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Kashmiri Oranges: Miracle, or a Sign of Climate Change?


The Kashmir Valley is not exactly a citrus belt. Its summers are usually cool, even chilly, and the winters are freezing. That is why local agricultural and environmental experts are baffled by an orange tree - apparently the only one of its kind in Kashmir - that seems to be flourishing. Some see it as a miracle, but others see it as a sign that climate change has come to Kashmir. Raymond Thibodeaux has more from Srinagar, the capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir.

Near a busy market street in Srinagar, down a few narrow alleys, past a bridge that crosses a canal, is Hotel Holy Night, where an orange tree grows in the courtyard.

Abdur Rashid Badyari planted the tree 12 years ago to see whether it would grow. It did. Not only that, it has fruited the past two seasons. Last year, Badyari says, as many as 100 oranges bloomed on its branches.

They smell like oranges, but look more like softball-sized lemons, and they taste like, well ...

"GUDDA: Yes, tsouk [Kashmiri for sour]."

"BADYARI: It is not sweet ..."

"GUDDA: It is an orange."

"THIBODEAUX: It is very sour. In December they are sweeter?"

"BADYARI: They are sweet. In the month of December, they are sweet."

That was Mr. Badyari and one of his neighbors, Mr. Gudda, who was trying the oranges for the first time.

Okay, so maybe these are not the best-tasting oranges. But M.Y. Zargar, an expert in microbiology and environmental sciences, says the fact that they have survived and even flourished in the Kashmir Valley is surprising.

Although the plant's ability to adapt to Kashmir's climate accounts for some of the orange tree's success, Zargar, who teaches at Srinagar's Sher-el-Kashmir University of Agriculture, says the oranges are a sign of climate change - near the foothills of the Himalayan mountains.

Zargar says that average annual temperatures in Kashmir Valley have risen at least three degrees, and up to eight degrees in some areas. Most scientists believe that global warming is the result of a mix of largely man-made factors.

Zargar says glacier melt, more vehicles on Kashmiri roads, and rampant deforestation, are contributing local causes.

"Why does it fruit for the last two or three years? If you look at temperature rise for the last two or three years, it is there," he said. "Glaciers are melting. We have less snowfall, and less snowfall followed by more tree felling [and] less tree cover and global temperature rising. So probably these conditions may help more oranges to come here. And people may like to have oranges here, because it is a good enterprise to have oranges."

Tree felling is a growing problem in Kashmir, which for much of the past 18 years has been a killing ground between the Indian army and Kashmiri militants, allegedly backed by religious extremists in Pakistan.

Put simply, people in Kashmir have had more important things to worry about than trees. The director of Kashmir's Forest Ministry, Irshad Khan, says that during the peak of the conflict, from 1989 to about 2000, daily survival in a war zone understandably took priority over the preservation of forests.

"There was this lawlessness and anarchy for about 10 to 12 years, the worst period of the conflict," said Khan. "During that period, it was a free-for-all. The forests were destroyed by all kinds of people. That has taken a heavy toll. Now the situation is coming under control and now that is not happening, but a lot of damage has been done during the conflict."

Khan says at least 40 percent of Kashmir's forests have been degraded during the conflict.

Kashmiris allege that Indian army troops torched large swaths of forests to flush out suspected militants. Illegal logging has thrived under weak enforcement of environmental laws by a Kashmiri government gutted by years of conflict.

Even now, with the conflict at a much lower intensity, Khan says, Kashmir's forests are still threatened.

A recent study by the environmental group Greenpeace found that the glaciers in the Himalayan Mountains are shrinking nearly three times faster than they were 30 years ago. That means more water in the short term, but less water over time. The glaciers provide fresh water for about a billion people across Asia, about a sixth of the world's population.

Abdur Rashid Badyari, the tree planter, wants to grow more orange trees, and he has recruited his brother to do the same.

"THIBODEAUX: Are you going to start selling Kashmiri oranges, maybe as a specialty item?

BADYARI: No, no. [They are] only for show, only for show."

Some Kashmiris, though, say that climate change, especially if it means a longer growing season, might not be such a bad thing, especially in this region, where the vast majority of the nearly six million residents are farmers.

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