The assessment carried out biennially shows India’s forest cover has increased by 3,976 sq. km since 2017—a rise of 0. 56%. Tree cover—tree patches of size less than one hectares outside the recorded forest areas, also showed a rise, albeit a little higher at 1.29%.
India’s total forest and tree cover now stands at 80.73 million hectares—roughly 24.5% of its geographical area, and still far from the eventual target of 33%, which India has committed to raise to, by 2030.
But, just like its previous editions, the report seems to have tip-toed around several pertinent issues surrounding forests that ecologists have raised over the years—beginning with how “forest cover” is actually defined in the survey.
Forest Survey of India defines forest cover as “all patches of land, with a tree canopy density of more than 10% and more than one hectare in area, irrespective of land-use, ownership and species of trees”—an assessment relying majorly on satellite mapping.
“If we stick to definition, then any fruit garden, coconut or coffee plantation, or even urban parks would come under ‘forest cover’. So, what we get is an incomplete picture of our forests. This is disconcerting, because if we do not know, how much area we have under ‘natural forests’, we will never know what is happening in our biodiversity-rich Western Ghats or Himalayan forests,” said N.H. Ravindranath, professor, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore.
Satellite mapping also fails to give any insight into the quality of these forests or its biodiversity, even as the government revelled in the “numbers”, showing a rise in forest and tree cover. Also, despite swathes of forest land being converted for non-forest use each year, the ‘losses’ do not reflect in the report.
“We have evidence how several thousand hectares of land is being diverted for non-forest use, taking away lakhs of trees. But the report misses that point. It rather takes a myopic view of who is damaging the forests, by putting the onus on forest-dwelling communities who are dependent on forests for fuelwood or small timber. The big impact areas—the diversion of forest land for roads, dam projects— has been completely disregarded,” said Kanchi Kohli, researcher, New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research.
Kohli is referring to FSI’s new study to assess the dependence of people, living in over 170,000 ‘forest fringe villages’, on forests for fuelwood, fodder, small timber and bamboo, which according to the report, could be a “major driver of impairment of forest productivity”.
Experts also argued that the compensatory plantation done to replace the original, natural forests during diversion of forest-lands for projects have so far yielded no impactful results. Some of these new areas were even earmarked for other projects or expansion of existing ones, even though they remain under government’s Recorded Forest Area (extent of forests in terms of legal status).
“The problem lies in how ‘forests’ are defined in government records. Instead of just canopy cover or hectares, the need is to focus on what is a ‘thriving forest’ or an ‘ecosystem’. What we need is an ecosystem restoration and its time that FSI reorients itself to it,” said Harini Nagendra, professor of sustainability, Azim Premji University, Bangalore.
Also, what we need is real time spatial data of our forest land, she added. “The technology has existed for a long time, then why not share those maps in real time so we know where we are losing our forests.”
Changing climatic conditions have thrown newer challenges. Forests are sink and reservoirs of carbon, thus critical in adaptation to climate change. As part of its climate action plan, India has committed to create an additional carbon sink of 2.5-3 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalent through additional forest cover and tree cover by 2030. However, the existing forests too are facing risk of climate change and loss of biodiversity.
Any afforestation activity undertaken must include an adaptation programme because it is futile planting new trees, which will be adversely impacted due to climate change, said climate scientists. “Land is limited. Our priority must be to protect our existing natural forests and their biodiversity, safeguard the ‘protected areas’ and ‘eco-sensitive zones’ through community involvement and stop the fragmentation of forests—especially a problem in the North-East where forest cover is declining—so that forest areas remain connected to form one big habitat,” said Ravindranath.