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