Centre says forest cover rising, triggers a debate
India recorded a 0.56% improvement in its forest cover since 2017, taking total forest cover to 21.67% of India’s geographical area, the India State of Forest 2019 report released on Monday said, although experts expressed concerns about plantations being included in the definition of forests and the relative youth of many of the country’s forests.
Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar, who released the report on Monday, said India is among very few countries that may be recording an increase in forest cover.
“The report gives us confidence that we are on track to achieve its commitment under the Paris Agreement of creating an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) by 2030,” he said.
Still, the overall marginal increase in forest cover masks loss of forests inside recorded forest areas, which include reserve forests, protected forests and other forested areas in government records. An assessment of forest cover in the tribal districts of India shows a major loss of 741 sq km inside recorded forest areas in these districts since 2017.
The data also masks the massive loss of forests in several north-eastern states, including Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram.
A deeper look at state-wise forest data shows that most states have younger and smaller trees and a very low number of large, old trees -- an indication, experts said, that these trees may not belong to native species but are a result of recent plantation drives.
“Forest and trees are not the same. We consider even Eucalyptus plantations to be forests because the definition of forest cover is replaced by definition of green cover. The government has played with the definition,” said Vijay Dhasmana, a naturalist.
The definition of forest considered by the Forest Survey of India (FSI), which prepares this biennial report based predominantly on satellite data, gives an “erroneous” impression, according to scientists and forestry experts. FSI says the report considers all lands having trees more than one hectare in area with tree canopy density of more than 10%, irrespective of ownership, legal status of land, and species composition of trees, including orchards, palms, etc. Due to this, palm and other plantations also reflect in the survey and are counted as forests by FSI.
“The tree girth size has been monitored in many places during ground-truthing exercise, so how can plantations be counted?” asked Javadekar during the release of the report.
Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh recorded the highest increase in forest and tree cover while Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya recorded the highest losses.
Javadekar said the total forest and tree cover of the country is 80.73 million hectare, which is 24.56% of the geographical area of the country. “Out of this, the increase in the forest cover has been observed as 3,976 sq km and that in tree cover is 1,212 sq km.” he said.
But it will be good to find out what’s happening to the country’s original forests, said an expert.
“The definition of forest hasn’t changed. It’s still ambiguous and includes coffee , tea, rubber, coconut, mango, and other such non-forest species are included in what they call as forest cover. The problem is that we don’t know what’s happening to our natural forests. FSI should give [natural] forests data separately because they are ecologically important,” said NH Ravindranath, climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Science.
Loss of forests from recorded forest areas
Recorded forest areas, which largely comprise reserved and protected forests, registered a loss of about 330 sq km (an area twice as large as Chandigarh) compared to 2017. This loss is even more, at 741 sq km, if tribal districts of states are considered. But, at a more macro level, part of the loss is compensated by increase in forest cover inside recorded forests elsewhere. There is a gain of about 4,306 sq km in forested areas outside recorded forests, indicating plantations outside protected forest areas. A senior FSI official who spoke on condition of anonymity said there is clearly a decline in “reserved forests” especially in “tribal districts”, perhaps because some “projects” are coming up in some of these areas.
The North-east is losing forests
Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Sikkim together lost about 987 sq km (an area larger than Bengaluru) since the 2017 assessment. “In these states, forest cover is as high as 70% to 80% of the geographical area. So in some years, due to shifting or Jhum cultivation, forest cover goes down,” said Javadekar. Jhum is the local name for slash-and-burn agriculture.
A senior official of the Manipur forest department said: “We are seeing huge forest loss in Manipur mainly because of infrastructure projects and cultivation of some high yielding varieties like ginger and poppy. The railway line which is coming up is passing through dense forest areas.”
Younger trees replacing large, old trees
State-specific tree girth data for the top five species shows more trees are younger and smaller. For example, in Madhya Pradesh about 262,655 teak trees were in the 10-30cm diameter class, none with a diameter more than 60cm diameter class, and only 32,563 in the 30 to 60cm diameter class. Similarly, most of Sal trees were in the 10 to 30cm diameter class, and only 786 in the more than 60cm diameter class. In Odisha over 200,000 Sal trees were in the 10 to 30cm diameter class, while only 3,671 were in the over 60cm diameter class. None of the Chironji trees in Odisha were found to be in the more than 60cm class and only 530 teak trees were in the more than 60cm class. “This shows that these are young plantations. They are gradually replacing old trees. The trend is seen in almost all states,” said the FSI official cited above.
That doesn’t happen in normal forests, said an expert. “In a good, self-sustaining forest, old and young trees should be in the same proportion. Most of our forests have been extracted and these are secondary formations. Some relics of old trees are left in Central India which still has some good forests,” said CR Babu, professor emeritus, Delhi University, and a biodiversity expert.