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Data: As 19 States record an increase in forest cover, experts highlight the issues with methodology

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As per the ‘India State of Forest Report (ISFR)’ for the year 2021, 19 states and Delhi have recorded an increase in forest cover. Multiple states have also recorded a significant increase in very dense forests. However, conservation experts have highlighted the issues with the methodology and that the government may be highlighting the increase to achieve targets without looking at the quality. 

The ‘India State of Forest Report (ISFR)’ for the year 2021 was released recently by the Forest Survey of India (FSI). In the previous story, the methodology of this survey, important definitions such as that of forest area, forest cover, and tree cover, and the limitations in the methodology as per the report, were discussed. 

Since 2011, the total forest cover in the country has increased by about 21,762 sq. km, roughly the size of the state of Mizoram. As per the 2021 report, India’s total forest cover & tree cover is about 24.62% of its geographical area. In this story, we look at the forest cover across individual states and look at factors that contributed to the increase in forest cover, as given in this report. 

Forest cover has increased in South Indian states while it has decreased in the NE States

In the last decade, 19 states and Delhi have recorded a net increase in forest cover. The forest cover has increased by at least 1000 sq. km in the states of Kerala, Karnataka, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Jammu & Kashmir, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and West Bengal. Five states including Bihar, Assam, Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh, and Rajasthan have recorded an increase by at least 500 sq. km. 

On the other hand, 10 states have registered a decline in forest cover over the last decade. The seven northeastern states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, Tripura, Meghalaya, and Sikkim fall in this category, along with Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttarakhand. Close to 91.5% of the forest cover lost in the 10 states has been reported by the 7 northeastern states which are part of the crucial biodiversity hotspots recognized globally. Though these seven states constitute less than 6% of the geographical area of the country, they account for nearly one-fifth of India’s forest cover. Together with Assam, the 8 states account for about 8% of the geographical area and for nearly 25% of India’s forest cover.  

While Nagaland and Mizoram have recorded a loss in forest cover by at least 1000 sq. km, Arunachal Pradesh has recorded a reduction of 979 sq. km, while the remaining states have recorded a loss of less than 500 sq. km. Shifting cultivation has been cited as one of the reasons behind the loss of forest cover in the northeastern region. 

Shifting cultivation, biotic pressure, and developmental activities cited as reasons for forest cover depletion

The report has attributed the increase in forest cover in various states to an increase in vegetation due to better conservation measures, afforestation activities, enhanced protection measures in the plantation as well as traditional forest areas, and expansion of trees outside the forest area. On the other hand, the depletion in forest cover has been attributed to short rotational plantations, shifting cultivation, biotic pressure, clearance in encroached areas, and developmental activities. Moreover, interpretational changes arising out of the use of satellites as seen in the previous story could have also affected the numbers.  

Forests are categorized by FSI based on canopy density

It must be kept in mind that forest cover refers to any type of land in the country, the area of which is more than 1 hectare, and where the density of tree canopy is greater than 10%. Based on the density of canopy, the Forest Survey of India has categorized forests into three categories- Very Dense Forests (VDF), Moderately Dense Forests (MDF), and Open Forests. All lands, including mangrove canopy, are included to calculate the canopy density. The criterion is as follows.

Source: FSI

Area of Open forests and very dense forests have increased while moderately dense forests have depleted

Though there has been a net growth of forest cover of almost 22,000 sq. km in the last decade, open forests with low canopy density are the major contributors to the growth. That is, in the last decade, Open Forests have increased from 2.87 lakh sq. km to 3.07 lakh sq. km, by over 19,300 sq. km. In other words, the increase in overall forest cover is contributed majorly by the increase in forest cover under open forests which are land areas with low canopy density. This could be because of the depletion of Moderately Dense Forests, which are closer to human habitations that have declined by over 13,846 sq. km from 3.2 lakh sq. km in 2011 to 3.07 lakh sq. km in 2021. During this period, Very Dense Forests have gone up from 83,471 sq. km to 99,779 sq. km, registering an increase of 16,308 sq. km (by 19%). In 2017, the area under Very Dense Forest (VDF) increased by 9,252 sq. km. as compared to 2015, while the growth has been around 1,000 sq. km during the other survey years. 

VDF increased considerably in some states in 2017

Between 2011 and 2021, the area under VDF has increased by more than 1000 sq. km in Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, A&N Islands, Assam, Karnataka, and Chhattisgarh. The area under VDF increased considerably (about 2 to 4 times) in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Telangana, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Sikkim, and Tripura in 2017 as compared to 2015. While releasing the report in 2017, the then Environment Minister stated that much of the increase in the forest cover in 2017 was observed in VDF which is an encouraging sign as VDF absorbs maximum carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. 

Meanwhile, Moderately Dense Forests (MDF) had declined by more than 1000 sq. km in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Chhattisgarh, A&N Islands, Telangana, and Uttarakhand. 20 States recorded a decline in MDF since 2011. Only Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Tripura recorded a significant increase in area under MDF. 

Under Open Forests (OF), West Bengal recorded an increase of more than 4,000 sq. km in the last decade while Kerala and Odisha recorded an increase of more than 3,000 sq. km. Tamil Nadu, AP, and Telangana, and Jammu & Kashmir also recorded an increase by more than 1,000 sq. km of open forests. At the same time, Tripura and Karnataka have recorded a decline in open forests by more than 1000 sq. km while Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, A&N Islands, and Chhattisgarh, have also recorded a decline in open forests. 

The report has been criticized by experts for being a deliberate attempt to achieve targets

While releasing the 2021 report, the Environment Minister stated that the focus of the government is not just to conserve the forests quantitatively but to enrich them qualitatively. However, experts have criticized the report for being misleading. To begin with, the definitions, as seen in the previous story, include all trees and green patches in the country including plantations, agroforestry, monoculture, etc. which may increase the green cover in the country but do not serve an ecological purpose. In fact, plantations such as eucalyptus grown to compensate for lost forest area are threatening to the environment since it causes depletion of groundwater and is vulnerable to forest fire. The report does not give any comprehensive data on the quality of the forests and tree covers, or the socio-economic purposes of forests. There have been numerous criticisms of the FSI’s report for being a deliberate attempt of the government to make sure that the quantitative targets of forest cover and carbon sinks are achieved as committed in international & national forums. 

A conservation expert M D Madhusudhan has criticized the Forest Survey of India’s methodology by comparing the forest cover as reported by FSI since 1987. He tweeted how the FSI redefined the term ‘forest’ multiple times and recalculated the forest cover of previous years.

Citing examples, he has also pointed out how the exercise has labelled tea estates in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu as Moderately Dense Forest, and some tea and human settlements as Very Dense Forest. He mentioned how even invasive plants in the Kutch region have been classified as forest in the report. He also highlighted how much better maps of the National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) are at telling natural forests from tea and coconut.

Featured Image: By Vu2sga, CC BY-SA 4.0 [via Wikimedia Commons]

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