Forests for the future

Forests for the future

Forests for the future

The India State of Forest Report (ISFR) 2017, which was released last month, showed the country had gained almost one percent of total forest cover in the last two years. From 7,01,673 sq km to 7,08,273 sq km since its last assessment in 2015, the biannual report also pointed towards an expansion of agro-forestry and private forestry.

Additionally, what was hailed as a huge success by Union Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change Harsh Vardhan, was the increase in the Very Dense Forest (VDF) cover of the nation. "Despite tremendous population and pressures of livestock on our forests, India has been able to preserve and expand its forest wealth," said Harsh Vardhan declaring the report as a proof of the success of key government greening schemes.

Masked data

In contrast to the rosy picture painted by this report, however, there seems to be a very different state of Indian forests as seen by eyewitnesses, environmentalists and experts who have observed the sometimes gradual and sometimes swift disappearance of trees, wilderness areas and entire forests across the country.

The Western Ghats, for example, has lost 35.3% of the total forest over the last 90 years as per the Indian Space Research Organisation's (ISRO) National Remote Sensing report of 2016. This indicates that it is a vulnerable ecosystem. Rapid urbanisation and the urgency to accommodate the human population's need for houses and offices have been visibly engulfing forests of Tier I and Tier II cities in India.

The ISFR itself seems to be masking massive deforestation in some areas while highlighting other areas that have turned green. A closer look reveals the areas mentioned to have grown green in last two years are not necessarily natural forests, but plantations. Data in the report shows that between 2015 and 2017, over 21,000 sq km of standing forests were completely erased. However, in the same period, more than 24,000 sq km of completely barren lands turned green!

As the state with the second highest green cover in the country, Karnataka has shown a rise to 37,550 sq km, from 36,421 sq km in 2015. Surprisingly, even urban Bengaluru with its ever-increasing glass-box shaped offices has shown an increase of 114 sq km of urban forests. The patches of forests in the Western Ghats districts of Shivamogga and Kodagu, however, have shown a decline of 189 sq km of forests.

Interestingly, as the report classifies green covers as 'Dense forest with canopy cover of 70% or more'; 'Moderately dense forest with canopy cover of 70-40%'; and 'Open forest cover of canopy cover of 40-10%', there is no way of knowing whether this is because of natural forests or plantations.

According to Punati Sridhar, principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife), the increase in urban Bengaluru cover could be owing to the 8 lakh seedlings of Melia dubia that were distributed as government greening efforts. If this is indeed the case, it points to a single species 'human-made' growth, distinct from an actual biodiverse forest. India has around 19 lakh hectares under plantation crops out of which south Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka account for 60% of the plantations owing to tea, coffee, rubber and spice plantations.

In nature, where it takes decades, sometimes centuries to replenish what has been lost and grow an entire forest, two years is a minuscule span to expect barren lands turning into lush forests naturally. Even with human intervention, two years is a short time for diverse growth and such greening is only possible if a single species or a limited number of species are grown through 'assisted regeneration'.

A catch in the way the government survey is being conducted is the lack of demarcation of lands which are natural forests and others that are commercial plantations. The government counts as 'forest cover' any area more than one hectare in size that has more than 10% green canopy. Apart from traditional or natural forests that meet the criteria, this definition also includes tea and coffee gardens, and orchards. Thus, the report does not necessarily point to forest cover increase but rather points to everything 'green'.

India's population has increased more than three times since 1947 and
between 1951 and 1980, 62% of forest land has been diverted to agriculture. Under such circumstances, it seems unreal that the country should have been able to maintain a consistent 20% forest cover. Is it a number only on papers?

Celebrate or scrutinise

There could be multiple reasons for the one percent increase as the latest government report indicates. Ajay Kumar Saxena, programme manager, Environmental Governance-Forestry with Centre for Science and Environment, highlighted, "Since the assessment area is not constant and figures from other parameters are not so encouraging, we should restrain from celebrating the forest cover increase."  

Another point to note is the methodology used to gather the data. The Forest Survey of India uses satellite images for the assessment. According to senior environment journalist and author Jay Mazoomdar, "In the 1980s, satellite imagery mapped forests on a scale of 1:1 million, and thus missed details of land units smaller than 4 sq km. The significantly refined 1:50,000 scale now scans patches as small as one hectare, and any unit that shows a 10% canopy density is considered 'forest'. So, millions of tiny plots that earlier went unnoticed, now contribute to India's official forest cover."

On the other hand, a nation-wide study titled 'Persistent negative changes in seasonal greenness over different forest types of India using MODIS time series NDVI data (2001-2014)' based on satellite-derived data, conducted by ISRO, whose findings were also released last month, points that all 14 types of forests in India are being lost. These include Himalayan moist temperate forests, wet evergreen forests of Northeast India, Western Ghats, moist deciduous forests of Chattisgarh and dry deciduous forests of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. "Most of the forest types showed more than 80% of the total negative changes in seasonal greenness in the core forest areas," says this report.

There is reason to be cautious about the perceived forest cover of India, especially when we are made to believe that any kind of green cover is good enough to cope for the loss of an actual natural forest. A study by researchers at the Joint Research Centre, the European Commission's science and knowledge service, has shown how land use change too is contributing to climate change. "Modifying the vegetation cover alters the surface properties - such as the amount of heat dissipated by water evaporation and the level of radiation reflected back into space - which has a knock-on effect on local surface temperature," the report reveals.

It also points out that, "Removal of tropical evergreen forest for agricultural expansion is the vegetation cover transition most responsible for local increases in surface temperature." What this clearly indicates is while official reports might show that India's forest cover is increasing, the actual loss of cover of the 'real forests', apparent through naked eyes but not on papers, could also be responsible for the rising temperature and contributing to global warming. It is time now to state the bare facts and figure out urgent means and methods to save our forest wealth.

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