India’s forest cover increases by 1%, Northeastern states cause for concern —

Forests in Khajjiar (Himachal Pradesh); (pix SShukla); 14 June 2015; (3) Small fileIndia’s forest cover increased by 6,778 sq km over the last two years with Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Odisha and Telangana increasing their green footprint during the period though there is a worrying decline in six northeastern states, including a shrinkage of 630 sq km in the eastern Himalayas.

While overall green cover, including tree patches outside recorded forest areas, reported an incremental 1% increase (8,021 sq km) over the last assessment year in 2015, the quality of forests remain a hotly debated subject even as satellite monitoring has increased availability of data.

The increase, based on satellite data and subsequent ‘ground truthing’, has put the total forest cover at 7,08,273 sq km which is 21.54% of the country’s geographical area.

Releasing the India State of Forest Report (ISFR) 2017 on Monday (12-02-2018), the environment ministry looked at the overall green cover (total forest and tree cover) of 8,02,088 sq km and pitched it as a success of multiple afforestation programmes.

Though this figure puts green cover at 24.39% of India’s geographical area, this does not reflect a complete picture as it includes tree cover of 93,815 sq km, primarily computed by notional numbers.

In the past, studies have argued that the problem of depletion and over-exploitation of forests has taken a toll of India’s forests and their sustainability and the problem of simplifying a maze of rules and tune conservation with the needs of local communities remains a challenge.

Taking into account the density (canopy covering branches and foliage formed by the crowns of trees), forest cover is divided into ‘very dense’, ‘moderately dense’ and ‘open’ forest. The ‘very dense’ forest cover has increased over the last assessment of 2015, but the ‘moderately dense’ category reported a decline — a sign which environmentalists consider quite worrying.

Referring to decline in the ‘moderately dense’ forest category and enhancement of forest cover in ‘open’ forest and ‘scrub’ categories, forest expert from Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) Ajay Saxena said, “This negative correlation means that India is losing good forests for developmental pressures, forest degradation and climate change.”

Saxena termed the increase in ‘very dense’ forest (VDF) cover as a “positive development”, but said a major part could be attributed to increase in the number of districts assessed in the new report compared to 2015.

The ISFR updated the number of districts for its assessment from 589 to 633. The ministry, however, claimed that the change in area was calculated “using updated figures” to facilitate comparison on a common methodological platform.

Underlining that very dense forest had increased from 85,904 sq km in 2015 to 98,158 sq km, environment and forests minister Harsh Vardhan said, “This is very heartening as VDF absorbs maximum carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”

He said consistent increase in forest cover over the years was in sync with India’s commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change and the country would meet its target of creating additional carbon sink (2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent) through increase in forest and tree cover by 2030.

The report showed that forest cover in six north-eastern states — Mizoram, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura, Meghalaya and Sikkim — decreased in 2017. Experts believe forests in the eastern Himalayas are rich in forest carbon and decline in forest cover in the region could have been avoided. This area reported a net loss of 630 sq km of pristine forests.

The ISFR 2017 shows that about 40% of the country’s forest cover is present in nine large contiguous patches of the size of 10,000 sq km or more. It also shows the total mangrove cover stands at 4,921 sq km and has shown an increase of 181 sq km. All the 12 mangrove states have shown a positive change in the mangrove cover, as compared to the last assessment. Mangrove ecosystem is rich in biodiversity and provides a number of ecological services.

The India State of Forest Report 2017 is the 15th such report in the series. The report, however, for the first time contains information on decadal change in water bodies in forest during 2005-2015, forest fire, production of timber from outside forest, state wise carbon stock in different forest types and density classes.

The report notes that there was an increase of 2,647 sq km in the extent of water bodies over the decade (2005-15) with all states and Union Territories (UTs) showing an increase except Arunachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana.

It shows that overall the extent of water bodies has increased from 14,509 sq km in 2005 to 17,156 sq km in 2015 with Maharashtra (432 sq km), Gujarat (428 sq km) and Madhya Pradesh (389 sq km) figuring as the top three states reporting maximum increase in areas of water bodies including lakes and wetlands.

“We wish that in future, extent and change in forest cover vis-e-vis major river basins in the country should be assessed and reported since forest cover is a key parameter to assess the health of our rivers”, said river and water expert, Manoj Misra, of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan.

Reacting on report which shows marginal increase in forest cover, Misra said, “Increase in forest cover is a matter to rejoice unless statistical jugglery is behind the claim.”

The spatial information given in the report is based on interpretation of LISS-III data from Indian Remote Sensing satellite data (Resourcesat-II) with a spatial resolution of 23.5 meters. Satellite data for the entire country was procured from NRSC for the period October, 2015 – February, 2016.

“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”, said the environment ministry after releasing the ISFR 2017.

Report shows that three states – Andhra Pradesh (2141 sq km), followed by Karnataka (1101 sq km) and Kerala (1043 sq km) – have shown the maximum increase in forest cover. On the other hand, forest cover in states like Mizoram, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura and Meghalaya has decreased in 2017 as compared to 2015.

Madhya Pradesh has the largest forest cover of 77,414 sq km in the country in terms of area, followed by Arunachal Pradesh with 66,964 sq km and Chhattisgarh (55,547 sq km). In terms of percentage of forest cover with respect to the total geographical area, Lakshadweep with (90.33%) has the highest forest cover, followed by Mizoram (86.27%) and Andaman & Nicobar Island (81.73%). (Times of India)

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