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[NEW DELHI] Northeast India is gearing up to protect itself from possible famine triggered by a huge surge in the rat population, itself the result of the flowering of bamboo plantations that began this month and is expected to peak in 2007.

Most species of bamboo in India — home to the world's largest bamboo forests — flower simultaneously every 50 years, then set seed and die. In previous years, the simultaneous production of seeds by millions of bamboo plants has caused a surge in the number of seed-eating rodents. The rodents then move to nearby paddy and potato fields in search of food, with a devastating effect on staple crops.

Furthermore, the lack of adequate storage facilities needed to cope with the glut of harvested bamboo in the remote hills of northeast India means that most of the bamboo that is harvested quickly rots. And the soil, which was previously bound together by bamboo roots, erodes away.

India's Ministry of Environment and Forests has set up two committees to recommend ways to limit crop losses. One has suggested that bamboo is extracted before it flowers, and that mixed vegetation is planted immediately after flowering to stop soil erosion. The second recommends improving harvesting and storage facilities for the extracted bamboo, and removing export restrictions to find additional outlets for harvested bamboo.

In a separate proposal, the Centre for Indian Bamboo Resource and Technology (CIBART) is exploring a pilot project with the Ministry of Rural Development and Manipur state government, which involves creating a buffer zone — in which bamboo would be completely removed to deter rats — around bamboo-growing villages in the state's Tamenglong district.

Indira Khurana from CIBART says that in areas in which bamboo has already flowered, the seeds could be collected and immediately planted in the buffer zone. This would limit the number of seeds available to rats and would also reduce the time during which bamboo would not be available to local communities.

Most scientists agree that it is too early to gauge how effective the measures will be. They also agree that a lack of detailed information on bamboo plantations is one of the biggest hurdles in the management of bamboo resources in India. 

According to the National Technology Mission on Bamboo Technology and Trade Development, more research is urgently needed into the best way to manage bamboo flowering in a way that provides economic security to those rural people and small-scale industrial workers who depend on bamboo for their livelihood. 

The Ministry of Environment and Forests says that 26 million tonnes of bamboo, spread over more than 10 million hectares, will be affected by the imminent bamboo flowering. Only 10 per cent of this bamboo grows in accessible areas and can be retrieved for industrial use.

Bamboo last flowered 48 years ago in northeast India, where Mizoram state was particularly hard hit by widespread crop losses. Famines in 1911-1912 and 1861 in Mizoram have also been linked with bamboo flowering.

The exact reason for the synchronised bamboo flowering is unclear, but some scientists believe that it is triggered by a genetically programmed internal clock.