Can hemp save Sundarban ?

According to this Reuters Analysis, the U.S. and European finance leaders were pessimistic that the climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt (COP 27) starting Nov. 6 can make clear progress because of the ongoing global geopolitical tensions.

All you hear these days in the news is war. The war between superpowers, between different socio-ethnic groups etc. One war which is often ignored is the war with nature. Currently, we are going through the sixth mass extinction. Human activities-induced Climate change is causing millions of people to migrate or succumb to the wrath of nature. Like all other wars, the victims of the climate emergency are the ones who had the least to contribute to the cause. Sundarban is one such place. The archipelago of Sundarban is a biological hotspot, having diverse flora and fauna. The majority of people living on these islands have very little to do with greenhouse gas emissions. But the islands of Sundarban are on the brink of complete annihilation due to extreme weather events and sea level rise.

River of Sundarban Source – Wikimedia Commons

So how can we save Sundarban?

In order to solve a problem, we first need to understand the problem. So, let’s understand the geophysical condition of Sundarban. Sundarban is the world’s largest mangrove forest. It is the delta region of three major rivers Ganga, Brahmaputra and Megna. Agriculture is the main source of income for the majority of the population. Other than that, people are also dependent on forests for their livelihood.  They face challenges of poverty, marginalization and an acute struggle against geo-climatic events such as cyclones.

The coastal area has a gentle slope, and the major portion of it lies 7-8 m above mean sea level. According to this research paper, three distinct seasons in the tidal regime of the estuary can be observed.

  1. One season occurs during the southwest monsoon when the effect of the flood tides is countered and almost completely nullified by freshwater inflow, and the ebb tides predominate strongly. The abundance of freshwater makes this season perfect for the cultivation of rice.
  2. Another season lasts from November to February, when the strength of the flood tide over the ebb tide reaches a minimum. In this season, cultivation becomes difficult as rainfall is very less. Many farmers depend on groundwater or water from ponds or lakes for irrigation. However, the majority of the population cannot afford pumps. Additionally, the groundwater level has been falling, putting additional pressure on livelihood.
  3. The third season occurs during the hot and dry months (May and June, just before the southwest monsoon) when the effect of the flood tides are much stronger than the ebb tides, and the estuary reaches maximum salinity.

Because of this, the majority of farmlands only have a single crop cycle, i.e. during monsoon. So it is very important to increase the crop cycle to two to increase the farmers’ income and subsequently improve their condition. The best option is to target the November – February season. However, as irrigation is a major challenge this season, it is very important to find a crop that requires less water and can grow fast. One option could be Hemp farming.

So what exactly is hemp?

Hemp is a fast-growing plant in the cannabaceae family. It is the same plant from where cannabis psychoactive drugs marijuana, ganja or hash is made. Researchers have identified more than 100 cannabinoids, but tetrahydrocannabinol(THC) and cannabidiol(CBD) are studied mostly. THC has psychoactive properties that produce the “high” effect. However, the term Hemp refers to the subspecies that are usually grown for industrial purposes. While psychoactive cannabis has 10-30% THC, hemp has less than 0.5% THC. It is almost impossible to get high on hemp.

Hemp plant Source – Wikimedia Commons

What are the economic benefits of hemp?

Almost every part of a hemp plant has industrial applications, making it a major cash crop. It also has major advantages when compared to the other alternatives.

Textile: The stalks of the hemp plants are rich in fibres, and the fibres from the stock of the hemp plant are used for textiles such as making ropes, bags, clothes etc. The outer layer of the hemp stalk is formed from rope-like bast fibres. These can be processed into yarn. Hemp fabric has a similar texture to cotton; however much more durable and light. In addition to that, the production of hemp requires 90% less water than cotton, making it an eco-friendly alternative to cotton textiles.

Paper: Hemp paper is an excellent alternative to wood pulp-based paper. Most hemp paper comes from short hemp hurds extracted from the inner core of hemp stalks. Hemp stalks have an 85% cellulose composition- the primary source for making paper. Compared to its mainstream alternative, trees, with a composition of 30%, making paper with hemp is easier.
Simply put, hemp yields more paper from the same amount of raw materials. One field of hemp yields four to five times as much paper as a forest of the same size. In addition to that, hemp fibres are naturally very light in colour, so they require little bleaching. The Gutenberg Bible is a famous example: printed on hemp paper in 1455, it would have disintegrated long ago if it had been printed on wood-based paper.

Construction: The high strength, flexibility, thermal and insulation power makes hemp an excellent construction material. Hemp, when used in construction, can sequester carbon for the long term. They are used as hemp blocks or bricks and hemp planks. The hemp blocks or bricks are made by mixing, pressing and air-drying hemp fibres, natural lime and earth. These bricks provide heat insulation and are fire-resistant. Hemp planks are an excellent alternative to wooden planks. They can be used to provide insulation for roofs, walls or floors. Unlike wood, hemp does not contain albumin and therefore removes the risk of being attacked by parasites.

Food: Various parts of the hemp plant represent a valuable source of food and ingredients for nutritional supplements. While hemp inflorescence is rich in non-psychoactive yet biologically active cannabinoids, such as cannabidiol (CBD), which exerts potent anxiolytic, spasmolytic, as well as anticonvulsant effects, hempseed has a pleasant nutty taste and represents a valuable source of essential amino acids and fatty acids, minerals, vitamins, and fibres. In addition, hempseed oil is a source of healthy polyunsaturated fatty acids, and hemp sprouts are rich in antioxidants. 

Hemp ceiling insulation – Wikimedia Commons

What about ecological benefits?

In a world of rapid climate change, it is very essential that we focus not only on the economy but also on ecology. So, in addition to having economic benefits, hemp farming also has huge ecological benefits.

  • Carbon storage: One hectare of hemp sequesters 9 to 15 tonnes of CO2, similar to the amount sequestered by a young forest, but it only takes five months to grow.
  • Breaking the cycle of diseases: Hemp helps break the disease cycle when used in crop rotation. In addition, weeds are not able to grow due to the fast growth and shading capacity of hemp plants.
  • Soil erosion prevention: Dense hemp leaves become a natural soil cover, reducing water loss and protecting against soil erosion. Hemp covers the ground just three weeks after germination.
  • Biodiversity: Flowering cycle usually occurs between July and September, coinciding with a lack of pollen production from other crops. Hemp produces large amounts of pollen. It also provides shelter for birds, and hemp seeds are food for animals.
  • Low or no use of pesticides: Hemp is susceptible to few pests because of the lack of natural predators, which means that the use of insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides can be avoided in most cases.

So what is blocking hemp farming?

In spite of having so many economic and ecological benefits, the cultivation of hemp remains legal. Uttarakhand is the only state where commercial cultivation of Industrial hemp is allowed. Uttar Pradesh has allowed the cultivation of hemp for research and medicinal purposes, and Himachal Pradesh is the third state to allow hemp farming. The other states, including West Bengal, have not taken any step towards legalizing hemp farming. There was a time when people used to say what Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow. The government needs to adopt a policy that is good for the environment and, at the same time, doesn’t hurt the economy. Legalising hemp farming could be the first step towards it.

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