India State of Forest Report 2021 – Explained, pointwise

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The India State of Forest Report (ISFR) 2021 has been released by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC).

Findings of the report show a continuing increase in forest cover across the country, but experts have flagged some other aspects as causes for concern, such as a decline in forest cover in the Northeast, and a degradation of natural forests.

Read on for a detailed discussion.

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What is the India State of Forest Report 2021?

It is an assessment of India’s forest and tree cover, published every two years by the Forest Survey of India (FSI) under the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change.

The first survey was published in 1987, and ISFR 2021 is the 17th report.

With the data computed through wall-to-wall mapping of India’s forest cover through remote sensing techniques, the ISFR is used in planning and formulation of policies in forest management as well as forestry and agroforestry sectors.

Satellite data used in the assessment is based on interpretation of Linear Imaging Self-Scanning Sensor (LISS)-III data from Indian Remote Sensing satellite data (Resourcesat-II)

The India State of Forest Report (ISFR) 2021 provides information on forest cover, tree cover, carbon stock in India’s forests, etc. This information provides inputs for various global level inventories, reports such as GHG Inventory, international reporting to UNFCCC targets for planning and scientific management of forests.

In the present ISFR 2021, for the first time, FSI has assessed forest cover in tiger reserves, tiger corridors and the Gir forest which houses the Asiatic lion.

What are the key findings of the report?

1) The total forest and tree cover of the country is 80.9 million hectare, which is 24.62% of the geographical area of the country.

India has set a target of bringing 33% of its geographical area under forest cover, as envisaged in the National Forest Policy, 1988.

This was also one of the key targets enlisted in the Strategy for New India @ 75 document, released in December 2018 by the NITI Aayog.

2) Increase in forest and tree cover: As compared to the assessment of 2019, there is an increase of 0.28% in the total forest and tree cover of the country.

Three types of forests have been surveyed: Very dense (pristine), moderately dense (natural forests close to human habitation) and open forests. Scrubs have also been surveyed, but they are not categorised as forests.

The Survey defines forests as all lands of more than 1 hectare in an area with a tree canopy density of more than 10%, including trees, orchards, bamboo, palms etc., occurring over government and private lands.

This covers all land, irrespective of legal ownership and land use. While “recorded forest area” includes only those areas recorded as forests in government records, as well as the pristine forests.

Increase in forest cover has been observed in open forest followed by very dense forest, while moderately dense forests (natural forests) have declined.

The gain in forest cover may be attributed to better conservation measures, afforestation activities, tree plantation drives and agro-forestry.

3) States in the North East have recorded the highest loss in forest cover. This is due to numerous natural calamities, particularly landslides and heavy rains, and anthropogenic activities such as shifting agriculture, pressure of developmental activities and felling of trees.

Further, unlike other states, where forests are managed by the forest department and state governments, the Northeastern states follow a system based on community ownership and protected tribal land. This makes conservation activities challenging.

The northeastern states have been losing forest cover consistently, as the last report published in 2019 also indicated.

Area-wise Madhya Pradesh has the largest forest cover in the country followed by Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Maharashtra.

4) Increase in mangrove cover: An increase of 17 sq Km in mangrove cover has been observed as compared to the previous assessment of 2019.

5) Increase in carbon stock: There has been an increase of 79.4 million tonnes in the carbon stock of the country, as compared to the last assessment of 2019.

Carbon stock refers to the amount of carbon stored in forests in the form of biomass, soil, deadwood and litter. More carbon stock indicates a higher forest capacity to absorb and sequester carbon dioxide (CO2), through photosynthesis.

6) Growing stock has also increased as compared to 2019. Growing stock quantifies forest resources and is an indicator of forest productivity.

7) The forest cover in tiger corridors has increased between 2011-2021, but decreased by 0.04% in tiger reserves. Pakke Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh has the highest forest cover, at nearly 97%.

8) The India State of Forest Report, estimates that by 2030, 45-64% of forests in India will experience the effects of climate change and rising temperatures, and forests in all states (except Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Nagaland) will be highly vulnerable climate hot spots. Ladakh is likely to be the most affected.

It predicted that Himalayan states and UTs like Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand will record the maximum increase in temperature and also possibly experience decrease in rainfall.

9) The survey has found that 35.46 % of the forest cover is prone to forest fires.

What are the concerns as highlighted by the findings of the report?

The growth rate in forest cover has been marginal. This marginal growth in India’s forest cover is primarily due to an increase in the area under open forests (canopy density 10-40%). The increase in open forests is led by commercial plantations. This is a cause of concern.

Despite overall increase in mangrove cover, very dense mangrove cover has decreased in Sunderbans. This is also a cause of concern because very dense mangrove cover acts a barrier against cyclones, protecting West Bengal from directly bearing the brunt of storms that originate in the Bay of Bengal. The mangrove also acts as a source of livelihood for locals by acting as a spawning ground for several fish and other aquatic animals such as crabs and prawns.

Degradation of forests: The decline, in natural forests in conjunction with an increase in open forest areas – shows a degradation of forests in the country. This means that natural forests are degrading to less dense open forests. Also, increase in scrub area, indicates the complete degradation of forests in these areas.

Since 2003, more than 19,000 sq. km of dense forests have become non-forests in the country. The decadal rate of this destruction of natural forests has doubled from ~7,000 sq. km in 2003-13 to 12,700 sq. km since 2013.

– Loss of forest cover in NE region: This loss is of great concern, as the Northeastern states are repositories of great biodiversity. Loss of forest cover will increase the impact of landslides. It will also impact water catchment in the region, which is already seeing degradation of its water resources.

What are some issues with the survey?

As per experts, survey results could be misleading as it includes plantations – such as coffee, coconuts or mango and other orchards – under forest cover.

These plantations are distinctly different from natural forests where one hectare would be home to hundreds of species of trees, plants and fauna, whereas commercial plantations house only one species of tree.

What is the way forward?

In India, the extent of natural forests is unknown. It’s very important to segregate the extent of natural forests and commercial plantations like mango or coconut. The qualitative forest cover can’t be improved unless the extent of natural forest is known.

The decline in natural forests (moderately dense forests) merits attention since certain amendments to the Forest Act, 1980 are likely to further make easier the diversion of forest land for non-forest use.

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