Forest conservation and agroforestry

Forest conservation and agroforestry

The history of forest management in India has largely been of exploitation of forests to generate revenue.

India has 18% of world’s human population, 16% cattle, 2.5% geographical area, and only 1.7% world’s forest. Nearly 70% of country’s land is in dry tropics, receiving less than 900 millimetres of rainfall, and even now, over 60% of domestic energy is biomass based.

Despite all this pressure, it is home to 60% of tiger population of the world. By and large, people of the country have been conservative in use of forest resources, and have helped in protection of forests and wildlife.

The history of forest management in the country has largely been of exploitation of forests to generate revenue and products. During the Mughal period, forests were destroyed for two reasons; firstly to prevent the onslaught by natives forces, and secondly for expansion of agriculture. 

The situation of forest destruction continued at an accelerated scale during the British period with similar purpose, and also for market and maritime trade development.  After 1857, there was a clear policy of exploitation of forest in India, and large chunks of forests were also given on lease for growing of commercial crops like tea, coffee and rubber. 

After independence, the economy of the country was so poor that forests were exploited to meet the developmental requirements. The shortage of food was so severe that under the Grow More Food campaign of 1952, a District Forest Officer in certain parts could release up to 10 acres of land on lease for growing of food crops.
Almost simultaneous with the self-sufficiency in food in early 1970s, the national thinking moved towards conservation of nature, forest and wildlife. During the unfortunate period of Emergency, a silver lining came by way of an ordinance, by which diversion of forest land for non-forestry purpose could only take place with the concurrence of the Central government. 

Later on, this was converted into the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. The position of forest conservation was further strengthened by an order of the Supreme Court in 1996, wherein it defined that the word ‘forest’ will mean and include both the legal and the dictionary meanings. This was all very favourable for the cause of conservation of forest. 

This Act has come as a shock to the community of forest conservationist. It provides that for those who have lived on a piece of forest land for at least three generations, the forest land should be given over to them. The most unfortunate part is that no political party has taken a stand that forest lands must be inviolate and that forest ecosystems have a great role in survival and welfare of humans.

A classic case of good forest conservation was seen in Madhya Pradesh. In Kanha National Park, the forests are maintained as a natural entity, without removal of any trees.   The surrounding areas of these Sal forests were worked for removal of timber.

In the worked areas lakhs of trees were drying up. It was found that the death of the trees was due to a type of borer which was attacking these trees. In the naturally managed National Park, the population of these insects remained under check and the borer epidemic was seen.

A study by the Forest Survey of India in 1996 revealed that the country’s forests have five times more pressure of removal on them, than what they can sustainably cope.

During the same period, it was also indicated that nearly half of our forest area does not have adequate natural regeneration. A good forest has different age, size, classes and therefore, the natural regeneration and poles are essential components of a good forest. 

Restocking of forests

There is an urgent need to take up restoration and restocking of all those forest areas which are presently in a degraded state. The latest India State of Forest Report, 2015, reveals that 9.14% of the country’s land area has open forest, where the canopy density is 10-40%.

Similarly, 1.26% of the country’s area has scrub land - canopy density less than 10%. These two constitute nearly 30 million hectares of degraded forest land, which needs to be restored for the ecological security of the country.

Conservation of soil and moisture can both happen with appropriate agroforestry. In the dry areas, a row of trees and shrubs, planted as a column, works as shelterbelt. It can prevent the drying effects of winds and thereby help in retention of better soil moisture.  

This impact of shelterbelt is felt for a considerable width; it could be eight times the height of the trees. Let us say if the height of trees is 10 metres, then the wind will start rising 30 metres before the row of trees, and it would touch down after 50 metres. In parts of Karnataka where it has been practiced, the yield of ragi has increased by 25-30%.

(The writer is former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Karnataka)

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