Concerns about vanishing forests

Modern tools need to be aligned with that of indigenous knowledge to evolve a strategy for forest conservation...

On the occasion of World forestry Day today (March 21), it is important to know and analyse the reasons for disappearance of the greenery from our midst.  The global forests are decreasing at an alarming rate. A study by University of Maryland and Google shows that the world lost 2.3 million sq km of forests between 2000 and 2012, the equivalent of losing 50 soccer fields worth forests every minute for the past 13 years.

The Washington based World Resources Institute (WRI) reports that 30 per cent of the global forest cover has been cleared, and another 20 per cent has been degraded, fragmented and only 15 per cent is in tact. With the aim to monitor the existing forests, WRI launched a dynamic online Global Forest Watch (GFW) in February 2014. It unites satellite technology and crowd sourcing to track the deforestation anywhere in the world. It enables the people all over the world to participate in assessing the forest wealth and set in a motion of two way process of establishing a dialogue to share people’s experiences on illegal logging and fire.

Just by clicking on each region, it is able to generate the data on forest cover over the years, extent of threats and also information on gain in forest cover. With this basic information the global forest watch aims at generating reliable open data to assist in better forest management in coming years. Obviously, it is a novel idea that provides the modern tool to generate real time data on the condition of forests. Nevertheless, there is a limit to how much these modern tools can contribute to create an understanding of the true nature of forests on the ground. The reality of deforestation is difficult to be comprehended by these tools. At the most, they can be indicative, providing global trends but the ground reality is very different.

Ground realityThe case in point is our own situation in Uttara Kannada district in Karntaka that falls under the fragile tropical forest regions of Western Ghats. It had 81 per cent of the geographical area classified as forests in 1950s. The present satellite data shows that what is remaining is a meagre 35 per cent in 2012. But in real terms the forest cover is less than 10 per cent! This is because the satellite imageries include monoculture forest or forest plantations as ‘forests’. If this is excluded, the remaining natural growth forests are very less. The scientific community calls for a minimum of 66 per cent natural forest cover in the hill regions of Westen Ghats. Thus, the satellite data needs to be analysed based on ground realities.

There is another major problem with this technique of assessing global forests. They are unable to decipher the changing nature of the forests. In recent years the composition of forest tree species in the evergreen tropical forest is changing drastically.

According to Dr Shankar of Kerala Forest Research Institute, “The wet tropical forests of Western Ghats in Kerala is changing, becoming drier resulting in change in the species of trees, essentially it is an irreversible change that has huge impact on forest resources”. Once again coming back to the forests of Uttara Kannada, the Amla (emblica) trees are flowering but it is not yielding fruits for the past five years. The reasons are unknown. Is it because of global warming and climate change? Is it because of lack of pollination due to disappearance of insects like honeybees?

In real terms, these indicators of changing nature of the forests is difficult to assess with the tools of global forest watch. The melting of Himalayan glaciers is a global concern raising the alarm bells on the impact of climate change including the last year’s disaster in Kedarnath. However a similar phenomenon of changing the nature of forests is taking place in the global forests, especially in the fragile tropical forest regions like Western Ghats and Amazon. However, the world is unaware of this invisible change.

The green patches on the computer screen shows the extent of forests, but in reality there are numerous indigenous people living in these forests. They have been living in these harsh conditions for generations, and have enormous knowledge of the forest wealth. They know how to harvest the non-timber forest produce and lead a sustainable livelihood. This wealth of indigenous knowledge can provide the basis for a clear understanding of how the climate change is impacting the nature of global forest at local level.

The need of the hour is to align the modern tools of global forest watch with that of the ground level knowledge of the ingenious people to assess the forest condition and to evolve a strategy towards conserving global forest resources.

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