The biennial State of Forest Report (SFR), released Monday by Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar, announced an overall gain of 3,976 sq km of forests in India since 2017. But hidden in the not-so-fine print of the report is a loss of 2,145 sq km of dense forests that have become non-forests in those two years.
What largely offset this loss is the conversion of 1,858 sq km of non-forest areas to dense forests since 2017. Dense forests are defined by canopy cover: over 70% is considered very dense and 40-70% medium dense. Unlike natural forests, commercial plantations grow rapidly and show up as dense cover in satellite images. A monoculture, however, cannot substitute natural forests in biodiversity or ecological services.
Dr Subhash Ashutosh, Director General, Forest Survey of India, told The Indian Express: “Some of these are fast-growing species such as bamboo in the north-eastern region. Also rubber and coconut plantations in the southern states. We need more time and resources if we are to identify and classify plantations through ground-truthing in the biennial report.”
Since 2003 when this data was first made available, 18,065 sq km — more than one third of Punjab’s landmass — of dense forests have become non-forests in the country. Nearly half of this — 8,552 sq km — since 2015.
On paper, much of this destruction of quality natural forests was compensated by plantations — a total of 10,227 sq km of non-forests became dense forests in successive two-year windows since 2003. Again, more than half of this — 5,458 sq km — since 2015.
Leading ecologist Dr Madhav Gadgil said: “It is not possible to reconcile such matrix unless the FSI shares the spatial data. With so much advancement in science, the government should make its grid data public for open scrutiny and value addition.”
Dr Ashutosh said: “Anyone can access the forest data for a nominal fee. I have proposed that access should be made free in the future. But we do not share raw data unless it is a collaborative research with the FSI.”
The SFR 2019 data underlines the scale of forest loss on what is forestland on government records. The FSI has identified 7,28,520 sq km as recorded forest area in the country. Of this, 2,15,084 sq km — nearly 30% — recorded no forest cover.
In other words, forestland roughly the combined area of Tamil Nadu and West Bengal holds no forests at all. There has been no recovery since 2017 as forest cover on forestland has shrunk by 330 sq km in the last two years.
“There is no denial that the gain in forest cover is outside forestland. A proposal to continue with the biennial reports while conducting a more comprehensive study, may be every five years, is in place. There is no decision on that yet,” said Dr Ashutosh.
One silver lining in the SFR 2019 is a gain of 301 sq km of dense forest on forestland since 2017. Overall, though, less than 45% — only 3,26,546 sq km — of India’s forestland is densely forested.
The 2019 report also recorded an increase of 1,212 sq km in tree cover. The 3,976 sq km increase reported in forest cover was largely achieved through a net gain of 3,661 sq km of open forests in non-forest areas since 2017.
The 2017 report had claimed a gain of 6,778 sq km in forest cover and 1,243 sq km in tree cover over 2015.
Releasing the report, Javadekar said India is among the top ten countries in the world to maintain and increase its forest and tree cover.
“This is very encouraging for us as it means that we are on the right track to achieve our Paris Agreement commitment of 2.5-3 billion carbon sinks. The top five states to have shown an increase in forest cover include Karnataka (1,025 sq km), Andhra Pradesh (990 sq km), Kerala (823 sq km), J&K (371 sq km) and Himachal Pradesh (334 sq km),’’ he said.
The total forest cover of the country is 7,12,249 sq km which is 21.67% of the geographical area of the country. The tree cover of the country is estimated as 95,027 sq km which is 2.89% of the geographical area.
Area wise Madhya Pradesh has the largest forest cover in the country followed by Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Maharashtra.
In terms of forest cover as percentage of total geographical area, the top five states include Mizoram (85.41%), Arunachal Pradesh (79.63%), Meghalaya (76.33%), Manipur (75.46%) and Nagaland (75.31%).
Despite its large swathes of forested land, the forest survey has found a decrease in the cover in the North East, to the extent of 765 sq km or 0.45% of the region. Except Assam and Tripura, all states in the region show decrease in forest cover. Total forest cover in the North Eastern region is 1,70,541 sq km, which is 65.05% of its geographical area.
“There has been a slight decrease in North East states, but this is where jhum cultivation is conducted. As far as the North-East is concerned, you have to remember that over 60 per cent of the region is covered in forest, so this decrease is marginal. Tree cover, meanwhile has been increasing. Maharashtra has had the highest increase in tree cover and a large part of that is due to horticulture. Every year, a crore of new saplings are planted — of mangoes, pomegranates and other fruits. So in 18 years, the cover has increased by 18 crore trees. Even water paucity states like Rajasthan have shown a healthy increase in tree cover,’’ Javadekar said.
In tribal districts of the country, the total forest cover is 4,22,351 sq km — 37.54% of the geographical area of these districts. The current assessment shows a decrease of 741 sq km of forest cover within the Recorded Forest Area in the tribal districts but an increase of 1,922 sq km outside.
Mangrove cover in the country has increased by 54 sq km (1.10%) as compared to the previous assessment. Total bamboo bearing area of the country is estimated as 1,60,037 sq km. There is an increase of 3,229 sq km in bamboo bearing area.
“The increase of the bamboo bearing area is significant. This has happened because bamboo was reclassified as grass. It could be cut and then replanted. That is why there has been an increase. If you can’t feel a tree, then how can replanting happen?’’Javadekar said.
Forest cover across 140 hill districts in the country has shown an increase of 544 sq km taking the total hill cover to is 2,84,006 sq km, which is 40.30% of the total geographical area of these districts.