Centre fails to see the wood for the trees

The latest FSI report says India is getting greener. A closer look at the story behind the numbers says otherwise.
India’s forest cover stands at 21.54 percent while its dense forest cover is about 12.26 percent, as per the State of Forest Report, 2017. (Image: Tridib Choudhury, Wikimedia commons, CC BY SA-4.0)
India’s forest cover stands at 21.54 percent while its dense forest cover is about 12.26 percent, as per the State of Forest Report, 2017. (Image: Tridib Choudhury, Wikimedia commons, CC BY SA-4.0)

As per the biennial State of Forest Report (SFR) 2017 by the Forest Survey of India (FSI), the total forest and tree cover in India increased during the period 2015 to 2017 by 0.94 percent. The increase in the forest cover has been of the order of 6,778 sq km and that of tree cover was about 1,243 sq km.  

Green credentials of India were highlighted by the minister for environment and climate change, Dr Harsh Vardhan considering that the global trend shows a decrease in forest cover during the last decade. India ranks 10th in the world in terms of forest area. The nine other countries have a population density of more than 150 persons per sq km, while India’s population density is 382 persons per sq km. This is, despite the tremendous population and pressures of livestock on our forests.

The report released in February 2018 by the environment minister contains information on forest, tree and mangrove cover, growing stock inside and outside the forest areas, carbon stock in India’s forests and forest cover in different patch-size classes. Special thematic information on the forest cover such as hills, tribal districts, and northeastern region has also been provided separately in the report. The report, for the first time, contains information on the decadal change in water bodies in the forest during 2005-2015, forest fire, production of timber from outside forest, state-wise carbon stock in different forest types and density classes. The 2015 assessment covered 589 districts of the country, while the new assessment has covered 633 districts.

The trends in the forest area are vital for India because the Green India Mission under the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC), projects an ambitious target of 10 million hectares of forest cover by 2020 at a cost of Rs 460 billion ($10 billion). The SFR 2017 also indicates an expansion of agro-forestry and private forestry with the timber production in “trees outside forests” (TOF) category by 74 percent--from 42.77m3 in the 2011 assessment to 74.51m3 in 2017.

Satellite data blamed for exaggerated estimates of forest and tree cover

The SFR 2017 is based on satellite data. The FSI has adopted the vector boundary layers of various administrative units up to districts developed by the Survey of India along with digital open series toposheets, bringing about full compatibility with the geographical areas as reported in Census, 2011. For the present SFR 2017, the spatial information given is based on the interpretation of LISS-III data from Indian Remote Sensing satellite data (Resourcesat-II) with a spatial resolution of 23.5 metres. The satellite data interpretation is followed by rigorous ground truthing. In addition, extensive ground data collected by field parties at more than 18000 points all over the country and information from other collateral sources are also used to improve the accuracy of the interpreted image. 

Many experts like Ranjit Gill, joint director of the FSI consider that “an over-reliance on inadequate imaging by an Indian satellite system” is making forest destruction easy to overlook. A resolution of 23.5 metres is not good enough to categorically identify individual deforestation events. Openly critical of the FSI’s assessment in 2011, Gill says that the “current figure of forest cover in India is way over the top and based on facile assumptions”. In reality, selective cutting of trees does not register in the satellite imagery due to the technological limitation of the medium-resolution sensor used for the purpose of forest-cover mapping. Gill had also brought these allegations to light by mounting a legal case for consideration by India’s Central Empowered Committee (CEC), a panel of experts appointed by the Supreme Court to rule on issues concerning forest and wildlife.

A paper by Jean-Philippe Puyravaud et al named Cryptic destruction of India's native forests says, “India sustains some of the world's most imperilled forests. The FSI recently announced that the forest cover in India had expanded by nearly five percent over the past decade. This result, while technically accurate, is misleading. The FSI estimates forest cover by using automated algorithms to analyse satellite imagery—an approach that fails to distinguish native forests from tree plantations, which are often monocultures of exotic species that have limited value for endangered biodiversity. Since the early 1990s, tree plantations have expanded in India at an estimated rate of roughly 15,400 sq km/year. Subtracting plantations from total forest cover shows that native forests in India have declined by 1.5 percent–2.7 percent per year. The limited precision of our estimate highlights a paucity of data on native forest cover in India—a problem requiring urgent attention.”

The SFR 2017 points to these problems when it says that the improvement in the forest area of Andhra Pradesh is in part due to “improvement in interpretation due to a better radiometric resolution of the recent satellite data from Resourcesat-2”. We have a situation now where numerous tiny plots that earlier went unnoticed under the earlier spatial resolution are now being visible for the first time and are being counted as forest cover showing inflated figures. This just means that the increase in forest cover to a large extent is due to technological advancements.

State-wise figures: An analysis

A state-wise analysis of the increase in forest cover indicates that Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Odisha and Telangana show the maximum increase. Much of this increase can be attributed to plantation and conservation activities both within and outside the recorded forest areas. The report is misleading because it fails to discriminate natural or native forests from large expanses of exotic monocultures of fast-growing species such as eucalyptus, acacia, rubber, teak, bamboo, or pine trees. Since 1992, plantations have expanded rapidly in India via state-sponsored programmes designed to meet burgeoning demands for timber and fuelwood and to reforest denuded hillsides.

The assessment also reveals that 15 states and union territories have above 33 percent of the geographical area under forest cover of which seven--Mizoram, Lakshadweep, Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Manipur--have more than 75 percent forest cover. Further, about 40 percent of the country’s forest cover is present in nine large contiguous patches of the size of 10,000 sq km, or more. The report has, for the first time, assessed water bodies inside the forest areas, and found an increase of 2,647 sq km during the last decade. The states indicating the largest increase in water bodies in the forest areas are Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.

The five states where forest cover has decreased most are from the northeast--Mizoram, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura and Meghalaya. The main reasons, as per the report, are shifting cultivation, other biotic pressures, rotational felling, diversion of forest lands for developmental activities, submergence of forest cover, agriculture expansion and natural disasters.

The report states that the total mangrove cover stands at 4,921 sq km and has shown an increase of 181 sq km between 2015 and 2017. All the 12 mangrove states have shown a positive change in the mangrove cover, which is rich in biodiversity and provides a number of ecological services.

The total growing stock of India’s forest and trees outside of forests is estimated at 5,822.377 million cum, of which 4,218.380 million cum is inside the forests and 1,603.997 million cum is outside forests. There is an increase of 53.990 million cum of total growing stock, as compared to the previous assessment. Out of this increase in growing stock, there is an increase of 23.333 million cum inside the forest and 30.657 million cum outside the forest area. The extent of the bamboo-bearing area in the country has been estimated at 15.69 million ha. In comparison to the last assessment done in 2011, there has been an increase of 1.73 million ha in bamboo area. The growing stock of bamboo in the forest has been estimated to be 189 million tonnes. There is an increase of 19 million tonnes in the bamboo-growing stock as compared to the last assessment done in 2011. The total annual potential production of timber from trees outside forest has been estimated at 74.51 million cum, as per the report.

Non-forest areas to dense forests in two years!

The increase in forest cover has been observed in very dense forests (VDF), defined as a canopy cover over 70 percent—and an indicator of the quality of a forest. This is encouraging since VDF absorbs maximum carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The total carbon stock in the country’s forest is estimated to be 7,082 million tonnes, which shows an increase of 38 million tonnes, as compared to the previous assessment. The category of ‘moderately dense forest’ (40 percent-70 percent) saw a 7,056 square kilometre-decline from 2015.            

So, a more nuanced analysis indicates that the only category that has registered a decline in the latest assessment is the moderate dense forest. Plantations have, in fact, led to an increase in tree cover. Its benefits to ecosystem services such as biodiversity and hydrologic function of plantations are, however, contentious.

The situation in India is all the more complex because while most countries have defined forests, this is still evolving in India. The environment ministry has to come up with an “ecologically sound and socially desirable definition of forests that have been notified under the Indian Forest Act, 1927. A 1996 Supreme Court order says that to be called a forest, it should meet one of the two definitions--either the dictionary definition or the land needs to be recorded as forest on any government record. This leaves a huge scope for misuse of power by the government which can use draconian powers at its convenience and mark an area as forest or non-forest.

This report, like the others before it, did not make the disaggregated data for plantations and forests public. This hides the steady deforestation of India’s natural forests, as well as the diversion of forest land to industries. Instead of creating a rosy picture, there is a need to critically evaluate and improve the monitoring of forest trends in India especially the loss of native forests. The forest survey should also use a newer instrument, already operating on an Indian satellite that provides a resolution of 5.8 metres per pixel for SFR 2019.



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