For­est cover

Net rate of de­for­esta­tion was high­est in West­ern Ghats in Ker­ala be­tween 1920 and 1975

Hindustan Times ST (Mumbai) - - METRO - Sne­hal Re­bello

MUM­BAI: The West­ern Ghats have lost 35.3% of the to­tal for­est cover over the last 90 years, and to­day, 50% of the de­for­ested land is home to plan­ta­tions and or­chards.

An anal­y­sis by the Na­tional Re­mote Sens­ing Cen­tre (NRSC) of the In­dian Space Re­search Or­gan­i­sa­tion (Isro), Hy­der­abad, has re­vealed that the West­ern Ghats have lost 33,579 sqkm of the to­tal 1,64,280 sqkm be­tween 1920s and 2013.

Plan­ta­tions across an ap­prox­i­mate 17,239 sqkm in­creased over the nine decades ow­ing to de­for­esta­tion, while 1,057 sqkm of the for­est got sub­merged af­ter the con­struc­tion of dams. In ad­di­tion to com­mer­cial plan­ta­tions such as rub­ber and aca­cia au­ri­culi­formis, and fruit or­chards, agri­cul­ture and dry shrubs oc­cu­pied 24.7% and 12% of de­for­ested land, re­spec­tively.

Ac­cord­ing to ecol­o­gist Mad­hav Gadgil, a sub­stan­tial area com­pris­ing plan­ta­tions in the West­ern Ghats falls un­der the for­est depart­ment’s ju­ris­dic­tion, apart from pri­vate own­er­ship, which largely has to do with the In­dian gov­ern­ment’s shift from “con­ser­va­tion forestry to ag­gres­sive forestry” in the 1950s based on a World Bank re­port.

“The plan­ta­tions and or­chards have a ma­jor ef­fect on the pri­mary forests since they are sprayed with chem­i­cals, which con­tam­i­nate the soil and re­main in the air for pro­longed pe­ri­ods of time. The other impact is cases where wild species closely re­lated to cul­ti­vated plants such as car­damom, cin­na­mon and mango have van­ished. These species are im­por­tant for plant ge­netic re­search as trans­fer­ring wild genes im­proves the pro­duc­tiv­ity of cul­ti­vated plants,” said Gadgil, who chaired the West­ern Ghats Ecol­ogy Ex­pert panel con­sti­tuted by the then Union en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ter Jairam Ramesh to iden­tify eco-sen­si­tive zones across the Ghats.

The net rate of de­for­esta­tion was found to be the high­est in the West­ern Ghats in Ker­ala be­tween 1920 and 1975, and steadily rose across the re­gion un­til 2005. For eight years there­after, the anal­y­sis found “no quan­tifi­able net rate of de­for­esta­tion from 2005 to 2013, which in­di­cates in­creased mea­sures of con­ser­va­tion”.

“The fact there are no changes in the net rate of de­for­esta­tion sig­ni­fies the suc­cess of the par­tic­i­pa­tory for­est man­age­ment where the com­mu­nity is in­volved in con­serv­ing the West­ern Ghats,” said C Sudhakar Reddy, for­est and ecol­ogy di­vi­sion, NRSC, and prin­ci­pal in­ves­ti­ga­tor of the study.

Ac­cord­ing to ex­perts, the ‘Grow More Food’ cam­paign in the 1940s threw open sub­stan­tial ar­eas of forests for cul­ti­va­tion of food crops, and coloni­sa­tion led to new set­tle­ments in de­for­ested ar­eas. Post-in­de­pen­dence has seen power and ir­ri­ga­tion projects as well as con­struc­tion of roads in for­est land.

“In the re­cent decades, degra­da­tion of forests has been the lead­ing fac­tor af­fect­ing for­est cover. The ar­eas con­verted to shrub and grass­lands can be se­lected for restora­tion,” said the study.

“Plan­ta­tions and or­chards se­ri­ously com­pro­mise and threaten the qual­ity and eco­log­i­cal in­tegrity of the forests,” said D Stalin of NGO Vanashakti. “Un­like pri­mary forests, plan­ta­tions and or­chards are wa­ter­in­ten­sive and don’t hold up the wa­ter ta­ble, in ad­di­tion to chem­i­cals be­ing sprayed on them. The long-term con­se­quence is degra­da­tion of forests, soil con­tam­i­na­tion and threat to wa­ter se­cu­rity.”

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