Deforestation paints a grim picture

Deforestation paints a grim picture

World Forestry Day was celebrated last month to create awareness about the significance of forests in our lives and the urgent need for its conservation. The Earth without forests would lay barren like other planets.

Without forests, there is no oxygen to breathe, water to drink, fertile soil to grow agricultural crops, plants to cure ailments, minerals for industrial production, fossil fuels to drive cars or food to live. The forest ecosystem is not substitutable if the human population of 750 crore has to survive.

However, an unsustainable economic development after the industrial revolution has caused a widespread global destruction and deforestation that has affected both the productive and protective services of forests. It has been reflected in increasing ecological footprints in terms of per capita carbon dioxide emissions and climate change.

In the last five decades, the world’s economic output in terms of production and consumption has increased from $24 trillion to $70 trillion, while the earth has lost half of its forests and along with it the capacity to stock carbon. Although natural capital plays a significant role in the world’s GDP, it is hardly acknowledged in it. This has directly contributed to a widespread appropriation of forest land for development activities.

Deforestation and degradation of forests are attributed to the root and proximate causes. The root causes include a failure to make economic decisions keeping in mind the direct and indirect values of the forests. Government policy failures encourage deforestation through promoting commercial agriculture. Besides, forests face threats from an ever growing and dense population that often appropriates forest land.

The proximate causes of deforestation are location specific. They include changes in land use for agriculture and commercial crops, illegal timber logging, forest fires, mining, illegal encroachment on forest land, grazing, submergence of forests under dam, man-animal conflicts, uncontrolled tourism, mushrooming of resorts around national parks, road and railway network expansion, hydroelectricity production, waterways diversion etc.

The pattern of deforestation is changing with commercialisation of agriculture and export promotion. The natural forests are replaced by the fast growing and alien species like eucalyptus and Silver Oak in the Western Ghats to grow coffee.

The high density and diversity of native forests is fast disappearing with replacement of monoculture and exotic forest species. They are being replaced with species of trees and plants that are ecologically hostile. It gives an appearance of the existence of a forest, however degraded. This degradation is rampant in India.

Lurking danger

The paucity of rain due to extreme climate change has resulted in the increase of dry-deciduous forests replacing ever-green forests. This in turn is going to dry up the rivers and rivulets. These factors harbinger more threats to an already ecologically sensitive Western Ghats (WG). Moreover, efforts to save the ecologically sensitive areas (ESA) of the WG have been hampered by the trade-off between conservation and development.

Both the Gadgil and the Kasturirangan committees highlighted the need for conservation of the WG, however, they differ in classifying ESAs and permitting development activities. The WG require a separate development plan combining economic incentives and taxes.

Estimation of the total economic value of the WG will help understand the need to conserve it against unsustainable development. The economic contribution of the WG as natural capital needs to be incorporated in the modified national accounts, such as the Green Gross Domestic Product Account.

An afforestation fund for WG conservation and management is crucial to secure forest land from encroachment, besides giving incentives to farmers to grow native and endemic forest species and preserve ecological sensitive areas.

For instance, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have to make payment for an ecosystem of services of forests of Kodagu district for provision of Cauvery water. Such payment systems will help conserve forests in Kodagu, just like forest land that has been secured in Catskill and Delaware watersheds to ensure sustainable drinking water in New York City.

(The writer is Associate Professor and Head, Centre for Economic Studies and Policy, Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bengaluru)