Environment & Biodiversity

The Case for Transparent and Verifiable Forest Cover Data

India’s total green cover has increased from 19.53% in the early 1980s to 24.62% on paper today.

Forest and Tree Coverage Definition

  • In 1987, the Forest Survey of India (FSI) released its biennial State of Forest reports.
  • According to FSI, India counts all plots of 1 hectare or greater with at least 10% tree canopy density within forest cover, regardless of land use or ownership.
  • This goes against the United Nations’ benchmark, which excludes areas of forest that are primarily used for agricultural or urban purposes.

How are forests classified?

The Forest Survey of India has listed four categories of forests. They are:

  • Very Dense Forest (with tree canopy density of 70 per cent or above) (added since 2003)
  • Moderately Dense Forest (tree canopy density of 40 per cent or above but less than 70 per cent)
  • Open Forest (tree canopy density of 10 per cent or above but less than 40 per cent)
  • Scrub (tree canopy density less than 10 per cent)

Satellite imagery used for precision

  • Until the mid-1980s (SFR 1987), the forest cover was estimated through satellite images at a 1:1 million scale.
  • After that, the resolution was increased to 1:250,000, lowering the minimum mappable unit size from 400 to 25 hectares.
  • India’s forest cover has increased from 19.53% in the early 1980s to 21.71% in 2021.
  • By 2001, the scale had improved to 1:50,000, reducing the unit size to 1 hectare, and interpretation had gone completely digital.

Accounting for forest cover losses

  • Satellite imagery reveals a decline: Using satellite imagery, the National Remote Sensing Agency (NRSA) estimated declines in India’s forest cover.
  • While reliable data on encroachment is unavailable, government records show that 42,380 square kilometres of forest land — nearly the size of Haryana — was diverted for non-forest use between 1951 and 1980.
  • Reconciled data: In 1987, the NRSA and the newly formed FSI “reconciled” India’s forest cover at 19.53%. The FSI did not dispute the NRSA’s finding that dense forest cover had decreased from 14.12% in the mid-1970s to 10.96% in 1981, and reconciled it to 10.88% in 1987.

What about Total Forested Areas?

  • Ans. Some areas were lost due to encroachment, diversion, forest fires, and other factors.
  • In India, Recorded Forest Area refers to land that has been recorded as forest in revenue records or declared as forest under a forest law.
  • Because of the presence of forests on the land, these areas were recorded as forests at some point.
  • Recorded Forest Areas, which are divided into Reserved, Protected, and Unclassified forests, cover 23.58% of India.

One-third forest lost!

  • Over 2.44 lakh square kilometres (larger than Uttar Pradesh) or 7.43% of India’s old natural forests have been lost.
  • Despite extensive forest department planting since the 1990s, dense forests within Recorded Forest Areas will cover only 9.96% of India in 2021.
  • Since the FSI recorded 10.88% dense forest in 1987, that is a one-tenth slide.

So, why is there a net increase in forest cover in India?

  • Plantations masquerade as forests: Because commercial plantations, orchards, village homesteads, urban housing, and other dense forests are included as dense forests outside Recorded Forest Areas, the loss is invisible. Natural forests do not grow as quickly.
  • Plantation information is unavailable: The FSI does not provide specific data on the proportion of plantations in the remaining dense forests within Recorded Forest Areas.

Why aren’t plantations used instead of forests?

  • Plantations can grow much faster and much larger than old natural forests. This also means that plantations can meet additional carbon targets more quickly. However, they cannot be classified as forests because-
  • Lack of biodiversity: Because natural forests have evolved to be diverse, they support a lot more biodiversity. Simply put, it has a diverse plant community that supports a wide range of species.
  • Plantation forests have trees that are all the same age, are more susceptible to fire, pests, and epidemics, and frequently act as a barrier to natural forest regeneration.
  • Low carbon capacity: Because natural forests are older, they store a lot more carbon in their bodies and soil.

How reliable are these estimates?

  • The FSI compares some interpreted data to reference data collected on the ground as part of the National Forest Inventory (NFI) programme.
  • In 2021, it claimed to have achieved an overall accuracy of 95.79% in distinguishing between forests and non-forests.
  • However, due to resource constraints, the exercise was limited to fewer than 6,000 sample points.

What caused such a drop in forest cover?

  • Agricultural expansion
  • Infrastructure development
  • Mining and industrial activities
  • Illegal logging (for timber)
  • Climate change and natural disasters

Way ahead

  • Aggressive conservation policies and programmes: To promote the sustainable use and management of forests and trees, the government must strengthen forest conservation policies and programmes.
  • Participation and empowerment of local communities: Involving local communities in forest conservation and management can promote sustainable practises and improve their livelihoods.
  • Forest productivity and resilience can be improved by promoting sustainable forest management practises such as agroforestry, silvopasture, and mixed-use landscapes.
  • Monitoring and enforcement can be improved by leveraging technology such as remote sensing, geographic information systems (GIS), and blockchain.
  • Individuals and communities can help protect forests and trees by adopting sustainable practises, supporting forest conservation initiatives, and raising awareness about the value of forests to the environment and people.
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