Can ruin of quality forests be made up by plantations?

There is a gain in forest cover outside forest land as per the 'State of forest report 2019'. But, can reforestation replace natural forests and its essential ecosystem?
Chir pine trees felled by forest fires in Uttarakhand, 2016 (Image: Ramwik, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0) Chir pine trees felled by forest fires in Uttarakhand, 2016 (Image: Ramwik, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The recently released biennial State of India’s Forest Report 2019 (SFR) indicates an improvement in forest cover since 2017 but dense forests continue to turn into non-forests. The overall gain in the last two years is 3,976 square kilometres (sq km) of forests in India while dense forests of the order 2,145 sq km were lost i.e., were converted to the category of non-forests during the period. As per SFR 2019, the total forest cover of India is 712,249 sq km and the total forest cover has increased by 20,222 sq km or 3% since 2011.

Forest Survey of India (FSI) assesses forest cover of the country every 2 years by digital interpretation of remote sensing satellite data and publishes the results in a biennial report. Beginning in 1987, this is the 16th such assessment based on the regular nation-wide mapping of forest cover.

The total forest cover of the country is 21.67% of the geographical area of the country. The tree cover of the country is estimated at 2.89% of the geographical area. The total forest and tree cover of the country is 80.73 million hectare, which is 24.56% of the geographical area of the country.

* Includes 975 sq km under mangrove cover; # Non-forest includes tree cover (percentage rounded off)

Tree cover is defined as patches of trees less than 1 hectare and occurring outside the recorded forest area

The key findings of the report on the forest and tree cover of India in 2019 are:

  • There is an increase of 0.56% of forest cover, 1.29% of tree cover and 0.65% of forest and tree cover put together, at the national level as compared to the previous assessment in 2017.

 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). 

  • In terms of area, Madhya Pradesh has the largest forest cover in the country followed by Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Maharashtra.
  • The top five states in terms of forest cover as a percentage of total geographical area are all from the north-east - Mizoram (85.41%), Arunachal Pradesh (79.63%), Meghalaya (76.33%), Manipur (75.46%) and Nagaland (75.31%). The total forest cover in the north eastern region is 1,70,541 sq km, which is 65.05% of its geographical area. 

The SFR 2019 shows a decrease of forest cover to the extent of 765 sq km (0.45%) in the region. The picture is gloomy with the region losing nearly 25,012 sq km of forest cover in a decade. Except Assam and Tripura, all the states in the region show decrease in forest cover. The forest cover of six states, excluding Assam, has decreased by nearly 18% between 2011 and 2019. 

  • There is an increase in forest cover in the 140 hill districts by an increase of 544 sq km (0.19%) from the 40.30% of the total geographical area of these districts.

The total forest cover (37.54% of the geographical area) in tribal districts shows a decrease of 741 sq km of forest cover within the recorded forest area and increase of 1,922 sq km outside.

  • There is an increase of 3,229 sq km in bamboo bearing area as compared to the estimate of SFR 2017. The figure stands at to 1,60,037 sq km as per SFR 2019. This has happened because bamboo was reclassified as grass and can now be cut and then replanted.
  • The total growing stock of India's forest and trees outside forests is estimated at 5,915.76 million cum of which 4,273.47 million cum is inside the forests and 1,642.29 million cum outside. There is an increase of 93.38 million cum of total growing stock, as compared to the previous assessment. There is an increase of 55.08 million cum inside the forests and 38.30 million cum outside the forest areas.
  • The total carbon stock in the country's forest is estimated at 7,124.6 million tonnes and there an increase of 42.6 million tonnes in the carbon stock of country as compared to the last assessment. The annual increase in the carbon stock is 21.3 million tonnes, which is 78.2 million tonnes CO2 equivalent. 

*Very dense forests have a canopy density more than 70%, moderately dense forests with a canopy density between 40-70% and open forest with a canopy density between 10-40%.

The FSI has identified 7,28,520 sq km as recorded forest area in the country, of which 2,15,084 sq km i.e., nearly 30% recorded no forest cover.

  • Forest cover has gone up but large tracts of dense forest have turned non-forest as per SFR 2019. In terms of canopy density classes, area covered by VDFs is 99,278 sq km (3.02%), MDFs is 3,08,472 sq km (9.39%) and OFs is 3,04,499 sq km (9.26%). Forest cover within the recorded forest area has shown a slight decrease of 330 sq km (0.05%) whereas there is an increase of 4,306 sq km of forest cover outside the recorded forest area as compared to previous assessment of 2017.
  • Mangroves, which are unique rich biodiverse ecosystems that provide numerous ecological services have shown a rise. Mangrove cover has been separately reported in the SFR 2019 and the total mangrove cover in the country is 4,975 sq km. An increase of 1.10% (54 sq km) in mangrove cover has been observed as compared to the previous assessment of 2017. Top three states showing increase in mangrove cover are Gujarat (37 sq km), Maharashtra (16 sq km) and Odisha (8 sq km).
  • Wetlands within forest areas form important ecosystems and add richness to the biodiversity in forest areas, both of faunal and floral species. FSI found that there are 62,466 wetlands covering 3.8% of the area within the recorded forest area of the country.

India’s natural forests are eroding by the day and as per a 2014 MoEF study they declined to half of what the FSI has been recording as forests. Planting an equal or even double the number of trees felled sets a dangerous precedent as natural forests, which provide an extremely valuable ecosystem cannot be replaced by ‘reforested’ monoculture plantations.

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