Both conservationists and scientists have long questioned the Indian forest survey’s accuracy and methods… Forest officials too have criticised the survey methods…An upward trend in forest cover seems far-fetched to some observers, as land is given over to power stations and mining…
Forest cover in India increased by 5871 sq km (2266 sq miles) between 2010 and 2012. That’s the cheery headline news from the State of the Forest Report 2013 released in July by India’s Environment Minister, Prakash Javadekar. The findings appear to mark a turnaround from the previous survey, which had found a marginal decline in forests. But the fine print reveals a less rosy picture. The bulk of the increase in forest cover – about 3800 sq km – was in just one State, the report shows, and is partly attributed to a correction in previous survey data.
In fact, India may be losing quality forests. Dense forests are degrading into scrub or sparsely covered forest areas in many states, says the report. “Moderately dense” forest cover – areas with a tree canopy density of between 40-70 per cent – shrank by 1991 sq km in the two-year period, while “open forests” with less than 40 per cent canopy increased by 7831 sq km. Another potential worry: the Himalayan northeastern region, which holds one-fourth of the country’s forests, has seen a small decline of 627 sq km in forest cover.
India’s total forest cover now stands at 697,898 sq km or 21.23 per cent of the country’s area. That’s well short of the official goal to get cover up to 30 per cent of land area (in February, the Government approved a £4.46m project to increase forest area).
Yet there’s been an overall rising trend in the recorded forest cover over the past decade – no mean feat given the dramatic acceleration in economic development in the same period. This upward trend seems far-fetched to many conservationists, however. One environmental watchdog group, the Environment Impact and Assessment Resource and Response Centre, noted that an average of 135 hectares (333 acres) of forest land a day was given over for power, mining and other development projects last year. The group expressed dismay at the Environment Minister’s suggestion that degraded or open forests should be harvested to reduce wood imports. Both conservationists and scientists have long questioned the Indian forest survey’s accuracy and methods. They’ve argued that the survey relies too heavily on low-resolution satellite imagery, which fails to capture small-scale deforestation, and that the definition of forest used by the report is too broad to be meaningful.
The forest cover data does not, for instance, distinguish between tree species, land use or ownership. A paper published in May by scientists led by NH Ravindranath of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore suggested that an almost seven-million-hectare recorded increase in forest cover between 1997 and 2011 could be accounted for by an increase in commercial plantations.
India could be potentially over-reporting the forest cover by including many plantation categories and fruit orchards…. Even the inclusion of plantations of Eucalyptus, Casuarina, Poplar, etc. under forest cover is questionable from a conservation perspective. India also could be potentially under-reporting deforestation by reporting only the gross forest area and changes at the national and state level, which may mask any forest loss, if the rate of afforestation is higher than deforestation rates.
With India seeking to tap international climate funds for afforestation, “there is need for a new approach to monitoring and reporting of forest area to meet the challenges of forest conservation, research and reporting to UN agencies,” the authors said. Forest officials too have criticised the survey methods. In 2012, a joint director at the Forest Survey of India, which prepares the report, took on his own organisation when he flagged the discrepancy between the official forest data for the northeastern State of Meghalaya, which showed an increase in cover, and what he saw happening on the ground: forests being destroyed by illegal mills and mining.
Mining in this green, resource-rich region continues to be a concern. A recent report by India’s Comptroller and Auditor General found only one of 16 limestone mining licenses in the State of Meghalaya had obtained environmental clearances. “The forest department has no idea as to whether the mining lease areas it granted forest clearance fall within forest area,” the report said.
– The Guardian