Dry pine needles trigger wildfires in the Indian Himalayas. Can they go from being a menace to a solution?
In the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, Draupadi Debi lives in such close proximity to two vast pine forests that, at night time, she can hear leopards roaring. During the last week of May, she painstakingly spent every day collecting the dry pine needles scattered across the forest floor. Along with a group of 10 other women from her village. Debi left home at 10 am everyday to gather around 150 pounds of dry pine needles before stuffing them in oversized cloth sacks. While balancing the sacks on their heads or upper backs, they trekked downhill, towards the road that leads to the nearest town 16 miles away — Mandi.
Debi (35) lives in Nisu, a tiny village of about 139 people in the state of Himachal Pradesh in north India. Climate change impacts on the Himalayan terrain are making summers both dryer and longer, resulting in untamed wildfires that have increasingly ravaged chir pine forests. Villagers, like Debi, who know every forest trail intimately, serve as foot soldiers who stall massive wildfires similar to the ones that occur annually in California.
In addition to climate change, colonization is another major reason why forests have become extremely combustible in the western Himalayas. Since the late 1800s, under British rule, native oak and deodar forests were razed for more than a century to build India’s extensive railway network and for other commercial purposes. For procuring resin in the 20th century, the British opted for large-scale pine plantations instead of re-planting native oak trees, which are resistant to wildfires.
Not only do pine trees grow rapidly, but they also deplete groundwater, modify soil properties, and prevent the growth of other native trees, shrubs, and grass.
“The pine forests act as bombs waiting to explode by the smallest of spark,” said Pavan Vyas, a fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology & Environment (ATREE). “Even when dry pine needles are lit in the form of controlled burns, they spread rapidly owing to the accumulation of pine needles on the forest floor as thick as 24 centimeters, causing forest fires which are hard to tackle without adequate infrastructure.”
Turning a menace into a solution
In the first week of June, Debi and her team trekked further uphill into the depths of the pine forests to clear out pesky needles that blanket forest floors.
Debi is a part of one of the many women-run self-help groups in Himachal Pradesh. Local businesses hire these groups to complete different manual tasks, like making corn flour, baskets, apple jam, and most recently — collecting dry pine needles. At the end of each arduous day of trekking and collections, the group delivers tall stacks of the needles to vehicles that head towards the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Mandi, where professors like Arti Kashyap are developing new uses for them.
An associate professor and physicist at the university, Kashyap developed a briquetting machine that turns dry pine needles into bio-pellets — a more efficient source of fuel compared to wood.
In the past, attempts have been made to use dry pine needles for making paper, and even generating electricity in small power plants. Kashyap decided to opt for a different method.
During the experimentation phase, Kashyap and her team manually chopped the needles into various sizes, attempting to figure out ways to get rid of their excess moisture and oil. After much trial and error, they succeeded by sun-drying the needles and bringing down their moisture content to less than eight percent. They found that three kgs of bio-pellets made from pine needles emit as much heat as 10 kgs of wood emits.
During the research and development phase, Kashyap approached Mandi forest officials and the local government to discuss a business model for the newly-developed bio-pellets. However, after conducting the cost analysis of setting up briquetting units, they discovered that it would take at least two years and $20,000 for local entrepreneurs to see any sort of return on their investment, presenting a crack in the project’s foundation and viability.
Luckily, in 2018, the state government launched a policy that subsidized the cost of setting up one of Kashyap’s briquetting plants; the first two plants became functional in 2019. The global COVID-19 pandemic, however, stalled those efforts, only becoming active again within the last few months.
Debi and other self-help group members have complained, however, about low wages and the toll that collecting the needles puts on the physical body. Pooja Thakur, the project director of the pine needles project at IIT Mandi, said that at present, doubling the payment of collectors is not an option due to high transportation and production costs. But it is a desire for the future.
“My vision is that we could have 100 briquetting machines all over the state in locations where people need to walk for not more than two to five kilometers for collecting dry pine needles,” said Kashyap.
Roping in entrepreneurs
At present, six briquetting units are up and running in different districts within Himachal Pradesh. The local government mandated that cement manufacturers use at least one percent of biomass out of their total fuel consumption. At the IIT Mandi unit that is now run by a start-up called Laksshya, Kashyap said they already have purchase orders from the cement industry at the rate of 13 cents per kilogram of bio-pellets.
“We found the whole initiative — its cause, effect, and its promise — to be just what the world needs during this disturbing and critical stage of climate change,” said Lakshmi Dutta Gupta, founder of Laksshya, who is based in Gurugram.
Gupta and her partner and co-founder, Abhijit Dutta Gupta, are working towards setting up another briquetting plant in a nearby town called Kunnu in Mandi district.
“The project is now running on a pilot basis and we are in the process of identifying more self-help groups. Our first priority is to reduce forest fires. As we gain a better understanding about how this project could pan out in the future, we envision creating more job opportunities for locals,” added Gupta.
The duo plan on running both the plants throughout the year by also using sawdust and a rapidly growing invasive flowering plant called lantana as raw materials for producing bio-pellets after the summer season ends.
Although the dry pine needles project has the potential to improve livelihoods, Vyas warned that compressing needles to increase the density of bio-pellets adds up to significant amounts of energy consumption.
“The input material is much higher than the output. This does not make it economically feasible for the producers,” he said.
Despite having to overcome these hurdles, Kashyap insists that the bio-pellets were not built for purely commercial purposes. Instead, the main purpose for collecting dry pine needles is to protect the forests and local environment. Making some money along the way is merely a byproduct.