BUT DARK AND DEEP?
Is the Indian government fudging its forest report? A research paper by a group of scientists says the country has already lost 80% of native cover, and that the tipping point may already have been reached
I| ndia’s forest cover has been increasing, says the government. But the government might just be fudging the figures. According to a research paper called ‘Cryptic Destruction of India’s Native Forests’, written by two Indian scientists and a colleague from Australia, the exact opposite has been happening — our forest cover has been decreasing.
While the country’s latest ‘Status of Forest Report 2009’ claims a 5% growth in the country’s forest cover between 1997 and 2007, the research paper calls the government’s bluff by pointing out that large chunks of this cover were actually made up of exotic tree plantations such as eucalyptus and acacia. When the plantations were subtracted from the total forest cover, the figures showed a 1.5-2.7% shrinking of India’s natural forests each year. More ominously, the paper adds that “India has already lost 80% of its native forest cover”.
While plantations form a large part of India’s afforestation effort, environmentalists say that a row of planted trees cannot be called a forest. Quite on the contrary, plantations are often referred to as ecological deserts. They’re made up of a single species, while natural forests are multi-canopied, consisting of an undergrowth of leaf litter, bushes and shrubs, small, shade-loving trees and taller trees that form the roof of the forest. “It’s impossible to replace what has evolved over thousands of years,” says Stalin D, director (projects) for Vanashakti, a conservation organization.
According to PK Sen, executive director of the Ranthambore Foundation, natural forests support associated species — those that depend on each other. The clearing of forests then, which are later replaced by plantations, often results in the extinction of several species of flora and fauna. Kamaljit S Bawa adds in his book Conservation Biology — A Primer for South Asia that “in past geological periods, the loss of species eventually balanced out or exceeded the evolution of new species. However, current rates of extinction are 100 to 1,000 those of past rates”.
Conservationist Belinda Wright says the country is currently witnessing a dramatic loss of forest corridors which link one protected area with another. “Because of the destruction, animal and plant populations cannot move from one area to another, leading to the isolation of those populations. That eventually leads to the extinction of species,” she says. Wright adds that the loss of forest corridors also results in mananimal conflict.
Also, while natural forests act as sponges, fill- ing up aquifers that then feed rivers and lakes, plantations tend to have the opposite effect. “Rubber plantations use up huge amounts of water, and have resulted in a shortage of drinking water, for example, in parts of Kerala,” says Stalin.
There are still other problems. Mining, for example, has destroyed 8-10% of Goa’s forests, which are then replaced by plantations.
Environmentalists point to flaws in the national mining policy. A few years ago, the environment ministry had classified the country’s heavily forested regions into ‘Go’ and ‘No-Go’ areas with a ban on mining in the latter. Recently, however, the government has relaxed its norms, allowing mining activity in what were previously NoGo zones. According to a Greenpeace report, the land covered under No-Go zones has shrunk from 3,20,684 hectares in 2010 to 140,311 hectares now.
“Mining companies would rather work in heavily-forested areas, since it is easier and cheaper to extract coal, lignite or bauxite from a forest where they are found on or near the surface. Digging up minerals from poorly managed mines is a more expensive process because the companies need to dig deeper at greater cost,” explains environmentalist Bittu Sahgal.
Then there’s climate change, which the experts say is synonymous with deforestation. “In the next 24 hours, deforestation will release as much CO2 into the atmosphere as eight million people flying from London to New York. Stopping the loggers is the fastest and cheapest solution to climate change,” says an article by Daniel Howden in the ‘The Independent’, which quotes from a report released by the Oxford-based Global Canopy Programme, an alliance of rainforest scientists.
Ecosystems such as the Sunderbans in Bengal, the sort of place that is at risk, are among the world’s largest carbon sinks. Not only does the forest’s flora absorb atmospheric carbon, but detritus or dead microorganisms, composed significantly of carbon, are stored in the soil. “Cutting down these forests releases a huge quantity of carbon back into the atmosphere, adversely affecting the climate. Deforestation and biodiversity loss are key drivers of climate change; one cannot be fixed without fixing the other,” says Sahgal.
But world over, logging continues relentlessly. According to a report by The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), an international initiative, the first decade of the millennium has seen a 400,000 square kilometre — an area larger than Japan — loss of natural forests.
Take Indonesia, for instance. It loses between 1.1 and 2 million hectares of forests and peat lands to deforestation each year, according to Indonesian newspaper reports. A BBC report talks of a five-fold increase in deforestation in the Amazon belt. Earlier this week, ‘The Guardian’ reported a shocking piece of news. Agent Orange, the herbicide that American soldiers used to kill and maim hundreds of Vietnamese, is being used by ranchers to clear the Amazon.
Japan remains one of the few countries that is largely unaffected by deforestation, with an estimated 60% of its land covered with forests. “But Japan imports all its wood from other countries. Japan needs to understand that it does not exist on a spaceship, and that the destruction of forests in one part of the world is bound to affect the rest of the world,” says Sahgal.
India would do well to remember that. The Survey of India defines forest cover very simply as any place bigger than 1 hectare that has at least 10% tree cover. This broad definition includes both native forests and tree plantations, which are extremely different things. Mixing up the two makes no sense. It’s like measuring the weight of a family to see if the mother’s diet is effective — it doesn’t work.
We have attempted to cross-check government data with data provided by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization. That is the only reliable data available on plantations. Doing so paints a very worrying picture of the condition of India’s native forests. But we agree with the government that the data is insufficient. This is a drastically high rate of forest loss. It suggests most of the country’s native forests, excluding those in the best-protected reserves and in inaccessible places, could be destroyed or severely degraded in only a few decades. We need to start focusing on the worst-affected areas, those that are losing forests the fastest, and work to protect surviving forests and to re-establish new forest cover using native tree species. This effort would be greatly aided by better information, especially good time-series maps of native forests throughout the country, maps that distinguish those forests from exotic plantations.
But we can’t wait for “perfect” data before doing something. We have to act now, or a bad situation is going to get far, far worse.