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Eastern Himalayas

Contact Information

  • Ankila Hiremath ATREE
    659, 5th A Main Road
    Hebbal Bangalore 560024
  • Lead Institution: Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE)


The Darjeeling district, covering an area of 3,149 square kilometers

Indirect Drivers of Change

  • Population growth: Population explosion over the years has been one of the main problems in the Darjeeling hills, resulting from a number of factors. Uncontrolled family expansion, immigration from other regions of India, and migration from nearby countries due to the establishment of tea plantations have all contributed to increases in population in Darjeeling. Additionally, the popularity of the region for tourists has contributed to population growth.
  • Family fragmentation: The village communities have started moving toward nuclear-type families, resulting in land that is more fragmented and less suitable for the practice of subsistence agriculture. In 1956, for example, Karmat village had 24 houses; in 2003, as a result of families splitting up, the number of houses in the village had increased to 65, with an average size of 6 family members.
  • Economic status: Economic self-sufficiency and alternative livelihood options are severely lacking in the hills due to the lack of resources and the absence of alternative job opportunities. Villagers located in the mountainous terrain at an altitude of between 1,800 and 3,600 meters have to purchase basic necessities including staple foods such as rice and dal (pulses) from the nearest urban centres. Price fluctuations of these staples, along with transportation costs, encourage villagers to sell fuelwood for income generation.
  • Policies, institutions, and processes: Despite implementation of a wide range of policies, institutions, and processes, the government’s capacity building measures have not achieved diversification of livelihood patterns in the villages. Often the secretary of these committees is nominated by the government, and the villagers are not made aware of the activities underway and the budget allocated.
  • Change in local land use patterns: Family fragmentation has resulted in fragmentation of agricultural land and clearing of forest land for settlement. This land use pattern has also played a major role in the degradation of ecosystems and in causing landslides and flooding. The recent proposed sites of Teesta Dam Stage IV and Ramam Hydel Project and Nuclear Laboratory will result in the submergence of villages and the fragmentation of flora and fauna. The Kalikhola mini hydel project will lead to the loss of faunal habitat, which can accentuate the conflict between humans and animals in the villages and lead to loss in agricultural production.

Ecosystem Services

  • Non-wood forest products (fruits, vegetables, and medicinal plants): The village communities in the protected areas are extracting NWFPs at a subsistence level. Woody and fibrous construction materials are required for agriculture implements, cattle sheds, and repair of houses. Studies have shown that there has been an over-extraction and exploitation of medicinal plants such as Aconitum bisma, Aconitum spicatum, Dactylorhiza hatagirea, Heracluem wallichii, Neopicrorhiza scrophulariiflora, Panax pseudoginseng subsp himalacus, Podophyllum sikkimense, etc.
  • Water: Water-related problems affect the village communities of the three protected areas of the assessment. The village communities are aware that the driving force of the problem is felling of trees and clearing of forest in the catchments. Two lakes built inside the Sepahijala Wildlife Sanctuary at the turn of the twentieth century demarcated 447.4 hectares as catchment areas for drinking water supply to Darjeeling town. The catchments were securely protected by barbed wire fencing. Today, the fence is as good as nonexistent. At least 81% of the catchments are denuded. When protection was provided to the catchments, nearly 26 streams regularly supplied water to the lake. Today, only 14 of those streams are still flowing. This situation has resulted in an acute water crisis in Darjeeling.
  • Soil: Soil fertility has been affected by the use of chemicals like urea and diammonium phosphate. Additionally, faulty agricultural practices such as tilling of land during monsoon season have resulted in erosion of topsoil. The villages located in the hilly region have not adopted contour bunding in their terraces. Cultivation methods for growing vegetables have resulted in landslides and soil erosion.


The northern region of West Bengal has a long-standing tradition of symbiotic relationships between the local communities and the forests. From independence, however, the government’s approach to the local people became mainly confrontational, leading to severe negative impacts in terms of conflicts between the local communities and the forest departments. Conflict has also led to the proliferation of the illegal trade in timber and other ecosystem products. The importance of involving the local people in protected area management was realized in the early 1970s when UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere Reserve Program began to promote the creation of buffer zones between the strictly preserved areas and human settlements. India’s Department of Environment created a Board of Ecodevelopment in 1982–83, after the World Congress on National Parks in Bali gave impetus to the objective of linking protected area management with economic activities of the local people by advocating the implementation of joint management between the societies which traditionally managed these forests and the protected area authorities. Following this, the Joint Forest Management (JFM) Program was initiated through the National Forest Policy of 1988. This concept extended the “ecodevelopment” program to the protected areas, which not only reduces the impact of the people on the protected area but also fosters better communication between the local communities and the protected area management authorities.


The ecosystem in the Darjeeling Himalayas has been under tremendous human pressure over the years. Even though some remedial measures have been initiated involving the communities and the government agencies, success has been only partial. The consequences of the continuing exploitation of the ecosystem services, if unchecked, will have a major impact on the state of the environment. The assessment developed four plausible scenarios for the region, calling them “No Action,” “Varied Experiments,” “Technological Fix,” and “Development Fix.”

Figure 1 Eastern Himalayas SGA region.

© 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment