wolves earlier, and people who interacted with them usually had only negative things to say about carnivores (their depredation, their nuisance value, and negative stereotypes about the animal). I like that everyone has nice things to say about trees.
5. What are some of the things you wished Indians knew about ecology/conservation? ( Top 3 things/)
Top three things, hmm.
That a forest is not just the trees and the wildlife, but the network of relationships that have developed over a long time. If you cut down a forest, you can’t just grow it anywhere else. And once a forest is removed, it is very difficult to get anything similar back.
That if you fragment the forests, say you build a 4-lane highway, that’s great, but many of our wildlife species will never be able to cross into neighbouring forest now. They will just turn back and get caged into a very small area. This will increase their stress, reduce their numbers and increase conflict.
That you should really check where the wood in your furniture comes from.
6. And what’s your most inspiring moment/s been like so far?
For me, my most inspiring moments are in the forest. You may be 10 kilometres inside the forest and think that no one has walked this far before, but you’ll still find a trail there. And old signs of human presence. Many have been there before you. The signs may be a season old or a century old- you have no way of knowing.