State of Forest Report says that India’s forest and tree cover has increased by 1 percent

  • The total forest and tree cover is spread across 802,088 square km, which is 24.39 percent of the geographical area of the country.
  • However, in the northeast region (NER), the current assessment shows an actual decrease of forest cover to the extent of 630 square km.
  • Independent experts say that the report “masks ground realities” of forest status by in-cluding commercial plantations etc. under its ambit.

India has recorded a one percent jump (8,021 square km) in overall forest and tree cover between 2015 and 2017 despite population and livestock pressures, even as the green footprint in the northeast region shrunk by 630 square km, according to the latest India State of Forest Report (ISFR).

Based on satellite data analysis, the biennial assessment – conducted by the Forest Survey of India (FSI) and released by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) – has put the total forest and tree cover at 802,088 square km, which is 24.39 percent of the geographical area of the country.

The total forest cover is 708,273 square km, which is 21.54 percent of the total area of the country. Between 2015 and 2017, India has added 6,778 square km of forest cover and extended 1, 243 square km of tree cover.

The 2017 report, which is the 15th State of Forest survey, maps green cover across 633 districts in place of 589 districts that were considered for the previous edition.  According to the Ministry, India has shown an increasing trend in the forest and tree cover, in comparison to the global trend of decreasing forest cover during the last decade.

It highlighted that the country is “ranked 10th in the world, with 24.4 percent of land area under forest and tree cover, even though it accounts for 2.4 percent of the world surface area and sustains the needs of 17 percent of human and 18 percent livestock population.”

The present report underlines an actual increase of 86.89 square km of forest cover in all the tribal districts of India. Mangrove cover, which is 0.15 percent of the area of the country, has shown an improvement with a gain of 181 square km as compared to the 2015 assessment. Forest cover in hill districts expanded by 754 square km.

A forest and riverine ecosystem in the Western Ghats. Photo by Pradeep Kumar N. / Wikimedia Commons.

India targets bringing 33 percent of its geographical area under forest cover. As many as 15 states and union territories (UTs) have forest cover exceeding 33 percent of their geographical area. Out of these, seven states have more than 75 percent forest cover while eight states have forest cover between 33 percent and 75 percent.

The survey, which has for the first time featured water bodies inside forests, says that these bodies inside forest cover have increased by 2,647 square km during last decade (2005 to 2015).

Very dense forest (VDF) has shot up by 1.36 percent as compared to the last assessment. Since VDF absorb maximum carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the ministry sees the spike as an “encouraging” sign. Open forest (OF) has also seen a rise. On the flip side, the moderately dense forest (MDF) component has shown a downward trend.

The total carbon stock is estimated to be 7,083 million tonnes, an increase of 38 million tonnes of carbon stock as compared to the 2015 assessment. Arunachal Pradesh has clocked in the maximum carbon stock at 994.5 million tonnes. India’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) talks of creation of an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030.

The extent of bamboo-bearing area in the country has been estimated at 15.69 million ha. In comparison to the last assessment done in 2011, there has been an increase of 1.73 million ha in bamboo area.

The total annual potential production of timber from trees outside forest has been estimated at 74.51 million cubic metre.

The total growing stock of India’s forest and trees outside forests is estimated as 5,822.37 million cu. m, of which 4,218.38 million cu. m is inside the forests and 1,603.99 million cu. m outside. There is an increase of 53.990 million cu. m of total growing stock, as compared to the previous assessment. Out of this the increase in growing stock, there is an increase of 23.333 million cu. m inside the forest and 30.657 million cu. m outside the forest area.

Increase in forest cover

Three southern states have contributed to the increase in forest cover. They are: Andhra Pradesh (2,141 square km), Karnataka (1,101 square km) and Kerala (1,043 square km). The report attributes much of the expansion to plantation and conservation activities both within and outside the recorded forest areas as well as improvement in the interpretation due to better radiometric resolution of the recent satellite data from Resourcesat-2.

The forest, agro-forestry and rice field ecosystem of Kodagu. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier / Mongabay.

In terms of area, Madhya Pradesh has the largest forest cover of 77,414 square km in the country, followed by Arunachal Pradesh with 66,964 square km and Chhattisgarh with 55,547 square km. However, these states have reported a decline in forest cover.

On the basis of percentage of forest cover with respect to the total geographical area, Lakshadweep (with 90.33 percent) has the highest forest cover, followed by Mizoram (86.27 percent) and Andaman & Nicobar Islands. (81.73 percent)

The assessment states the “increasing trend of forest and tree cover is largely due to the various national policies aimed at conservation and sustainable management of our forests” like Green India Mission, National Agro-Forestry Policy (NAP), reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD plus) policy, joint forest management (JFM), National Afforestation Programme and funds under Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) to states.

Decline in forest cover in the northeast region

In terms of reduction in forest cover at the national level, the biodiversity-rich northeast region (NER), which accounts for one-fourth of India’s forest cover, has taken a major blow.

The total forest cover in the NER is 171,306 square km which is 65.34 percent of its geographical area in comparison to the national forest cover of 21.54 percent.

The current assessment shows an actual decrease of forest cover to the extent of 630 square km in the region. This decline is consistent with the 2015 assessment, which reported a contraction of 628 square km (from 2013 to 2015) in the region.

Out of the eight NER states, Assam and Manipur have registered an increase in forest cover. While Assam registered an increase of 567 square km, for Manipur it was 263 square km. However, the NER is also the location where forest cover has shrunk in some states, thereby the net decline of forest cover. The top five Indian states where forest cover has shrunk belong to the NER. They are Mizoram (531 sq km), Nagaland (450 sq km), Arunachal Pradesh (190 sq km), Tripura (164 sq km) and Meghalaya (116 sq km).

Land cleared for Jhum, a type of shifting cultivation practiced in North-east India. Photo by Prashanth N. S. / Wikimedia Commons.

In Mizoram, the loss is linked to “shifting cultivation and development activities”. Increase in forest cover in certain pockets is due to “regeneration of bamboo and other plantations”.

In Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, the reasons for the loss have also been attributed to “shifting cultivation and development activities”.

Shifting cultivation, rotational felling and developmental activities are the factors influencing the decline in forest cover in Meghalaya. Increase in certain pockets is due to plantation activities.

In Tripura the shrinkage has been attributed to “shifting cultivation, harvesting of mature rubber plantations and other developmental activities”, as per ISFR, 2017. In some cases, “positive change due to extension of area under rubber plantation has also been observed”.

Report masks ground realities

Refuting the government data on expansion of forest and tree cover over the last two years,  T.V. Ramachandra of the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, says the report “masks ground realities” of forest status by including commercial plantations etc.

“Our study in Western Ghats districts reveal the declining trend. Northern Western Ghats has experienced decline of 2 percent, central Western Ghats 4.5 to 5 percent and southern Western Ghats about 6 percent in recent years,” Ramachandra said.

Decline in forest cover of native species in catchment areas of streams heightens water conflicts among states reeling under shortage of water, he pointed out. He said monitoring of streams (and tributaries) in central Western Ghats for 18 months revealed that streams carry adequate water during all 12 months (perennial) when stream catchment is endowed with forest cover of native species (more than 60-65 percent).

“When native forests are converted into monoculture plantation (of rubber, acacia, eucalyptus) the catchment retains the water only for six to eight months. When native forests are encroached under the guise of development and converted to rubber plantation, the surrounding villagers can lose their water supply for up to six months,” he explained.

So when the forest cover dips below 20 percent in the catchment (or is deforested), the water is available in the streams only for four months.

“The disruption of the linkages between water retention by stream catchment and forest cover is the prime reason for accentuating interstate water conflicts, such as in Cauvery river basin, Malaprabha basin, Supa dam etc.,” Ramachandra added.

Shifting cultivation has always been the reason for decline in forest cover in most of the northeast states because of the hilly terrain, remarked Ajoy Debbarma, of the Tripura-based Centre for Forest-based Livelihoods and Extension (CFLE), adding it is not advisable to completely do away with shifting cultivation given the topography/landscape and the socio-economic and cultural significance that it has with the communities.

“However, interventions like agroforestry that incorporate tree species with rotation period greater than 10 years has great potential to improve the forest cover as well as in checking shifting agriculture,” he said.

Manas National Park, Assam. Photo by Sahana Ghosh / Mongabay.

Environmental economist Joyashree Roy of Jadavpur University believes expanding forest cover should be prioritised in the years to come and non-conventional green cover such as home gardens and urban forests should also be considered.

“Many non-conventional forests can be created in the form of home gardens etc. by encouraging people with incentives. Urban forests, such as creation of vertical gardens in place of concrete road dividers, is another option and these all could be mapped under green cover. Agroforestry has to be looked up in the context of policies.  Expanding forest cover isn’t only advantageous to enhance carbon sink but also for multiple employment and ecosystem benefits,” Roy added.

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