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Forest Report

Missing forests: Govt report makes tall claims

Print edition : Feb 25, 2022 T+T-
A wild elephant   straying into human settlements near Kanjikode in Kerala’s Palakkad district on June 17, 2020. There has been a rise in such incidents in recent years owing to several factors, including dwindling forest cover.

A wild elephant straying into human settlements near Kanjikode in Kerala’s Palakkad district on June 17, 2020. There has been a rise in such incidents in recent years owing to several factors, including dwindling forest cover.

Union Environment Minister  Bhupender Yadav releasing the India State of Forest Report 2021, in New Delhi on January 13.

Union Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav releasing the India State of Forest Report 2021, in New Delhi on January 13.

An iron ore processing industry  located inside a forest in Odisha’s mineral-rich Keonjhar district. Many such units are disturbing the ecosystem and leading to forest depletion.

An iron ore processing industry located inside a forest in Odisha’s mineral-rich Keonjhar district. Many such units are disturbing the ecosystem and leading to forest depletion.

The latest Forest Report makes tall claims of rising forest cover but a closer look at the details and the methodology used reveals that all is not well.

The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change released the India State of Forest Report 2021 on January 13, and the major highlight of the report was that the total forest cover in the country had increased by 1,540 square kilometres since the last report, which was presented in 2019. The claim of the Forest Survey of India (FSI), which publishes the report biennially, is that India now has 7,13,789 sq. km of total forest cover. In terms of geographical coverage, the total forest cover is 27.71 per cent of the total geographical area. In 2019, it was 21.67 per cent, and in 2017, it was 21.54 per cent. The report confidently states that the country’s green cover is on the rise.

According to it, India’s overall green cover is 8.09 lakh sq. km, accounting for 24.6 per cent of the country’s geographical area. Releasing the report, Union Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav said that in 17 States and Union Territories, more than one-third of the area was under forest cover.

However, many observers are sceptical of these claims, and rightly so. The devil is in the details. India is actually losing its pristine natural forest areas and not adding to them. Crucial areas like tiger habitats have not been spared denudation, and the total forest cover in tiger country is actually decreasing. Any increase that the report talks of can be attributed to plantations and agroforestry.

No cause for celebration

The report is not a cause for celebration. On the contrary, much is amiss in the scheme of things. No dense forest is being added to the country’s forests. Actually, vast swathes of natural forests with moderate tree cover are being lost to mining and infrastructure projects and expanding urban borders. In fact, the report confirms that ‘Moderate Dense Forest’ areas close to human habitation declined between 2019 and 2021.

Forest types can be classified under five canopy density categories: Very Dense Forest, where canopy density is greater than 70 per cent; Moderate Dense Forest with 40-70 per cent canopy density; Open Forest with 10-40 per cent canopy density; Scrub with canopy of less than 10 per cent; and Non-Forest, which are lands not included in the above classes. Another category, called recorded forest area, refers only to those areas recorded as forests in government records.

The FSI defines forest cover as all land of a hectare or more that has trees with a canopy density of more than 10 per cent. These trees can be on any land, and issues such as land ownership, land use or tree species are immaterial. This means that bamboo, commercial plantations and agroforests all come under the Open Forest category. There has been a marked rise in these types, which has resulted in giving a false boost to the extent of forest cover.

Out of the total increase in forest cover stated in the report, 18.67 per cent is contributed by the Moderate Dense Forest and Open Forest categories, while the Very Dense Forest category has contributed only 3.04 percent. A look at the comparative figures of the 2019 Forest Report and the current one shows that the Very Dense Forest segment, commonly referred to as pristine and natural forests, has actually been declining. A 501 sq. km increase in Very Dense Forest cover is negligible. The Moderate Dense Forest category has actually declined by 1,582 sq. km, while Non-Forests have diminished by 1,781 sq. km. (See table.)

Methodology under fire

The main criticism of the report involves the methodology used. Data for the report were compiled using State-level tree inventories. There is some doubt about the veracity of these in terms of accuracy or whether States even bother to carry out such surveys. Moreover, the FSI’s insistence on using tree canopy density as the primary measure of forest cover results in a skewed picture, as does the trend started by the 2019 Forest Report of including trees outside officially recorded forests. Experts have long argued that tree density should not be the main parameter to judge the changes in forest cover. Forests need to be judged in their entirety—as biodiverse wholes—and not as a sum total of the trees. They need to be judged by their biodiversity, the wildlife they support and the livelihoods they provide. The sparse-looking forests of central India are as biodiverse as the lush forests of the Western Ghats and are no less in any way although there is a vast difference in the tree canopy cover.

The inclusion of commercial plantations, agroforestry and compensatory afforestation projects is also misleading. These are home to trees but they are not forests in the true sense of the term. Many are often gigantic tracts of monoculture land, often of non-native species that do not contribute to biodiversity in any manner. They are like green deserts with none of the mutually beneficial activities of nature like nesting birds, pollinating insects, wildlife or humans who are forest-dependent.

In any case, these ‘forests’ are mostly curated and managed by corporations that purposefully exclude wildlife and forest-dependent communities from them. They contribute little to the region and are often cut down for commercial reasons.

Why then are these included in the Forest Report? Quite simply, to greenwash or bolster the figures to show that forest policy is being complied with. Part of the problem again lies in the method relied on for collecting information. Apart from State-level tree inventories, satellite data of green cover are used, which do not differentiate between primary or pristine forests and a fruit orchard.

The report also says that tree cover has shown a decadal rise. It is estimated at 95,748 sq. km, which is 4,904 sq. km more than the cover in the 2011 Forest Report. This includes the ‘Trees Outside Forest Area’ category, which records all trees outside recorded forest areas regardless of the patch size and has led to a considerable increase in numbers in the report. States that lead in this category are Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh. But the point to be noted here once again is the quality of the forest patches being included in the surveys.

Much of the rise in ‘Trees Outside Forests’ constitute growing stock, which is basically trees grown for commercial felling. These are almost uniformly monoculture plantations contributing little to biodiversity and sometimes, as in the case of eucalyptus, actually taking away from the environment. Of course, there are exceptions in the plantations of sal, teak, chir pine and mango. In India, the growing stock has risen by 6.92 per cent since 2015. National figures for growing stock show a growing density of 56.60 cubic metres per hectare. Maharashtra has the highest density of 187 cubic metres per hectare.

Loss of cover

A worrying loss in forest cover has been noted in hill districts in Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, Assam, Meghalaya, West Bengal, Tripura and Sikkim. Districts that are 500 metres above mean sea level are supposed to maintain two-thirds of their area under forest cover. The rule came about because of the fragility of hill ecosystems. Good tree cover is a preventive against erosion, landslides and general land degradation, keeping the environment stable for humans and wildlife. A total of 902 sq. km of forest loss has o ccurred in these nine districts.

In addition, 216 tribal districts in 26 States have seen forest cover loss of 655 sq. km, according to the report. This has happened inside ‘Recorded Forest Areas’, the forest areas that are supposed to be pristine. The gain of 600 sq. km outside ‘Recorded Forest Areas’ does not quite make up for the loss. The worst losses were in Arunachal Pradesh where 16 tribal districts lost 257 sq. km of forest. The north-eastern region has actually taken quite a hit, with 1,020 sq. km of forest cover lost to jhum cultivation, a traditional farming method, and so-called development.

The National Forest Policy, 1988, called for a targeted increase in the area under forest cover, aiming to bring 33.3 per cent of the country’s geographical area under it. The country is clearly nowhere near this target. In 2011, the forest cover as a proportion of the total geographical area was 21.05 per cent. This rose to 21.23 per cent in 2013; 21.34 per cent in 2015; 21.54 per cent in 2017; 21.67 per cent in 2019 and 21.71 per cent in 2021. Not only have the figures been creeping up painfully slowly, the contribution sadly comes not from Dense Forest Areas but from plantations and areas under Open Forests.

Unanswered questions

And, finally, the most obvious questions: if, as the government claims, one-fourth of India is under forest cover, why are we losing biodiversity, why are leopards and other wild animals venturing out of their wild areas, why did a herd of elephants move slowly from Odisha down to Maharashtra, why are there so many instances of humans killing wild animals, why is the tiger population dwindling, and why is there so much red tape to implement wildlife corridors? Clearly, wild India is being denuded.

The loss of pristine and natural forests needs to be highlighted and the government urgently needs to focus on it.The biennial Forest Report is an excellent initiative but it needs some serious tweaking. More than anything it must acknowledge the integrity of what constitutes a forest. It must see the area in its entirety as a complex ecosystem that sustains the local environment, wildlife and the people who are forest-dependent.

There is a new urgency in conservation brought on by the perils of climate change. Forests will play a huge role in mitigating drastic change.

India did not sign the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use at the Conference of Parties (COP26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in November 2021 because it found the links between trade, forest issues and climate change too restrictive.

The Declaration essentially called for countries to “halt and reverse deforestation and land degradation by 2030”. India is among the top 10 forest-rich countries in the world.

The country occupies 2.4 per cent of the world’s land area and accounts for about 2 per cent of the world’s forests. In this context, India’s refusal to sign the Declaration, seen in conjunction with the strong possibility of changes being made to the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, makes for an ominous future for forests.