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Farmland trees that provide shade dwindle amid heat surge: Study

ByJayashree Nandi
May 20, 2024 12:33 AM IST

The depletion is the highest in Telangana, Haryana, Kerala, Maharastra, Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, where extreme heat is more pronounced

At a time when the impacts of climate crisis are becoming severe, with most of India suffering from extreme heat, farmland trees with large crowns that provide cool shade have disappeared to an alarming extent, a new study has found.

A potential driver of tree losses is climate change, with rapid increases in temperature in central and southern India, and unfavourable trends in rainfall and drought over the past decade, the paper underlined. But, climate change may not be the direct and main reason for the high loss of farmland trees.  (HT Photo)
A potential driver of tree losses is climate change, with rapid increases in temperature in central and southern India, and unfavourable trends in rainfall and drought over the past decade, the paper underlined. But, climate change may not be the direct and main reason for the high loss of farmland trees.  (HT Photo)

Of the 0.6 billion farmland trees mapped In India in 2010-11, around 11% had disappeared by 2018, according to research led by the Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management at the University of Copenhagen. These are trees with about 96 sqm crown cover.

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The depletion is the highest in Telangana, Haryana, Kerala, Maharastra, Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, where extreme heat is more pronounced.

Moreover, during 2018-22, more than 5 million large farmland trees (about 67 sqm crown cover) have vanished, partly due to altered cultivation practices, where trees on farms are perceived as detrimental to crop yields.

“These observations are particularly unsettling given the current emphasis on agroforestry as a pivotal natural climate solution, playing a crucial role in both climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies, in addition to being important for supporting agricultural livelihoods and improving biodiversity,” said the paper published on May 15 in Nature Sustainability, a peer-reviewed journal.

According to a recent land cover map referred to by the authors, 56% of India is covered by farmland, and only 20% is covered by forest. While the separation of forests and tree plantations is not always clear, it is certain that these classifications exclude a large part of India’s trees scattered within farmlands, in urban areas or grown as hedgerows, the authors said.

The farmland trees data used in the study included the RapidEye archive, which provides global coverage from micro satellites back to August 2008, and PlanetScope, which provides imagery starting 2017. These satellite groups provide an opportunity of repeated global coverage with images at a spatial resolution of 3-5 m, which allows the identification of individual trees, the paper said.

A potential driver of tree losses is climate change, with rapid increases in temperature in central and southern India, and unfavourable trends in rainfall and drought over the past decade, the paper underlined. But, climate change may not be the direct and main reason for the high loss of farmland trees.

“This is the first large-scale study that maps and monitors individual trees at the Indian subcontinental scale using imagery at 5 and 3 m resolution. The created datasets of the location of around 597 million individually distinct large trees in non-forest areas - farms, urban areas, and bare land can have many uses. The study methodology would certainly be of interest to the Forest Survey of India, which would presumably be looking at it carefully,” said Chetan Agarwal, environment analyst.

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“The recent report of a Supreme Court appointed Committee had clearly identified older /larger trees as having a higher ecological value. In this context the loss of large trees between 2010-2018 and 2018-22 is alarming and raises questions about the nature of agricultural intensification and its collateral damage in the form of intensified tree loss,” Agarwal added.

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