World Environment Day: Despite increasing green cover, India is losing its forests

By Malavika Vyawahare

New Delhi : “Do not erect a memorial when I die, but plant a tree if you loved and respected me,” Union environment minister Anil Madhav Dave who died on May 18, wrote in his will.

Dave had reasons to be worried.

Between 1880 and 2013 India lost about 40% of its forest cover. Today, 24% of its area is under forests or 7 lakh sq km, according to government data. The area under forest and tree cover has grown by 5,081 sq km between 2013 and 2015.

A rise in forest and tree cover may seem like a reason to celebrate but a careful look at the state of forests shows the government has many promises to keep before the woods are lovely, dark and deep. To revive forests will take more than a public campaign to plant trees.

“Despite tall claims by various agencies the forests are still degrading and also depleting due to overexploitation,” a new assessment by the Forest Research Institute (FRI) in Dehradun, found.

Researchers at FRI looked at rain-fed areas in 27 states and one Union Territory because productivity in these areas is low and people are more likely to be dependent on forest products. After 70 years of Independence, more than two-thirds of villages adjoining forests across the country are still heavily dependent on forests for fodder,
firewood and other produce.

For Vanjam Rattamma, a 55-year-old tribal woman from Rathnapuram village in East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh, the only means of livelihood is to procure various forest products such as tendu leaves, tamarind, broomsticks, honey and gum from the adjacent forests and sell them at the weekly markets in neighbouring villages.

More than half the families in villages lying on the periphery of forests in this district have no land and average incomes for a majority of households is less than Rs 8,000 a month.

Some people argue that the increase in forest cover is a matter of optics. India has recently been able to measure its forest areas better with high-resolution satellite imagery so we capture more forests now. The largest increase in forest cover was seen in open forests where forest canopy is 10%-40%.

The forest cover grew by 3,775 sq km while tree cover grew by 1,306 sq km. Tree cover includes tree standing outside forest areas that are being measured for the first time. It could be a clump of trees in a homestead or even a commercial plantation, but they are neither part of a larger ecosystem nor a habitat.

To put the growth in forest cover numbers in perspective, northeast India and Andaman and Nicobar Islands are likely to lose 2,305 sq km of forest cover by 2025, Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) scientists predicted in a recent study.

What’s worse, the FRI study shows that in 60% of forests are in poor health with inadequate regeneration status.

For Rattamma degeneration of forests is not a number but a reality. “Till five years ago, I used to walk down a couple of kilometers into the forests to procure these products. Now, I am not able to get enough produce even if I walk five to 10 km deep into the forests. The forest has turned barren,” she said.

But the degeneration of forest cover is not to be blamed solely on forest dependent communities. Governments have tried over the years to incorporate these communities in forest conservation but with little success.

Under environmental crimes, many of those booked under the Forest Rights Act are locals who are penalised for collecting forest produce that they use themselves or sell to sustain themselves. In contrast, illegal logging, timber trade and diversion of forest area for industrial purposes continue unabated.

The Forest Act of 1927 is a colonial-era law that penalises locals for using the forest as a resource. Experts say the high rate of forest-related crimes reflects the dependence of people on the forest.

In exactly 10 years, India’ forest act will be a century old, promulgated during the British colonial rule and passed to protect the commercial interests of the Raj.

India’s forest laws are a complex tangle of rules and regulations, each aimed towards seemingly divergent goals. The newest law — the Forest Rights Act of 2005 — is designed to recognise the rights of traditional communities.

A recent order by the National Tiger Conservation Authority threw environmental activists off balance, by saying that communities living in protected habitats critical for tigers would have no forest rights at all. In the absence of an updated forest policy, there is much room for motivated interpretations. India’s forest policy is about two decades old and there is no new forest policy in sight.

To respect Dave’s wishes the environment and forest ministry could do more than just promote the planting of trees. They could bring more clarity to the forest rules and ensure more opportunities for forest-dependent populations so they are not at the mercy of the forests and forest department, and the trees are not at the mercy of human needs.

(With inputs from Srinivasa Rao)

Source: Hindustan Times

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