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Data: Forest Cover in India increased by about 22000 sq.km between 2011 & 2021, the size of Mizoram

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The ‘India State of Forest Report (ISFR)’ for the year 2021 was released recently by the Forest Survey of India (FSI). The total forest cover & tree cover in India is about 24.62% of the geographical area, much less than the 33% target set to be achieved by 2022. Between 2011 & 2021, the total forest cover increased by about 21,762 sq. km, roughly the size of the state of Mizoram.

Recently, the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change released the biennial ‘India State of Forest Report (ISFR) ’ for the year 2021 prepared by the Forest Survey of India (FSI) that assesses the forest and tree resources of the country periodically. The status of forest cover, tree cover, estimates of growing stock, the extent of trees outside forests, mangrove cover, bamboo resources, forest carbon stock, and forest fire monitoring are presented in the report. The first ISFR was published in the year 1987 and ISFR 2021 is the 17th report in the series. 

The findings of the report are mainly used for policy formulation, planning and management of forests and investments affecting forestry, and by researchers & students. The information in these reports is a source of input for global level inventories, and international reporting to organizations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and for various conventions & commitments like the United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change (UNFCCC), and Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to which India is a signatory.  

FSI uses satellite data, digital analysis, and ground-truthing for assessing the forest cover mapping

The methodology adopted for the assessment of forest cover has been subjected to regular improvements over time. Satellite data is used by the Forest Survey of India for assessing the forest cover in the country. In the latest report, information has been compiled using mid-resolution Satellite data based on interpretation of LISS-III data from Indian Remote Sensing satellite data (Resourcesat-II) with a spatial resolution of 23.5 meters with the scale of interpretation 1:50,000 to monitor forest cover and forest cover changes at District, State, and National level. Ever since the first publication, there has been significant improvement in the scale and resolution of data. The interpretation of data has also gradually shifted from visual to digital. 

Analysts with a good understanding of the topography, forests, and land-use-related aspects of the area, work on the satellite data for classifying the forest areas as per the adopted definitions. Following the interpretation of satellite data, extensive ground verification of the data is carried out which takes more than six months that helps in the classification of forest cover patches into the different canopy density categories. The necessary corrections are made based on the ground verification. Moreover, information from other collateral sources has also been used to improve the accuracy of the interpreted image. 

The report has the inherent limitations of remote sensing data which affects the accuracy of the forest cover mapping. For instance, the land cover with less than 23.5m dimensions, young plants with less chlorophyll, or inadequate foliage need not get captured by the satellite. At the same time, cloud cover & shadows, and haze affect the interpretation. Furthermore, agricultural crops like sugarcane and cotton, and weeds like lantana within forest areas also affect the interpretation. 

Forest cover in tiger reserves & mapping of climatic hotspots over India’s forest cover has been included in the 2021 report

Besides the status of forest cover, tree cover, estimates of growing stock, the extent of trees outside forests, forest fire monitoring, mangrove cover, and bamboo resources, in the latest 2021 report, the Forest Survey of India has included a new chapter related to the decadal assessment of the change in forest cover in the Tiger Reserves, Corridors and Lion conservation area of India, which helps in assessing the impact of conservation measures and management interventions that have been implemented over the years. 

Additionally, the Forest Survey of India has collaborated with the Birla Institute of Technology & Science (BITS – Pilani), for a study based on ‘Mapping of Climate Change Hotspots in Indian Forests’ to map the climatic hotspots over the forest cover in India, using computer model-based projection of temperature and rainfall data in the years 2030, 2050 and 2085. This has also been included in the 2021 report. 

Forest cover is calculated based on canopy and area, while forest area concerns the legal status

To gain a clear understanding of the status of forests and the findings of the report, it is important to understand the definitions of the terms such as forest cover, forest area, and tree cover. 

Forest Cover – The term forest cover refers to the extent of land area that is covered by forest resources in the country. In the report, ‘forest cover’ includes all the land in the country, the area of which is more than 1 hectare, where the density of tree canopy is greater than 10%. 

It should be noted that no distinction is made here on the grounds of land ownership, legal status, land use, ecosystem, or the type of trees. The green cover recorded by satellites as forest cover may be tree orchards, bamboos, palms and coconut trees, canal-side plantations, rubber, tea, and coffee plantations, which may be occurring in recorded forests, or government lands, or private community, meeting the aforesaid criteria. All such forest cover is considered for the calculation.

Meanwhile, those stretches of land which may be legally notified as forest by the government but do not have adequate green canopy may be omitted from the assessment whereas the dense foliage in private land may be covered in the assessment. 

Recorded Forest Area – Those geographical areas are recorded as forests as per government records such as Reserved Forests, Protected Forests, and unclassified forests as mentioned under the provisions of the Indian Forest Act, 1927 or counterpart State Acts or local laws for governance is referred to as Forest Area. Unlike the definition of forest cover, forest area takes into consideration the legal status of the land. Those areas which may be classified as ‘Forest’ in the government revenue records may be blank, with tree canopy less than 10% such as wetlands, rivers, degraded lands, grasslands, glaciers, and cold deserts are covered in the ambit of Recorded Forest Area. 

Tree Cover – The small patches of trees and isolated trees which are less than one hectare in area and outside Recorded Forest Areas refer to Tree Cover while Trees Outside Forest (TOF) refer to all trees outside Recorded Forest Areas irrespective of the size of the patch.   

India set a target to bring one-third of its geographical area under forest or tree cover by 2022

Under the National Forest Policy 1988, India has set a target of bringing one-third or 33% of its geographical area under forest cover or tree cover. This is also one of the targets enlisted in NITI Aayog’s Strategy for New India @ 75 released in 2018 for achievement by 2022. However, according to the ISFR 2021, India’s total forest and tree cover is 8.09 lakh sq. km. (24.62%). India’s total forest cover is close to 7.14 lakh sq. km. (21.71% of India’s geographical area) while the tree cover is estimated to be 95,748 sq. km. (2.91%). In other words, India still has a long way to go before achieving the target set under the National Forest Policy in 1988.

Forest cover, roughly the size of Mizoram, has been added in the past decade

In the past decade, the forest cover in India has steadily gone up from 6.92 lakh sq. km. in 2011, to almost 7.14 lakh sq. km by 2021, recording an increase of about 21,762 sq. km in 10 years, or about 3.14%. This increase is roughly the size of the state of Mizoram. Similarly, the tree cover in the country has also witnessed a gradual increase over the last decade, from 90,844 sq. km. in 2011 to 95,748 sq. km in 2021, an increase of 4,904 sq. km (5.4%). However, the Forest Area in the country has more or less been around the 7.7 lakh sq. km mark between 2011 & 2021. 

This increase in forest cover and tree cover may be attributed to the increase in tree plantations such as eucalyptus and orchards, and not because of the increase in the pristine forests which serve the ecological purpose. In the subsequent story, we would look at the individual states and analyse what has contributed to the increase in forest cover over the years. 

Featured Image: Forest Cover in India

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