When the bamboo flowers, famine, death and destruction will soon follow, goes a traditional saying in Mizoram, the tiny hill state in north-east India. Who better than the hardy Mizos would know this, considering that theirs is probably the only land on earth where history is closely intertwined with the mysterious cycle of bamboo flowering. Back in 1959, bamboo flowering in the state set off a chain of events in the rugged hilly state that ultimately led to one of the most powerful insurgencies against the Indian union spanning over two decades.
Folklore apart, scientists say that the strange phenomena of bamboo flowering, called ‘gregarious bamboo flowering’ because the bamboo clumps flower all at the same time only once in the plants’ lifetime, wreaks ecological havoc because of two reasons. First, bamboo plants die after flowering. It will be at least some years before bamboo plants take seed again, leaving bare exposed soil – which could be disastrous in mountainous states – and also leading to food scarcity, since animals depend on bamboo plants. The second factor is that rats feed on the flowers and seeds of the dying bamboo tree. This activates a rapid birth rate among the rodents, which leads to the huge rat population feeding on agricultural crops in the fields and granaries and causes famine.
It was precisely this scenario in Mizoram in the late 1950s, when the authorities failed to respond with quick famine relief. The disillusionment and anger finally resulted in the Mizo National Famine Front, an organization created to help people get relief, changing into the Mizo National Front, an ethnic political party which involved the Mizos in a 20-year war of attrition against India which ended only in 1987 with a peace accord.
Now, the bamboo is going to flower again within the next four to five years, say experts. And this time, it’s not going to be just in Mizoram, but in the huge bamboo forested areas across the other north eastern states of Tripura, Manipur and Southern Assam, an occurrence that has attracted national and international attention as well as the concern of the authorities.
The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests is roping in experts, including some from the International Bamboo and Rattan Network (INBAR) and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), for hectic consultations on how to handle this natural growth cycle of the humble bamboo plant which has such an extraordinary twin effect directly bearing on the socio-economic well being and a long-term ecological impact.
Today, famine may be prevented because most villages are now linked to the main government centers, and because the “Mizo experience” is always there to remind them of the political outcome of bamboo flowering. Yet, it is the ghastly prospect of having dry, rotting mass of bamboo copses covering about 18,000 hectares of the region with about 25 million tons of bamboo, which is causing much concern. The question vexing the authorities is how to harvest these resources before the flowering sets in.
A thriving economy revolves around bamboo. The pulp and paper industry, construction, cottage industry and handloom, food, fuel, fodder and medicine annually consume about 22 million tons of bamboo.
“If left un-harvested this means a loss of around Rs 12,000 million (1US$=Rs49),” said Director General of the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE) R P S Katwal, at the latest round of UNIDO-sponsored expert consultations on “Strategies for Sustainable Utilization of Bamboo Resources Subsequent to Gregarious Flowering In North-East”. This consultation, held at the Jorhat Rain Forest Research Institute, one of the premier forest institutes of the country, was attended by bamboo experts from all over, including INBAR expert from Beijing, Andrew Benton.
“What will be the fate of the numerous paper mills in the northeast region? People have to be made aware beforehand to mitigate the devastating consequences of the phenomenon,” says Kamesh Salam, head of the UNIDO-supported Cane and Bamboo Technology Cell in Jorhat.
While there seems to be a consensus among the experts that the resources should be used before they become worthless, the problem is how to do that. Complicating the problem further is the fact that most of the bamboo is located in inaccessible parts of the hills and where it is within reach, it remains locked in a complicated bureaucratic system which has little regard for the urgency to speed things up before the cycle sets in. While the negative ecological and commercial fall out are doubtless matters of grave concern, there seems to be a distinct lack of concomitant attention to the immediate human fallout of the bamboo flowering cycle, particularly on women and children in these hills.
What would happen to common rural northeasterners who depend on bamboo for almost everything – from a raw material to build their homes to food, and as one of the few sources of cash. Bamboo rotting over hundreds of acres and the growth of the rat population will have a devastating effect on the jhum (slash and burn) cultivation on which a majority of the rural folk still depend for growing food, thus affecting the already precarious food security of the rural people.
Women, who make up the majority of the rural work force and contribute more to holding up the rural economy, will be particularly vulnerable. Their major source of money income – such as the jhum field produce, the vegetables from the wild and the bamboo shoots which they gather and sell in town markets – would disappear, at least for a crucial period of time, seriously affecting the sparse family budget.
Water, which is already a scarce resource in most of the hills, will become scarcer, the Mizoram experience shows. Experts say that during the bamboo flowering in Mizoram in the late 1950s and ’60s, there was a sharp rise in temperature followed by a spell of dry arid weather, which had a direct fallout on the health of the people. Not only that, women and children who have to spend hours to fetch water will be forced to spend even more time carrying out this task.
It is only when the potential impact of the bamboo flowering cycle on the people’s lives receives proper attention, that a safety net for the most vulnerable section of the population can be created. There is still time to take steps to prevent widespread disaffection which could well result in history repeating itself. But there is no time to waste.
– Linda Chhakchhuak
July 3, 2002