Upgrading the existing road networks would be beneficial in two ways – make it easier for the people to utilise the already existing roads at their convenience and save the unique and remnant forest for our future generation. Given the projected environmental crises bearing upon us, there is a high level of urgency to save the forest of Jalthal and beyond

Towards the south eastern Tarai in Jhapa district lies a forest patch known as Jalthal forest.

Jalthal is remnant of what once was the lush, dense and continuous Charkoshe forest of southern Nepal.

The forested island in a populated landscape is the largest remaining forest of Nepal's Tarai. Geographical isolation and being a remnant are not the sole identity of the forest but also its unique assemblage and richness of flora and its social and ecological significance to the local people.

But now, the forest is at the crossroads with impending threat to its existence.

If you come from central and western Nepal, it's obvious that you might have not seen or heard of the Latahar tree. Not only does it sound like Katahar or Badahar, it is closely related to these two well-known species in appearance. The tree known as Artocarpus chama by botanists is a giant tree, which can grow as tall as 40 meters and has a majestic and spreading crown. The tree commonly occurs in Southeast Asia from north eastern India to Indonesia. In its west bound, eastern Nepal is its last resort. Jalthal has the largest natural stand of the tree, and a few scattered trees occur as far as the Koshi River.

Similarly, Cycas Pectinata – a living fossil and a tree surviving on this earth since when the dinosaurs existed – is an attractive tree crowned with long and evergreen branches. The IUCN red listed species, distributed in south east Asia, can be found in Nepal mainly in the eastern and central Chure hills but has not been reported from the Tarai, with Jalthal as an exception.

Abundance of Latahar and Cycas along with other unique species makes the Jalthal forest different from those found in the remaining parts of the country.

Recent research by ForestAction Nepal – a Kathmandu based research institute –has unveiled its exceptional floral diversity.

Jalthal forest has just 0.1 per cent of Nepal's forest, which alone hosts 150 species, which is a quarter of the total tree flora of the country.

Jalthal is a prime habitat to the critically endangered Chinese pangolin – the most illegally traded species in the world. Jalthal is also home to the Asiatic elephant–another endangered species in the IUCN red list. The golden monitor lizard, a protected animal, is also found in the forest. Wetlands and marshy habitats make the forest a suitable abode for Burmese pythons. Over 200 species of birds and 40 species reptiles and amphibians make Jalthal forest their home.

Jalathal's biodiversity is what makes it a basis for a wide array of ecosystem services. Yet, looming threats are endangering its biodiversity. Biological invasion is ever growing; Mikania micrantha–an invasive species native to South and Central America– has ravaged the forest. Many rare trees in the forest are threatened. Human-elephant conflict, biomass pressure, illegal hunting and timber focussed narrow management are other challenges. These challenges can be managed and threats can be averted by building capacities of forest users groups and changing some management practices.

Beyond these conventional threats, the threat of development has put the forest in peril.

The debate around environment versus development has always gained focus when it comes to biodiversity conservation, and Jalthal is not an exception.

Recently, the Province No.1 government's plan to construct a new road through the forest will have longterm ecological impacts on the forest.

Jalthal forest is a rectangular block measuring just 10.5 km long and 5.5 km wide, with an east to west orientation. There is already a north-south road dissecting the forest into two blocks. The two-lane road is already in the process of being black-topped.

There is already the Mechi Highway to the east of the forest while another road passes to the west.

An initial environmental examination (IEE) states that only 130 trees will be felled for the purpose. The IEE process itself seems deceptive and the number of trees to be felled is underestimated.

The construction will result in habitat fragmentation and degradation, which will have a direct impact on the endangered fauna and rare and threatened trees. Adding to this, the roads will serve as conduits for invasive species. Similarly, gully erosion and associated siltation will further degrade wetlands in the forest, which are already at the tipping point of drying up.

All in all, constructing another road further fragmenting the forest will indeed make the forest 'ecologically dead'.

Article 42 of Forest Act 2076has made provision for use of forest land for road and development projects when no alternatives are available. In addition, the development project should be either a national priority project, national pride project or project approved by the Nepal Investment Board. However, the propositions for the construction are at odds with the priorities of the government and do not meet any of the criteria of the Forest Act. The road is, therefore, against the law and commitment made by the government for environment protection and biodiversity conservation.

It is difficult to get a sense of how politicians and planners reach a conclusion on constructing roads, which benefit a very small fraction of the people of the affected region, at such a huge environmental cost in a critical patch of tropical moist forest.

Nevertheless, several alternatives are, and can be made, available for local people's access. One of the most plausible and perhaps cost-efficient ways could be upgrading the existing road networks. This would be beneficial in two ways – make it easier for the people to utilise the already existing roads at their convenience and save the unique and remnant forest for our future generation.

Given the projected environmental crises bearing upon us, there is a high level of urgency to save the botanical heritage and forest of Jalthal and beyond.

Sharma and Karki are researchers at ForestAction Nepal

A version of this article appears in the print on November 3, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.