Dodgy definitions endanger India’s forests

A report warns of the perils of climate change for the country’s delicate tree systems, but also suggests green cover is increasing – which depends on what is meant by ‘forest’.

Climate change is expected to severely damage almost half of India’s forests by 2030. In a high-emissions scenario, this is expected to increase to 65%. Rising temperatures and loss of biodiversity will damage nearly two-thirds of the green cover by 2050, and 93% will be under severe strain by 2085, according to the India State of Forest (2021) report by India’s Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change.

The report notes that the forests in the western Himalayan region and the north-eastern states are vulnerable across all climate scenarios in the three time horizons: 2030, 2050 and 2085. Ladakh, Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand are likely to witness the highest temperature increases and greatest declines in rainfall. India’s three dominant forest types, tropical dry deciduous forests, tropical moist deciduous forests and tropical semi-evergreen forests, are all delicate systems, highly sensitive to changes in temperature and rainfall. 

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India’s green cover is projected to experience a rise in temperature between 1.5 and 2.1 degrees celsius. Rainfall patterns will change in these climate change hotspots, with an increase or decrease of 20% to 26%. These projections are based on the collaborative study between the environmental ministry’s Forest Survey of India (FSI), which brought out the report in collaboration with the Birla Institute of Technology & Science, to map climate hotspots in the forested areas of the country.

India’s forest and tree cover has been mapped since 1987 with the aim of tracking the country’s performance on its long-term goal of increasing forest and tree cover to 33.3% of its total geographical area. Though the report suggests an overall increase in forests since 2019, a number of critics have pointed out problems with how they are defined in the document. 

Key findings

“Forest cover” is any piece of land larger than one hectare with a tree canopy cover of more than 10% – which includes plantations such as bamboo, orchards and oil palms. “Tree cover” refers to patches of trees in an area smaller than one hectare, including isolated trees outside recorded forest areas.

Using these definitions, the report suggests that between 2019 and 2021 India’s forest cover expanded by 2 261 square kilometres, bringing the country’s total forest and tree area to 80.9 million hectares or 24.62% of its geographical area. The country’s total mangrove cover also reportedly increased by 17 square kilometres to 4 992 square kilometres. But there has been a decline in dense and moderately dense forest with fires increasing. 

The country’s north-east states reported the biggest overall loss of forest cover at 1 020 square kilometres. Although this region accounts for 23.75% of total forest area, green cover has declined because of landslides, shifting agriculture and deforestation, which has affected the region’s water resources.

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There has also been an increase in fires. Between November 2020 and June 2021, India reported 345 989 forest fires. “Around 35.46% of the country’s forest cover has been estimated to be prone to frequent forest fires. Nearly 4% of the country’s forest cover is extremely prone to fire, whereas 6% of the forest cover is found to be very highly fire-prone,” the report notes. “Persistent hotter and drier weather due to climate change and other human factors such as land conversion for agriculture and poor forest management are the main drivers behind the increase of forest fires.”

The report also examines carbon stocks, which is any system that pools carbon, and puts India’s climate change commitments into context. At the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, India pledged to reduce its carbon emissions by 1 billion tonnes by 2030.

India’s current carbon stock stands at 7 204 million tonnes, which represents an increase of 79.4 million tonnes as compared to the last assessment in 2019. Annually its carbon stock is increasing by 39.7 million tonnes. The carbon in organic soil represents the largest pool of carbon stock in forests, which has been estimated at 4010.2 million tonnes or 56% of the total forest carbon stock of the country.

The report includes a new chapter that assesses the forest cover in tiger reserves, corridors and lion conservation areas in India. Both habitats were shown to have decreased. 

Criticism of the claims

The report notes that the accuracy of forest cover classification has been assessed at 92.99% and that between forest and non-forest classes at 95.79%. Internationally, a rate of 85% and above is accepted.  

While the report gives insight into the country’s commitment to preserving forests and green cover, experts argue that, just like its previous editions, the report misrepresents what is actually going on, starting with how “forest cover” is defined. Satellite mapping fails to give proper insight into the quality of these forests or their biodiversity. And, despite swathes of forest land being converted for non-forest use each year, these losses are not reflected in the report.

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“The [India State of Forest report] is an assemblage of numbers that neither give a clear sense of the quality of forests and their socioeconomic uses nor a sense of tree cover. Understanding the social life of forests was never a part of the FSI’s methodology. But these reports don’t even attempt to reflect that forest lands may be empty of trees and lands with tree cover may be a fruit orchard waiting to be farmed,” Kanchi Kohli, an environmental researcher with the Centre for Policy Research, says

Likewise, a researcher showed that the conclusions of the FSI’s assessments contradicted statistics provided by the National Remote Sensing Centre. The FSI had claimed a 6 million hectare gain in forest cover between 1995 and 2013, but in 2015, the remote sensing centre’s research noted a decrease.

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