The latest data on India’s forest cover, published in the India State of Forest Report (ISFR) 2017 that was released earlier this week by the Forest Survey of India (FSI), should seem heartening. As per the biennial report, the country’s forested cover increased from 7,01,495 sq km in 2015 to 7,08,273 sq km in 2017. The numbers would suggest India has somehow managed to gain in terms of area under forests—despite the population pressure and development needs compelling diversion of forest land. Only, it has not. An analysis in The Indian Express (IE) shows that some of what India counts as forests aren’t exactly that, and thus, the numbers may be masking an actual net loss of forest cover.
The ISFR records, for the first time since 2007, an increase of nearly 5,200 sq km under dense forests, which includes very dense forests (VDF) with a canopy density of 70% and more and moderately dense forests (MDF) that have a canopy density of 40% to under-70%. This gain makes for over 10% of the total gains in dense forest cover between 1987—when the first FSI report was published—and 2017. How is it that in just two years the dense forest cover rose so drastically? The answer lies in FSI’s collection of data. It uses satellite images to identify forested area, and any area of more than 1 hectare, with a canopy density above 10%, is classified as forest area. Now, the canopy-density basis of identification doesn’t differentiate between natural forests, plantations, orchards (even palm and coconut groves), etc. Besides, the mapping done by satellite imagery in the 1980s was on a scale of 1:1 million, and thus land units under 4 sq km didn’t figure in the forest data. Thanks to the more recent 1:50,000 scale, much smaller patches of green are getting classified as forests. Lands denuded of forest cover, and even non-forest land, can become forested. But this happens over decades, and not in two years. And yet, between 2015 and 2017, 3,600 sq km of land that were classified as non-forests got converted into dense forests. The IE report and experts cited in other publications attribute this to fast-growing plantation trees like eucalyptus that are favoured in compensatory afforestation programmes. These are undetectable for satellite images as saplings, but get captured in the forest data in a short span of time.
Since 2003, India has lost over 15,000 sq km of dense forest and over 8,300 sq km have been compensated with plantations. Plantation monocultures—or at the very best, a couple of species planted together—make India’s loss of forests a much worse problem. The forest data needs to reflect the truth on the ground—it must separate the plantations from natural forests. Most important, diversity must be made a key metric of estimating the country’s forest cover.