Forest report’s conclusion of increase in cover should not lead to complacency
- On January 13, Union environment minister Bhupendra Yadav released India’s 17th ‘State of Forest’ report.
- Prepared by the Forest Survey of India (FSI), the report said the country’s forest and tree cover had increased over the last two years by 2,261 sq. km.
- Specifically, the 2021 report has reported an increase of 79.4 million tonnes of carbon since the last assessment.
Minute significant details
- The country has lost more than 1,600 sq km of natural forests in this period.
- The loss has been compensated by an improvement in the health of some of the protected areas and reserve forests.
- But a large part of the increase is due to more areas coming under plantations, which experts rightly argue are no substitute for natural forests when it comes to providing critical ecological services.
Issues in report
- Using an algorithm, FSI researchers categorised the vegetated area into different ‘classes’ based on the brightness of each pixel: ‘very dense’ forest, ‘moderately dense’ forest and ‘open forest’.
- ‘Very dense’ forests have a canopy density – the fraction covered by the crowns of trees – greater than 70%.
- But FSI has used no clear relationship or ancillary field dataset to arrive at this threshold as per an expert.
Defining Forest cover
- Another similar problem lies with the FSI’s definition of ‘forest cover’.
- According to the body, all tree patches that have a canopy density of more than 10% and are larger than one hectare, irrespective of their legal status, are considered forests, according to Srinivasan.
- This means plantations and monocultures, such as those of coffee and timber, also contribute to this area.
- Indeed, for example, a map of Tamil Nadu in the report showed areas in Kanyakumari district populated with coconut and rubber plantations but labelled them ‘forests’.
- In 2017, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) slotted all plantations, other than oil palm trees, in its definition of forests.
- The classification attracted much criticism and more than 200 scientific bodies, conservation agencies and NGOs shot off an open letter urging the FAO to “change how it defines forests”.
- Plantations are typically composed of even-aged trees of the same species.
- Such monocultures do have economic value and limited utility as carbon sinks.
- But they cannot be compared to natural forests in harbouring biodiversity or aiding pollination or as sources of water bodies.
- The loss of more than 1,000 sq km of natural forests in the Northeast, is, therefore, worrying.
- This is major green-washing and an attempt to show 33% tree cover.
- The 33% is a reference to the National Green India Mission, one of eight missions under India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change.
- Under the mission, the national government hopes to bring a third of its land area under forest cover in a decade or so.
- Scientists have noted that the forest cover data the FSI used is not in the public domain, which means there is no way to verify its claim that India’s forest cover has increased.
- As per an expert, the results of the FSI’s reports were at odds with figures supplied by the National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC).
- Between 1995-1996 and 2011-2013, the FSI reported a sharp increase of forest cover, to the tune of 6 million hectare, but a 2015 NRSC-led study reported a gradual decline.
Trees for tigers
- The new report has some firsts. For example, it assessed the forest cover in tiger reserves and corridors, and found that the total cover in 32 tiger reserves was 55,666 sq. km and in tiger corridors, 11,575 sq. km.
- There is no value in knowing the forest cover in tiger reserves, more so since the report doesn’t ascribe any ecological relevance to this information.
- Just like ‘forests’, tiger reserves are also well-vegetated, and include evergreen forests with grasslands, dry deciduous forests, mangroves, alluvial grasslands, etc.
Northeast forest cover
- According to the report, the total forest cover in India’s biodiversity-rich northeastern states has reportedly dropped by 1,020 sq. km.
- And the states that reported the five biggest drops in forest cover are all here: Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya (in that order).
- The Central government’s ‘Look East’ and other policies directed at infrastructure expansion in the northeast can be understood to be one of the significant factors contributing to the loss of area under forest.
- In this context, the northeast’s greater biodiversity matters if only because losing forests in a biodiverse region and having them replaced in another place by forests that are really monoculture plantations is not a gain.
- But the report doesn’t discuss this aspect.
- Increase forest cover through afforestation and other programmes like National Afforestation Programme (NAP), Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) etc.
- Use remote sensing data more sensibly.
- Make data available in public domain.