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Friday, January 28, 2022

Explained: Takeaways from Forest Report

The India State of Forest Report has found the country’s forest cover has increased by 1,540 sq km since 2019. But a decline in the Northeast, and degradation of natural forests are a concern, experts note.

Written by Esha Roy | New Delhi |
Updated: January 14, 2022 7:44:34 am
Mattewara forest in Ludhiana. (Express Photo: Gurmeet Singh)

The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) on Thursday released the India State of Forest Report (ISFR) 2021. The report showed a continuing increase in forest cover across the country, but experts flagged some of its other aspects as causes for concern, such as a decline in forest cover in the Northeast, and a degradation of natural forests.

What is the India State of Forest Report?

It is an assessment of India’s forest and tree cover, published every two years by the Forest Survey of India under the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change. The first survey was published in 1987, and ISFR 2021 is the 17th.

India is one of the few countries in the world that brings out such an every two years, and this is widely considered comprehensive and robust. With data computed through wall-to-wall mapping of India’s forest cover through remote sensing techniques, the ISFR is used in planning and formulation of policies in forest management as well as forestry and agroforestry sectors.

Gains and losses in forest cover since 2019

ISFR 2021: What are the key findings?

ISFR 2021 has found that the forest and tree cover in the country continues to increase with an additional cover of 1,540 square kilometres over the past two years.

* India’s forest cover is now 7,13,789 square kilometres, 21.71% of the country’s geographical area, an increase from 21.67% in 2019. Tree cover has increased by 721 sq km.

* The states that have shown the highest increase in forest cover are Telangana (3.07%), Andhra Pradesh (2.22%) and Odisha (1.04%).

* Five states in the Northeast – Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland have all shown loss in forest cover.

* Mangroves have shown an increase of 17 sq km. India’s total mangrove cover is now 4,992 sq km.

* The survey has found that 35.46 % of the forest cover is prone to forest fires. Out of this, 2.81 % is extremely prone, 7.85% is very highly prone and 11.51 % is highly prone

* The total carbon stock in country’s forests is estimated at 7,204 million tonnes, an increase of 79.4 million tonnes since 2019.

* Bamboo forests have grown from 13,882 million culms (stems) in 2019 to 53,336 million culms in 2021.

What kind of forests are growing?

While ISFR 2021 has shown an increasing trend in forest cover overall, the trend is not uniform across all kinds of forests. Three categories of forests are surveyed – very dense forests (canopy density over 70%), moderately dense forests (40-70%) and open forests (10-40%). Scrubs (canopy density less than 10%) are also surveyed but not categorised as forests.

Very dense forests have increased by 501 sq km. This is a healthy sign but pertains to forests that are protected and reserve forests with active conservation activities.

Experts say that was is worrying is a 1,582 sq km decline in moderately dense forests, or “natural forests”. The decline, in conjunction with an increase of 2,621 sq km in open forest areas – shows a degradation of forests in the country, say experts, with natural forests degrading to less dense open forests. Also, scrub area has increased by 5,320 sq km – indicating the complete degradation of forests in these areas, they say.

What explains the decline in the Northeastern states?

The Northeast states account for 7.98% of total geographical area but 23.75% of total forest cover. The forest cover in the region has shown an overall decline of 1,020 sq km in forest cover. While states in the Northeast continue to have some of the largest forested areas, such as Mizoram (84.5% of its total geographical area is forests) or Arunachal Pradesh (79.3%), the two states have respectively lost 1.03% and 0.39% of their forest cover, while Manipur has lost 1.48 %, Meghalaya 0.43%, and Nagaland 1.88%.

The report has attributed the decline in the Northeastern states to a spate of natural calamities, particularly landslides and heavy rains, in the region as well as to anthropogenic activities such as shifting agriculture, pressure of developmental activities and felling of trees.

Experts say that this loss is of great concern as the Northeastern states are repositories of great biodiversity. While natural calamities may have led to much of the loss, the declining forests will in turn increase the impact of landslides, they say. It will also impact water catchment in the region, which is already seeing degradation of its water resources. Unlike other states, where forests are clearly managed by the forest department and state governments, the Northeastern states follow a different ownership pattern — community ownership and protected tribal land – which makes conservation activities challenging.

What else does the report cover?

ISFR 2021 has some new features. It has for the first time assessed forest cover in tiger reserves, tiger corridors and the Gir forest which houses the Asiatic lion.

The forest cover in tiger corridors has increased by 37.15 sq km (0.32%) between 2011-2021, but decreased by 22.6 sq km (0.04%) in tiger reserves. Forest cover has increased in 20 tiger reserves in these 10 years, and decreased in 32. Buxa, Anamalai and Indravati reserves have shown an increase in forest cover while the highest losses have been found in Kawal, Bhadra and the Sunderbans reserves.

Pakke Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh has the highest forest cover, at nearly 97%.

What impact has climate change had?

The report estimates that by 2030, 45-64% of forests in India will experience the effects of climate change and rising temperatures, and forests in all states (except Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Nagaland) will be highly vulnerable climate hot spots. Ladakh (forest cover 0.1-0.2%) is likely to be the most affected. India’s forests are already showing shifting trends of vegetation types, such as Sikkim which has shown a shift in its vegetation pattern for 124 endemic species.

In 2019-20, 1.2 lakh forest fire hotspots were detected by the SNPP_VIIRS sensor, which increased to 3.4 lakh in 2020-21. The highest numbers of fires were detected in Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

How comprehensive a picture does the survey present?

Experts say the survey results could be misleading as it includes plantations – such as coffee, coconuts or mango and other orchards – under forest cover. These plantations are distinctly different from natural forests where one hectare would be home to hundreds of species of trees, plants and fauna, whereas such plantations house only one species of tree. The forest survey is carried out as an assessment of India’s biodiversity, but such an overarching survey does not meet that objective, experts say.

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