A technical assessment by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) of India’s submission on forest cover has raised concerns about the country’s definition of forests, which experts say exaggerates forest cover and inadvertently masks deforestation. The global body has recommended that India delineate areas under orchards, and bamboo and palm cultivation for an accurate assessment of carbon stocks of forests. The exaggeration could fall at least in the range of 5-12% of the forest cover, going by the submissions made by India to the UN body and estimates by scientists at Indian Institute of Science (IISc). India’s definition of forests has been criticised by scientists in the past on the grounds that it doesn’t provide an accurate picture of the extent of biodiversity in rich natural forests. The government considers an area of one hectare (ha) or more with at least 10% canopy cover, irrespective of land use and ownership, including all land that meets the forest thresholds — tree crops, fruit orchards, bamboo and agro-forestry — as a forest. India submitted its Forest Reference Levels (FRL) in 2018 to the UN’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+), which is an effort to value the carbon stored in forests to create incentives for developing countries to protect their environment. The FRL is a baseline for the assessment of emission reduction through forests. Emission reduction efforts under REDD+ can be monetised through a market mechanism. The technical assessment team of UNFCCC had asked India for a modified report with a break-up of geographical areas under plantations, mono-cultures and other types of forests. The modified report estimates area under plantations to be about 33,818 sq km, which is about 5% of India’s total forest cover in 2008. But the report also said “it is not possible to delineate the area under plantations and orchards by the satellite data used for the forest cover mapping.” The data on plantations was derived from various government records of state forest departments, topographical contour maps and other data, and thus the information was not complete, India clarified in its report.An IISc study, published in 2014 in the journal Current Science, said India’s forest definition masks deforestation because an increase in area under plantations reflect as increase in forest cover. At least 87,910 sq km, or about 12.7% of the total forest cover, could be plantations or orchards, said the study. “In fact, the area under plantations or monocultures could be much higher. It needs to be assessed with satellite data and ground-truthing. We have reported that tea, coffee, areca nut, eucalyptus, mango, rubber, oil palm all fall under our forest definition. Our study also showed what India’s modified FRL report shows that the ambiguity in forest definition is actually masking deforestation in states,” said NH Ravindranath, IISc scientist and forestry expert. Another expert said the representation of forest cover “should not be reduced to a number game”. “The idea of forest cover has to be directly connected with livelihoods and biodiversity including wildlife. By counting new plantations as forest cover, policy often ignores the ecological and livelihood security linked with forests,” said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher at the Centre for Policy Research.The modified FRL report that provides a baseline for 2004-2008, also gives a forest cover change matrix that shows India lost a large forest area outside declared forests to deforestation. Some area of “very dense forest” was also lost between 2004 and 2008.Siddhanta Das, director general of forests, ministry of environment and forests, said it may be difficult to delineate the area under plantations through satellite imagery alone.The environment ministry has drafted a policy for public-private partnerships (PPP) to develop plantations in “degraded” forests. This awaits Cabinet approval, but activists say such policies will lead to a further reduction of native, biodiversity rich forests and impact key wildlife species and forest dwellers.