Preening over plantations and weeds, green statistics conceal the alarming loss of natural, old-growth forests.
One of the many miracles of India is that it has maintained one-fifth of its area under forest cover since Independence. The population has jumped three-and-a-half times since 1947 and with it the demand for agricultural land. During 1951-80, India diverted 42,380 sq km forest land, 62 percent of it for farming. The demand of development has only increased since. Yet, our forests simply refuse to shrink.
The government started coming up with biennial State of the Forest reports since 1987. The latest volume shows that our forest cover has actually gone up by 49,986 sq km (7.78 percent) in those 25 years. In the same period, however, the forests of undivided Madhya Pradesh have shrunk by 63,183 sq km. The miracle just keeps getting bigger.
Or does it? The reports claim that Delhi has increased its forest cover 12-fold since 1987. Potholes are perhaps the only water bodies left in the city but, we are told, 56 sq km of the capital is, in fact, dense (high or medium) forest. We are also told that Rajasthan’s forest cover has jumped by 29 percent and the dense bit of it by 49 percent. Forest area has trebled in Haryana with the dense cover up by 11 times. Punjab has also gained around 1,000 sq km of forests in these 25 years.
If you think you have missed something, it is not the forest but the forest cover- up.
In 1987, satellite imagery mapped forests at a 1:1 million scale, missing details of land units smaller than 4 sq km. Now, the 1:50,000 scale can scan patches even smaller than 0.1 sq km. Naturally, smaller green patches of 1 hectare or above, ones that earlier went unnoticed, are now being accounted for. But does green mean forest?
The so-called forests of Delhi are primarily thickets of Prosopis juliflora, an exotic invasive species that also accounts for much of the greenery, and hence ‘dense forests’, of Rajasthan. The sudden greening of Punjab and Haryana, where Forest Departments protect highway trees as reserve forests, is due to plantations. Even the remarkable gain in forest cover in the Western Ghats hides the contribution of numerous coffee plantations in the southern states.
The so-called non-forest states can do with any green cover, even eucalyptus or kikar that has little ecological or biodiversity value. But the celebration over these not-so- consequential gains hides something ominous. For the 1,000-odd sq km Punjab gained, Andaman and Nicobar islands lost 670 sq km of ancient forest that no plantation can recover. In the same period, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh lost 18,000 sq km of dense forest, perhaps more.
Plantation of fast-growing, mostly commercial species such as teak, rubber, coffee, eucalyptus or poplar is important for the economy. It can also meet the demand for fuel wood. But it cannot substitute for natural forests. Unfortunately, target-oriented government policies are making forest staff clear degraded natural forests, where root stocks would rebound given protection, to plant saplings. In any case, even the Rs 11,000 crore CAMPA funds cannot green (at Rs 40 a sapling and 2.5 lakh saplings per sq km) more than 11,000 sq km or 0.33 percent of the country.
Non-government researchers such as Jean- Philippe Puyravaud and Priya Davidar of Pondicherry University, and William Laurance from James Cook University, have found that plantations are expanding (link>>) by 6,000-18,000 sq km per year in India. The native forests, on the other hand, are declining rapidly, at a rate higher than that of either Brazil or Malaysia.
The government does not agree. To avoid debates, the Forest Survey of India can simply make the GPS locations of each designated forest unit, of say 2 sq km, public so that forest field staff, researchers, NGOs, for that matter anyone interested, can walk down and check what really goes in the name of forests.
By: Jay Mazoomdaar, who is an Independent Journalist email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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