Biodiversity, Ecology and Socio-Economic Aspects of Gundia River Basin in the context of proposed Mega Hydro Electric Power Project
Eco-services provided by the forests in Gundia river basin is worth > 200 billion Rs./year (with food and water security) while aiding the livelihood of ecosystem people

The forests are most important natural resources and have been of great importance to human beings since prehistoric days. It is an important source of raw materials, food and other services for human population and hence, we are largely dependent on it. Besides this, the forests serve as the centers of rich biodiversity and repository of genetic wealth providing excellent opportunities for research activities and eco-tourism. They are also key players in environment purification as they contribute largely in carbon sequestration. They are economically, ecologically and socially important to us in many ways.  However, due to increasing burden of population on forests, they have suffered large scale destructions in past many years and their area has also decreased considerably. This has created a debate and concern all over the world about its protection and conservation.

Status of forests: Approximately 1/3rd of earth’s total area is covered by the forests. According to the recent forest report, the forest cover in India is 20.5% of the total geographic area. The total forest cover area in India is 675538 Out of total forest cover, 12.67% is dense forest cover, 7.88% is open forest cover, 1.4% is scrub lands and 0.14% is mangroves. In Karnataka the total forest cover area is 36991 which forms about 19.3%  of total geographical area of the state. Out of the total recorded forest area in the state, 73.88% is categorized as Reserve forests, 10.15% is Protected forests and remaining 15.97% is unclassed forest area. In terms of ‘percentage of recorded forest area’ to the total geographic area, Karnataka ranks 18th in the country (State of Forest Report, 2001, FSI, MoEF, GOI)

The forests have various protective, productive, regulative and accessory functions. They generate a large variety of goods and services which are beneficial to the mankind. The economic valuation of these services is related to the individual’s willingness to pay for these services. However, the willingness to pay is determined by various motivations which may range from self-interest to concern for future generations and concern for environment and other living beings. These values can be classified as

  1. Goods:  Direct usage of services - consumptive and non-consumptive usage, e.g. timber, fuel wood, tourism;
  2. Services: Indirect usage - watersheds, groundwater recharge, oxygen production, carbon storage, etc.

However, the economic valuation of loss of forests is hampered by following constraints:

  1. Standing trees are valued at their present market value. Since, there is a marked prize-size relationship, young trees are undervalued;
  2. Value of climber, creepers and medicinal plants is overlooked;
  3. Price of forest land is not taken into account; and
  4. Compensatory afforestation costs are misleading because a mixed forest cannot always be created within a 50 year accounting period.


  1. Intangible costs and benefits are difficult to quantify;
  2. Undervaluation of goods consumed by poor are undervalued;
  3. Cost of extinction of species are disregarded;
  4. Costs of disregarding  habitat carrying capacity are not taken into account.

The various goods and services provided by the forests and their economic importance can be discussed as below:

The forest trees play the most important role in all the functions of forests. The trees are felled on a large scale for using their wood as timber and firewood. The wood of the trees in forests is very hard, strong, durable and hence, many species of  trees are preferred for their wood as it is used as timber wood. Broadly two types of timber uses are distinguished - commercial and non-commercial. World industrial roundwood production expanded substantially between 1960 and 1990 from some 1 billion m3 to 1.6 billion m3 but has since fallen back to some 1.5 billion m3 in the late 1990s (Barbier et al, 1994; FAO, 2000). Since the timber is marketed, its valuation is easy to derive. The timber wood is mainly used for construction of houses, doors, windows, planks, boats, furniture, railway sleepers, carriages, carts, cabinets, etc. Trees like Tectona grandis (Teak), Shorea robusta (Sal), Mangifera indica (Mango), Cedrus deodara (Deodar), Swietena mahogany (Mahogany), Dalbergia sisoo (Shisham), Azadirachta indica (Neem) and many other trees are have lot of economic importance because of the various uses of their wood.

The rural people and the tribal people are also mainly dependent upon the wood obtained from forests as a source of fuel. They collect the firewood from the forests and burn it to cook food, heating water, providing light and heat, prepare charcoal, etc. FAO (2000) statistics suggest that some 1.86 billion m3 of wood is extracted from forests for fuel wood and conversion to charcoal. The use of wood as fuel is a very old practice and almost dates back to establishment of the civilizations. Though this practice has almost died down in urban civilizations, but for people living in villages and rural areas, firewood is most easy, cheap and readily available source of energy. The benefits of using wood fuel are that it does not cause pollution and the left over wood ash can be used as fertilizer in fields. The practice of making charcoal from burning firewood and selling it in markets is also an important livelihood of rural people. The local values of fuel wood and charcoal can be highly important in terms of local economy.

Though the forests serve as a storehouse of wood used for various purposes, but there are also equally important non-wood products that are obtained from the forests. The botanical and other natural products, other than timber extracted from the forest system are referred to as Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs). These are also referred as all the resources/products that may be extracted from forest ecosystem and are utilized within the household or are marketed or have social, cultural or religious significance (FAO, 1990). These include plants and plant materials used for food, fuel, storage and fodder, medicine, cottage and wrapping materials, biochemical, as well as animals, birds, reptiles and fishes, for food and feather. Unlike timber-based products, these products come from variety of sources like: fruits and vegetables to eat, leaves and twigs for decoration, flowers for various purposes, herbal medicines from different plant parts, wood carvings and decorations, etc. People have been using NTFPs since many years and it forms an important part of local and regional economics. The values of NTFPs per hectare when calculated might not be very high, but these products are of critical importance as source of income and employment for rural people living around the forest regions, especially when crop growing season is not there. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has claimed that at least 150 non-timber product are found in the International Markets. The NTFPs can be broadly classified into following types:

  • EDIBLES - The fruits, nuts and berries collected from various plants are eaten widely. Fruit of Artocarpus heterophyllus is cooked as food while fruits of Emblica officinalis are used as pickles. Wild herbs and spices are also used in various food items. The mushrooms which have a large diversity form an important and integral part of edible items obtained from the forests. They are a rich source of protein and have also been found to possess health benefits. Ecosystem people collect many different wild mushrooms from the forests and use it as edible items.
  • MEDICINAL PRODUCTS - Plants have been exploited on a large scale for their medicinal properties since ages. The early humans were totally dependent upon the plants for healing and curing of various disorders. Today also in villages and other rural areas around the forests, the plants growing in forests serve as medicines. Every village has a ‘Vaid’ or a Herbal Practitioner who has knowledge of regional medicinal plants and treats the patients. The production of herbal drugs has also increased manifold in last few years. Many ethno medicinal studies have proved the importance of medicinal plants present in forests and now these plants have been explored and exploited for preparation of various medicines. The herbal drug is a multi-million industry and is totally dependent upon the plants obtained in forests for their medicinal benefits. Medicinal plants like Adhatoda vasica, Ficus religiosa, Emblica officinalis, Vitex negundo, Terminalia chebula, Rawolfia serpentina, Asparagus racemosus, Acorus calamus, etc. are widely used as ethno medicine by various tribes and rural people across different parts of Western Ghats.
  •  ANIMAL PRODUCTS - A large amount of honey is also extracted from forests by rural people from honeybees in the forests and it is sold in the market too. Honey is one of most important NTFP consumed by rural and urban people and is of great economic value. It has lots of medicinal values as well as is used in preparation of variety of food items. Besides this, many insects are also collected from forests and used as food delicacies. The collection of Lac from Lac insects is also an important NTFP and has a good price in the market. The skin of some animals is used for leather and fur. Some wild animals are also domesticated as pets like wild dogs and cats. The silkworms are collected for obtaining silk which is a highly priced NTFP in the market. The earthworms are used as bait for catching fishes and also used in agricultural fields. Lot of fishes are obtained from rivers in forests which are eaten as food and also used for obtaining some oil, making delicacies like pickles and sold in market.
  • MISCELLANOUS - The wild flowers are used for decorations and some of them are offered to the Gods. The ferns are also of great ornamental importance and are cultivated for their beautiful appearance. The wood is used to make beautiful carvings and decorations and sold in market. The fibers obtained from bamboo, wild jute, coconut are used for stuffing things, preparing baskets, covering rooftops, etc. The dyes are also obtained from various plants e.g. orange colored dye is obtained from Bute monosperma and blue colored dye is obtained from  Indigofera sp. Gums and resins are also obtained from bark of some trees, which are sold in markets. Research has also proved that many plants in the forests have potential of producing hydrocarbons and biodiesel which can be used  as substitute for fossil fuels. Many plants are also used in rites, rituals and magico-beliefs while many animals and trees are also  worshipped.
  • ECOTOURISM AND RECREATIONAL VALUES OF FORESTS - The Ecotourism is a much growing and popular activity and is a potential valuable usage of forests without extracting anything from it. However, care should be taken that such tourism activities are sustainable and do not harm the ecological carrying capacities of the forests. The ecotourism is also economically very useful to the local people living in and around the forest areas as they can gain net profit by participating and assisting in such activities. The ecotourism also is a source of profit for tour organizers who do not live near the forests and yet earn lots of money from it. The forest department also gets good amount of revenue from this to maintain and upkeep the forests and wildlife in proper shape. However, the values of ecotourism vary from place to place and the extent of attraction in the forests.  
  • BIODIVERSITY: The forests of the world harbour very large and complex biological species diversity and hence, it becomes a complex thing to assign a specific definition or explanation for it. The species diversity is an indicator for biological diversity and the species richness increases as we move from the poles to the equatorial region. The tropical forests are the richest source of biodiversity and are probably thought of containing more than half of world’s biodiversity. However, there is a confusion between the values of biological resources and values of biodiversity. The values of biodiversity refer to values of the information and insurance. The existing species are results of long evolution processes that have been occurring over several billion years. Since these evolutionary processes have occurred in different environmental conditions, the existing species contains a significant stock of information related to these processes and environment. There also occurs interactions between different species in nature. The information stored by this diversity can be used  develop goods and services for benefit of mankind. However, only a part of  valuable information is known and there is a lot of potential still left in forests to harness more valuable information.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND ECOLOGICAL IMPORTANCE OF FORESTS: Many studies have suggested enormous potential function of forests to store carbon. However, there is also a distinguishes between the carbon stored in a standing forest and carbon sequestered in a growing forest. The former case has a high economic value associated with it and is greatly affected if the forests get burned or are cleared for some purpose. The forests which ar preserved and not under threat have carbon storage values but are often not realized, while if a forest which is under some kind of threat in coming future, its carbon storage value can be realized through protective measures. However, when forest land conversion takes place, the entire carbon storage values are lost. A number of studies have been taken place and are going on to record the carbon stored and sequestered in different types of forests. Today, immense potential can be observed for development of carbon trading markets in view of increasing climate change and this would be having a great economic significance.

One more important role of the forest trees is soil binding and prevention of soil erosion. The roots  of the trees bind the soil together by great force and prevent it from running - off in conditions of high rains. The roots of trees are also a preferred place for living of many important fungi and bacteria. These microbes benefit the trees as well as enrich the soil by their degradation activities. The leaves and twigs of plants and trees when they detach and fall on the ground, the micro flora of soil starts degrading it and converts it into humus which enriches the forest soil. This humus provides nutrition for germinating plants and serve as substratum for mushrooms and ferns and also give shelter to large number of insects. Forests are also the houses of large number of insects, animals, birds and plants ranging from cryptogams to angiosperms.  The forests also play a key role in hydrological functions and water cycle. Large amount of trees ensures higher transpiration rates and greater aerodynamic roughness of forests compared to agriculture and pasture lands ensures increased humidity and moisture convergence leading to increased probabilities of cloud formation and rainfall generation (André, 1989).  Forests have both tangible and intangible effects which should be covered in any kind of impact assessment. But, it is not easy to assign economic values to intangible effects. There have also been some attempts to quantify and evaluate the environmental costs of loss of forests. The notional values assigned to some parameters contributing to ecological balance (Das, 1980) are  given in the table.5.1.

Table 5.1 - Environmental benefits derived from a medium sized tree of 50 tonnes during its 50 years life span, excluding values of timber, fruit and flowers

    Single tree FOREST TYPE
Sr.No   Rs. (Lakh) Tropical
Rs/ha (lakh)
Rs/ha (lakh)
1. Oxygen production 2.50 22.50 20.50
2. Conservation of Animal protein 0.20 1.80 1.64
3. Control of soil erosion 2.50 22.50 20.50
4. Recycling of water and control of humidity 3.00 27.00 24.60
5. Shelter for birds, squirrels, insects, plants 2.50 22.50 20.50
6. Control of air pollution 5.00 45.00 41.00
  Total 15.70 141.30 128.74

Source: T.M. Das (1980), The Value of Tree, Proceedings of Indian Science Congress
India sustains almost 15% of the total population of the world and the commercial and social needs of the people are met by the forests. The demand is much more than what the forests are supplying and the heavy burden comes on the forests.  The forests play a crucial role not only in social and economic well-being but also in maintaining the ecological balance. The Forest Policy in India has following salient features:

  1. A minimum of one-third of total land area of country has to be brought under forest or tree cover
  2. Total protection of tropical/moist forests
  3. Control of introduction of exotic species
  4. Extent of forest use for grazing and extraction will be determined by carrying capacity
  5. Involvement of tribals in protection, regeneration and development of forests
  6. Forest based industries will raise their own requirements and practice of supplying forest produce to industries will cease

Economic Value of Forests in Gundia river Basin:
Gundia river basin is situated along the narrow belt of evergreen and semi-evergreen climax and potentially related forests (Figure 1.1), which is of two categories according to Pascal (1982).  The first category is Dipterocarpus indicusKingiodendron pinnatum- Humboldia brunonis type of low elevation (0-850 m elevation).  The second type is Mesua ferrea – Palacuim ellipticum type of medium elevation (650-1400 m).

The region is also rich in cardamom and coffee plantations (Figure 2.1). The cardamom plantations may be considered most eco-friendly among the lot of planting activities by humans. These are virtually evergreen forests with most of the trees preserved to favour the shade and humidity loving cardamom herbs beneath. The Gundia basin is also rich in cardamom cultivation. This cash crop fetches high returns while also preserving the forests and watershed. Both small and big farmers of Gundia basin are engaged in cardamom cultivation, the dried fruit per kilogram fetches almost around Rs.1500/- The role of cardamom plantations in preserving native vegetation has seldom been ever highlighted. The coffee estates, both small and big, like rest of central Western Ghats, constitute a major activity in the focal region. In preservation of native forest vegetation coffee is next in importance only to cardamom. In many large private holdings portions of the property are under wild vegetation. These private forests, in combination with the tree rich cardamom and coffee estates and state reserved forests make the region rich in wildlife composed of amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals.
The heavy rainfall exceeding 5000 mm in most places favor the growth of tropical evergreen forests. As the region is suitable for cash crops and rice much lands have been brought under them after clearing forests partially or entirely, the latter for especially rice and ginger. Partial clearances are for cardamom and coffee which are the most important crops in the basin. Enmeshed in the hilly landscape are evergreen to semi-evergreen forests, scrub and secondary woodlands. The latter two types obviously are regrowth on past shifting cultivation sites as is evident from place names such as Kanchan-kumri, Yeda-kumri, Betta-kumri etc, the appellation ‘kumri’ denoting slash and burn cultivation that was prevalent in Karnataka Western Ghats in the past. To this day many of these kumri areas are having savanna, woodland or scrub vegetation if they are closer to human habitation or under successional forests, in late secondary stages dominated by evergreens. The presence of fire tolerant deciduous species such as Careya arborea, Catunaragam spinosa, Dillenia pentagyna, Grewia tilifolia, Terminalia paniculata, Bridelia stipularis and Xylia xylocarpa as well as the dominance of certain evergreens like Glochidion spp., Celtis cinnamomea, Olea dioica etc. indicate some alterations of the forests in the past.

On the contrary, interspersed and dominating the landscape are tall evergreen trees in large patches as in Bisle Ghat, Kaginahare forest, Mallalli waterfalls gorge, Yethinahole forest etc. These have high degree of Western Ghats endemism both among the trees as well as among the ground vegetation. The tallest evergreens exceeding 30 m in height include Dipterocarpus indicus, Vateria indica, Bischofiajavanica,  Calophyllum tomentosum, Elaeocarpus tuberculatus, Diospyros spp., Holigarna spp., Mangifera indica, Lophopetalum wightianum, Syzygium spp., Polyalthia fragrans, Mesua ferrea etc. These emergent trees are followed by canopy species attaining 20-25 m in height. Notable species in this strata are Canarium strictum, Cinnamomum macrocarpum, Dimocarpus longan, Fahrenhetia zeylanica, Garcinia gummi-gutta, G. Morella, Litzea spp.,  Myristica dactyloides, M. malabarica, etc. Still beneath are trees of lesser stature such as Mallotus tetracoccus, Nothopegia racemosa,  Vepris bilocularis. The evergreen forests are rich in palms such as Arenga wigthii, Caryota urens and Pinanga dicksonii in addition to the straggler palms of Calamus spp. (canes). The ground is carpeted with various herbs and shrubs, of which Strobilanthus heyneanus is prominent at the time of our visit. The gregarious species is in flowers throughout the central Western Ghats. The massive flowering, once in many years, is said to boost honey production. Pinanga dicksonii, Cyathea spp. (tree fern), Dipterocarpus indicus, Vateria indica and associate species are indicative of climax status of many forest patches. The reed Ochlandra scriptora is common along the streams and river banks. It, along with Caryota urens form important fodder for elephants.

The grasslands are widespread in the region and supports rich fauna of grazing animals. They constitute major grazing resources for the local livestock. Many of the grasslands catch fire during summer months, often set on by local people, for promoting flush of tender shoots during the growing season. In the absence of fire the grasslands might revert to forests. Notable of the grasses are Centotheca spp., Dichanthium spp., Eragrostis spp., Heteropogon contortus, Ischemum spp., Paspalum scrobiculatum etc.In addition to grasses are found various herbs such as several species of sedges like Canscora decurrens, Curculigo orchioides, Impatiens spp. (balsams), Leucas spp., Lindernia spp., Polygonum spp.  and Sonerilla rheedeii. Several ground orchids like Habenaria spp., Platanthera susanne, Trias sp. etc also occur in the grasslands. 

Considering the tangible and intangible benefits derived from fifty year old forests, based on the vales in Table.5.1, value of eco-services provided by the forests in Gundia basin works out to be 195 billion Rs./year (with food and water security) while aiding the livelihood of ecosystem people.

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