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

The Times of India (New Delhi edition) - - All That Matters - Anahita Mukherji

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.

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