Poplar trees blamed for seasonal allergies are being axed - despite medical officials saying there is no evidence they are a problem
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By Ashutosh Sharma
NEW DELHI, April 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Fearing a convergence of respiratory allergies and spread of the coronavirus pandemic, Kashmir authorities have ordered the felling of tens of thousands of poplar trees that account for nearly a third of the region's forests.
But doctors and scientists say the imported trees' pollen and drifting seeds are not a particularly significant allergy problem, and that widespread forest losses may be the bigger threat.
"It is totally a misnomer that poplar cotton acts as an allergen," Tajamul Hussain Shah, of the pulmonary division of the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences, in Srinagar, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Widespread felling of the trees kicked off after the Jammu and Kashmir High Court earlier this month said health threats from poplars should be examined and, if supported, female poplar trees, which produce drifting cotton-like clumps of seeds in the spring, should be felled.
The court decision was the result of a public-interest petition filed by a Srinagar lawyer, stating that poplar pollen could create "havoc for humans with respiratory diseases" and potentially aggravate COVID-19 infections.
The Jammu and Kashmir region has so far seen about 300 confirmed cases of the virus, and four deaths, according to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
Environmentalists and doctors, however, swiftly pointed out that male, rather than female, trees produce pollen, and said that neither the pollen nor seeds from the tree represented a more significant respiratory threat than other spring-blooming plants.
"The desirability of felling of female poplar trees needs to be revisited," environmental experts wrote in a court filing last week.
But many Kashmir district authorities, such as the Pulwama district magistrate, have issued orders that all female poplars be cut within a week, arguing that allergies could be mistaken for coronavirus infection and create "unnecessary panic".
The order said those who fail to comply could face legal penalities for violating disaster management regulations.
Kashmiri authorities also promised to bring in police or state forest workers to carry out the work if it was not done swiftly enough.
ROAR OF CHAINSAWS
In some villages, such as Peth Pohru in Kupwara district, the orders resulted in residents frantically taking to forests and to trees on private land with axes and petrol-powered chainsaws, according to Fida Firdous, 36, who runs a social welfare charity in the village.
Jammu and Kashir has an estimated 10-15 million of the fast-growing poplars, first imported from the United States and Australia in the 1980s in an effort to protect native species by providing a replacement wood for harvest.
The poplar wood is used for everything from wooden fruit crates to plywood and pencils, and the trees have been widely used to restore degraded areas.
But many residents believe the trees provoke serious allergies. Firdous said he was convinced the poplars cause everything from breathing difficulties to coughs, and said residents were racing to remove them before they flowered.
Lawsuits over the trees date back to 2014, when a man complained to the Jammu and Kashmir High Court that poplars planted by his neighbour were threatening the health of his family.
The following year the court banned the sale, purchase and planting of the trees and ordered millions felled.
After environmentalists complained, however, the court asked for further study.
A resulting 2016 report by medical and forest authorities - including Naveed Nazir Shah, head of pulmonary medicine at the government medical college in Srinagar, and now the doctor in charge of coronavirus cases at the city's Chest Diseases Hospital - said poplars do not cause significant allergy problems.
Tariq Hussain Masoodi, dean of the forest faculty at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agriculture Sciences and Technology and one of the contributors to the report, noted that the region's sycamore and pine trees disperse more pollen than poplars.
"Are we going to cut them down as well? Certain varieties of grass are the biggest sources of pollen and allergies. Are we going to convert the Kashmir Valley to ... a desert?" he asked.
He said a more effective way to combat pollen allergies would be for sufferers to wear masks.
"Eradication of exotic varieties of poplars would result in an economic and ecological disaster in Kashmir," he warned. "The government should rather educate people about the difference between coronavirus symptoms and those of seasonal allergies."
The Jammu and Kashmir government Tuesday said it would assemble a team of experts to look at the issue and report back within two weeks.
(Reporting by Ashutosh Sharma ; editing by Laurie Goering : (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
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