Despite climate meet promises, we are trimming forests

Despite climate meet promises, we are trimming forests

As global temperature rises, billions of people are at risk of heatwaves, water shortages and a range of other problems impacting the lives of poorest and most vulnerable people worldwide. 

The new generation of activists, inspired by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, are protesting against the failure of the governments to prevent soil erosion, deforestation, toxic air pollution and acidification of oceans etc. 

On September 20, three days prior to UN climate summit at New York, students all over the world held demonstrations demanding speedy action to mitigate climate disruptions. Greta addressed UN summit reiterating her stand.

That global warming is accelerating is evident from severe heat waves in Europe, deadly fire in western United States, burning of Amazon forests in Brazil, massive tropical storms fuelled by increasingly warm oceans and even simultaneous floods and droughts in India.  

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, speaking at the summit, focused on doing more than what is being done at present to protect the environment. He reiterated worldwide ‘mass movement’ and ‘behavioural change’ to combat climate change. 

Among the steps highlighted by him included: the country would stick to the renewable energy target of 175 Giga Watt (GW) by 2022, which would be further scaled up to 450 GW, and supply of cooking gas to 150 million people. These are important to control carbon pollution.

After this commitment, the Environment and Forest Ministry have many difficult tasks ahead. There are a number of projects where natural forests are to be destroyed for development purposes.

Environmental factors in all projects are to be correctly valued and proper Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has to be done. Clearances for mining, industry and infrastructure projects in virgin forest landscapes should be put off and if it is unavoidable, it must go through EIA. 

Projects like rail and transmission lines are exempted from EIA. The most developed nations do not have these exemptions. Also, the EIA for road projects provided in 1994 notification has been diluted in 2006 and 2014. It is only mandatory for expansion of National Highways greater than 100 km when the right of way is more than 40 m on existing alignment and more than 60 m on realignment and bypasses. 

Rampant widening of roads and changing the land use in the fragile Himalayan region and Western Ghats have repeatedly caused heavy floods, landslides and landslips. Many of these roads are close to fault line putting pressure on already weak points.

 Unstable steep slopes and weak rock structures aggravate the situation further.  During construction and widening, rocks are dynamited, vegetations are removed and natural drainages are disturbed. All this is being done without any EIA and environmental clearance of the projects. 

In Uttarakhand, a total of 889 km-long all-weather roads costing Rs 11,700 crore are being constructed. The muck dumping in rivers and indiscriminate tree felling is a matter of serious concern. There were 36 landslide-prone areas along the roads and now it is expected to go up to 120. All measures to mitigate the impact, including growing compensatory afforestation, are an eyewash. 

At the 14th Conference of Parties (CoP) on UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) held at Greater Noida from September 2, 2019, the central point of the declaration was to combat drought by focusing on restoration of land. This is the cheapest solution for climate change and biodiversity loss. 

The member-countries of UNCCD-CoP 14 have agreed to strengthen the action on the ground so that drought-prone regions do not further expand. A total of 122 countries including India, out of 196 CoP countries, have accepted making their countries land degradation neutral by 2030. 

Satellite imageries interpreted by ISRO in 2016 reveals that 96 million hectares (30% of land area of our country) is under different stages of degradation on account of various factors. They include deforestation, grazing by livestock, forest fire, encroachment in forest land for expansion of agricultural, change in land use pattern especially in hilly terrain, clearing tree growth with an eye on claiming titles under ‘The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006’ etc. 

Reclaiming land

Modi addressed the convention and committed to reclaim lands, focus on conservation and recharge groundwater. He announced that the Indian Council of Forest Research and Education (ICFRE) will be the nodal agency for coordinating and monitoring the actions on ground. 

The ICFRE would extend technical support to other countries in land reclamation programmes. However, his claim that the tree cover in the country has increased by 8 million hectares from 2015 to 2017 is disputed. 

The Forest Survey of India has been regularly improving the methodology for interpretation of satellite imagery and if all their reports (every two years) are compared, we find abrupt changes in some components and total increase becomes questionable. 

Let us understand the vast gap between deforestation of natural trees of very high biodiversity value and planting of few species which might succeed on degraded lands. Reserved forests created in the early years and strict provisions made to protect them have been diluted for various reasons under the plea of development. 

The best result in afforesting degraded areas cannot bring it equal to natural forests. Experiences have shown that not all native species can be grown by artificial methods on degraded land. Eventually, we may succeed in growing a mix of five to six species which may include even exotics like Casurina and Acacia Auriculiformis. 

No species can succeed in highly acidic degraded lands. Areas in arid zone, as well as saline areas, support only sparse vegetation of few species. The carbon sequestration capacity of these forests will be quite low. To halt the accelerating global warming, we must conserve all-natural forests and scale-up tree planting programmes across the globe.  

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

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