The flight dipped below the clouds and suddenly the vast vista of snow peaked mountains came into view. There was a collective gasp from the travelers at the incredible sight below. The plane followed the Indus, the blue river lined by poplar trees on both banks and just as Leh came into view, it was my turn to gasp. I had returned to Ladakh after a hiatus of 11 years and the change I saw was astounding. I could not recognize the small charming town I had last seen in 2003, which now had become a sprawling city with modern amenities, supermarkets and cars. But looking down at the city first from the flight and next from Shanti Stupa, the green canopy confirmed my doubts. I remembered a largely barren Leh with spots of greenery as a result of farms, not a city filled with Poplar trees.
‘Clean Ladakh, Green Ladakh’ - said a sign near the old bus station. My favourite colour is green but I am not sure I like it here in the desert ecology of these high mountains. Something seems very wrong. The Army, NGOs, spiritual leaders, people’s groups and even local communities are planting trees in valleys, river banks, villages etc. The ‘disease’ seems to have spread to Spiti too, where a once arid and completely barren Kaza is now thick with trees. Tall and slender Poplar tree is the popular choice even though other indigenous tree varieties of willow, juniper and birch trees are the natural species in pockets of Ladakh.
Ask around and you will find many reasons for this tree plantation craze. Most people think planting trees is generally good and it will help increase the level of oxygen in the air. Some are doing it for beautification, some are just following the others, while the prudent ones are planting Poplar trees as future investment as they are used for building houses which otherwise is an expensive affair. Traveling in the villages of Sham Valley, I asked most middle aged or elderly people I met if there are more trees than before and each of them replied in the affirmative. One woman in Yangthang mentioned that it used to be arid when she first came to the village as a bride. Tashi Dorjay of Hemis Shukpachan explained to me that earlier, people used to get wood for making houses through a barter system. Now people want money which most village folks don’t have, hence it is easier to grow the trees themselves.
Whatever may be the reason, common sense tells me that growing trees in an arid ecology might not bode well later for the region. Presence of trees where it is not supposed to be might bring changes in the climate of the region, ecology and the region’s rich biodiversity. There is already a rise in respiratory problems in regions around Leh which some are attributing to these trees. A friend who went to Zangla in Zanskar said that she had to leave earlier than planned as the place had become infested with insects especially after dusk. Village folks told her that the insects came after trees started being grown in the village.
There is a reason for the existence of each ecosystem. Communities, culture, wildlife, all have developed over centuries for particular types of ecosystems and one small change can bring in a domino effect which can topple a lot of things in the process. With our supposedly ‘superior’ intelligence, humans have already done a lot of damage. It’s time we stop interfering more and let other species also live in their preferred and natural ecosystems.