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‘Plantations meet ecological functions of natural forests’: Bhupender Yadav

The India State of Forests Report 2021 has spurred an intense debate on whether the results correctly reflect India’s forests, or is counting plantations, monocultures, and urban trees in parks as forests masking the true picture. In an e-mail interview, Union environment minister Bhupender Yadav told Jayashree Nandi that India has defined forests as per its national capabilities, and said that all plantations play a crucial ecological role.

Edited excerpts:

Concerns have been raised by experts about India’s definition of forests because it also counts orchards and plantations. Why aren’t we changing the definition to account for natural forests only?

Combating climate change by preserving and restoring the country’s ecological balance is an area very close to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s heart. This reflects in the fact that between 2019 and 2021, India’s forest and tree cover rose by 2,261 sq km. Forest and tree cover now spread across 80.9 million hectares, 24.62% of India’s geographical area.

ISFR is a scientific document which gives a complete picture of forest and tree resources of the country based on a sound and well-established methodology. With the adoption of digital method of interpretation from 2001 onwards, FSI was able to delineate and record all the forest areas down to 1 hectare… For assessment of forest cover, the definition adopted by India is “all lands, more than one hectare in area, with tree canopy density of more than 10% irrespective of ownership and legal status”. Such lands may not necessarily be a recorded forest area…

Why don’t we count plantations and forests separately?

We need to understand that the assessment of forest cover is done on the basis of interpretation of satellite data, which basically identifies the umbrella-shaped canopies from the sky, and it is not possible to discern different species on an imagery with spatial resolution of 23.5m. However, to make things clear, the forest cover figures are further divided as “inside recorded forest area” and “outside recorded forest area”…

This gives the impression that forests and plantations are of the same ecological value. What are your thoughts on it?

Do we really need to exclude plantations? Cashew plantations, which are mainly growing along the coast, serve as the first line of defence against cyclones, which are now hitting with increased frequency… Mixed plantations, especially of native species, are meeting all the ecological functions of natural forests, and ground flora is taking over… While I do not advocate equating natural forests with plantations, at the same time, let us recognise their ecological functions too…

At the UN High-Level Dialogue on Desertification, Land degradation and Drought in 2021, PM Modi highlighted how India was working to stay on track to achieve its national commitment of land degradation neutrality by increasing forest and tree cover. He cited the example of the Banni region in Rann of Kutch in Gujarat… In Banni region, land restoration was done by developing grasslands, which helped in achieving land degradation neutrality…

Is it true that even trees in Delhi’s Lutyens’ zone show up as forests in the FSI maps as suggested by some independent experts?

All tree patches in Lutyens’ Delhi more than 1 hectare in area and a tree canopy density of more than 10% will be covered under forest cover. The tree patches in urban areas serve important ecological functions, creating their own microclimate and micro ecosystems… If we observe closely, we will notice a lot of avian fauna…

The State of Forest report by Forest Survey of India states that there is an increase of 2,261 sq km (0.28%) of total forest and tree cover in the country compared to 2019. But the data also shows a loss of 1,582 sq km in moderately dense forests. Are we losing forests more than we are gaining?

As per ISFR 2021, there is a decrease of 1,582 sq km of moderately dense forest (MDF). At the same time there are gains due to inter-density improvements in forest cover area from lower density forest cover classes to higher density forest cover classes. It is seen that, on the whole, there is a net gain of 9.67 million tonnes of carbon stock. Between 2019 and 2021 assessments, there is an increase of 31 sq km of forest cover inside the recorded forest area and an increase of 1,509 sq km of forest cover outside the recorded forest area. Under various afforestation and forest conservation programmes being implemented both by the MoEFCC and states continuous efforts are ongoing to improve the extent, natural regeneration as well as enhancement of the forest quality in the area.

There is also an overall decrease in forest cover of 22.62 sq km (0.04%) across 52 tiger reserves in the past decade and in lion area also. Why is that?

As per ISFR 2021, 20 tiger reserves have recorded an overall gain in forest cover during the past decade whereas 32 reserves have recorded an overall loss of forest cover. The decrease in forest cover in these areas may be attributed to habitat improvement measures under the recommendations contained in the management plan.

India has made a commitment — as part of its nationally determined contribution to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, to create an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes through additional forest and tree cover by 2030. How will we achieve this?

At COP26 in November 2021, PM Modi gave the world the mantra of LIFE, or Lifestyle for Environment. All our policy formulations are oriented towards sustainable growth to hand over a better plant to our future generations. As per ISFR, the total carbon stock in forest and tree cover is estimated at 30.11 billion tonnes. We have achieved 1.97 billion tonnes of additional carbon sink… The target will be achieved by increasing forest and tree cover across India…

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