Monday, February 13, 2012
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India's native mixed forests are depleting due to misleading policies.

How misleading policies are fueling the delusion that India’s green cover is expanding

EVEN AS the Forest Survey of India (FSI) released its report on India’s receding forest cover, leading carmaker Rolls Royce announced that the interiors of its newest model will be made of teak straight from Malabar forests. According to the FSI’s latest report, India is now poorer by 367sq km of forest area with Andhra Pradesh’s Khammam district alone accounting for half of this loss.

The fact that Khammam is the worst hit takes the irony of it all a step further. For, the district boasts of one of the largest and much-publicised carbon credit forestry projects in the country. Under these projects, ground water guzzling eucalyptus trees are planted over 3,000 hectares of fertile farmland and harvested for wood after a specific period. However, the FSI satellite mapping does not differentiate artificial plantations from natural forests. So, while its 2009 report counted these trees in total forest cover, the 2011 survey could not map them since the trees have been felled for commercial use.

Irony of environment friendly projects

Our natural forests may be under threat because of the twisted solutions that climate change experts are providing sitting round tables in exotic locales. Under the clean development mechanism (CDM) adopted in 2001, private players and governments from developing countries would be able to earn carbon credits by adopting environment-friendly practices like growing trees on degraded land or by adopting cleaner energy sources like hydroelectricity. These carbon credits can then be sold to polluters in developed countries to help them meet their targets of emission cut. This race to earn carbon credits has resulted in the rise of artificial forests with fast-growing varieties of trees. Such trees, however, are only good for storing carbon.

Under the clean development mechanism (CDM), private players and governments from developing countries earn carbon credits by adopting environment-friendly practices like growing trees on degraded land. This race to earn carbon credits has resulted in the rise of artificial forests with fast-growing varieties which are only good for storing carbon.

India had nine carbon forestry projects as on May 2011. A field research report by the National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers (NFFPFW) indicts the carbon forestry project in Khammam district of being nothing more than “a well-designed and benign-looking fraud.” Under the project, degraded land – covering an area of 3070.19 hectares and owned by tribals – is developed for raising monoculture eucalyptus plantations.

The Bhadrachalam unit of the Paperboards and Specialty Papers Division (PSPD) of ITC Ltd, a multi-business conglomerate, is the primary developer of this project, initiated through a number of NGOs—all promoted by Andhra government. Similarly, hydroelectricity projects, which are earning carbon credits by claiming generation of clean energy, are eating into the traditional mixed forests. The NFFPFW report provides details of several hydroelectricity projects being set up in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand which are destroying the pristine forests to create muck-dumping sites as well as to lay tunnels resulting in frequent landslips.

Losing originality

An analysis published in the journal, Conservation Letters, says native forests in India are disappearing at a rate of up to 2.7 per cent per year. This means that we are cutting down forests and replacing them with commercially viable trees. As a result, the quality of our forests, in terms of their capacity to prevent floods, enhance precipitation, provide humus, fodder or compost, is declining at an alarming rate. “Trees like eucalyptus not only suck water from soil but their leaves are highly acidic terminating any undergrowth,” says Soumya Dutta, convener of Bharat Jan Vigyan Jatha.

Native forests in India are disappearing at a rate of up to 2.7 per cent per year. This means that we are cutting down forests and replacing them with commercially viable trees. As a result, the quality of our forests, in terms of their capacity to prevent floods, enhance precipitation, provide humus, fodder or compost, is declining at an alarming rate.

“It was during colonial rule that India’s forest cover began to be depleted of native teak, oaks and deodars to build navy ships and railways sleepers. Post-independence, we continue to support the practice under the garb of afforestation by cutting old trees and by planting the ones which support timber and paper industries as fake compensations,” says Roma Malik of the NFFPFW. How this diversion earns legitimacy can be understood from the recent approval given to chopping of 78 lakh traditional trees in Manipur for setting up of 1,500MW Tipaimukh hydroelectric project. Never mind the depletion of soil cover or the uprooting of native vegetation. Principal chief conservator of forests, Manipur, has been quoted in a news report saying “no compensatory measure would help in mitigating the loss caused by felling of such large number of trees…unless additional non-forest areas in affected districts or adjoining districts are taken up for compensatory afforestation”.

The authorities seem to ignore the fact that native forests not only offer better biological value but also support local communities. Apart from providing tubers, roots and fruits as food and wood for cooking, these trees also offer better fodder for the livestock. Considering that the economic contribution of livestock is today more than that of food grain crops, aren’t we sacrificing too much for too little?

The authorities seem to ignore the fact that native forests not only offer better biological value but also support local communities. These trees also offer better fodder for the livestock. Considering that the economic contribution of livestock is today more than that of food grain crops, aren’t we sacrificing too much for too little?

Can they or can’t they?

That the claimed forest cover is a fallacy can be implied from FSI’s mapping process which confers forest status even to orchards, bamboo and palm plantations as well as trees along and middle of the road if they are spread over a hectare of land with a canopy density of more than 10 per cent.The government body just cannot make up its mind whether it is capable of differentiating between commercial plantations and native forests or not. Replying to a Right To Information (RTI) application filed by GOI Monitor, the FSI said “At this scale it is not possible to differentiate the native tree cover from non-native or replanted trees.” The reply to another question on the same issue was not as straight forward: “At present it has been seen that higher resolution and higher scale satellite images are not available for the relevant period also there is dearth of sufficient manpower to work on satellite data of such higher resolution (sic).”

These replies, however, stand in sharp contrast to a paper presented during Proceedings of Map India 2004 by the then FSI Director J K Rawat claiming: “high-resolution satellite imageries provide information even up to identification of a single tree but these are cost prohibitive.” According to data collected for the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), United Nations, new plantations in India grew by around 15,400 square kilometres a year between 1995 and 2005. Deducting this area from the total forest cover that the FSI claims shows that the percentage of native forests declined by 2.4% per year between 1995 and 2005 resulting in a loss of more than 1.24 lakh square kilometres over the decade. The question that now remains to be asked is that have we come too far with following skewed ecological theories or are our greens still worth something?

Edited by: Ruchi Nagar

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