Among NE states, Manipur lost 499 sq km of forest followed by Arunachal Pradesh (276 sq km) and Mizoram (180 sq km)
Among NE states, Manipur lost 499 sq km of forest followed by Arunachal Pradesh (276 sq km) and Mizoram (180 sq km)|Representational Image
IN-DEPTH

Northeast’s shrinking forest cover. Find out why?

Northeast saw a decrease of forest cover to the extent of 765 sq km (0.45% of its geographical area). Except Assam and Tripura, all the states showed a decrease

Simran Bajaj

Simran Bajaj

Guwahati: Before the end of 2019, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change published the biennial India State of Forest Report (ISFR) 2019, claiming India to be the few countries in the world showing a rise in its forest cover.

The report, released on December 30 last year, said that India’s forest and tree cover has increased by of 5,188 square kilometre across the country compared to the India State of Forest Report (ISFR) 2017. This means, an increase in the green cover of the country which is more than three times the size of Delhi, which is about 1484 sq km.

According to ISFR 2019, the total forest cover of the country is 7,12,249 sq km which is 21.67% of the geographical area of the country, and the tree cover of the country is estimated as 95,027 sq km which is 2.89% of the geographical area. Put together, the total forest and tree cover at the national level is now 807,276 square kilometre (which is 24.56% of the geographical area of the country) compared to 2017’s report when it was 802,088 sq km (24.39% of the country’s geographical area).

Southern states like Karnataka (1.025 sq km), Andhra Pradesh (990 sq km) and Kerala (823 sq km) bagged the top spot in terms of increase in forest cover, however, the Northeastern region showed a decrease of forest cover. The total forest cover of region is 1,70,541 sq km, which is 65.05% of its geographical area, and the ISFR 2019 assessment shows a decrease of forest cover to the extent of 765 sq km (0.45%). In the region, except Assam and Tripura, the rest of the states showed a decrease in forest cover.

Union minister Prakash Javedkar attributed the loss of forest cover in Northeast mainly because of shifting cultivation
Union minister Prakash Javedkar attributed the loss of forest cover in Northeast mainly because of shifting cultivation Representational image

Commitment to Paris Climate Agreement

The ISFR report said that the total carbon stock in forest is estimated at 7,124.6 million tonnes. There is an increase of 42.6 million tonnes in the carbon stock of the country compared to ISFR 2017.

During the release of the report, union minister for environment, forest and climate change Prakash Javadekar said, “This report gives us confidence that we are on track to achieve our Paris Agreement goals. Today, we are at 25% and we have to go to 33%. It will take a little time, not 2030. But with the cooperation of the people of India, we will achieve it much sooner than planned.”

According to the Paris Climate Agreement, India has to create a cumulative carbon sink of 2.5-3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2030. Currently, India’s forest and tree cover is about 24% of its geographical area, and India has repeatedly highlighted that it wants to bring at least 33% of its total area under green cover. The draft of India’s National Forest Policy 2018 also mentions that to achieve the national goal for eco-security, the country should have a minimum of one-third of the total land area under forest and tree cover.

What is forest cover?

Forest cover broadly signified the expanse of forest resources in the country or region. All tree stands with canopy density of over 10% and having an extent of more than one hectare, including tree orchards, bamboos, palms etc within recorded forests, on other government lands, private, community or institutional lands are included in the assessment of forest cover. It includes all lands having trees as per the required specification irrespective of ownership, legal status and species composition of trees.

Classification of area:

Forest cover classified in terms of canopy density classes are:

1) Very Dense Forest (VDF) - All lands with tree canopy density of 70% or above

2) Moderately Dense Forest (MDF) - All lands with tree canopy density of 40% or above, but less than 70%

3) Open Forest (OF) - All lands with tree canopy density of 10% or above, but less than 40%

4) Scrub - Forest lands with canopy density of less than 10%

5) Non-forest - Land not included in any of the above classifications (includes water)

The sum of very dense forest, moderately dense forest and open forest makes it the total forest cover. As per ISFR 2019, India's VDF is 99,278 sq km (3.02% of total geographical area), MDF is 3,08,472 sq km (9.38%) and 3,04,499 sq km (9.26%) bringing the total forest cover to 7,12, 249 sq km.

What is tree cover?

Tree cover is defined as all tree patches of size less than one hectare occurring outside the recorded forest area. Tree cover includes tress in all formations including scattered trees. Though trees outside forest (TOF) and tree cover appear as similar terms they are two different entities but closely related to each other. TOF refers to all trees growing outside recorded forest area irrespective of the patch size which could be larger than one hectare. So, essentially, tree cover becomes a subset of TOF.

Total tree cover of India according to the 2019 assessment is 95,027 sq km which equals to 2.89% of the geographical area of the country.

Northeast

One of the greenest belts of the country, northeast is blessed with rich flora and fauna and is one of the 17 biodiversity hotspots of the world. Covering just 7.98% of the geographical area of the country, the region accounts for nearly 25% of India's forest cover.

According to ISFR 2019, Northeast saw a decrease of forest cover to the extent of 765 sq km which is 0.45% of the total geographical area of the country compared to the 2017 assessment. To give an exemplar, the region lost a green cover almost the size of Bangalore which is around 700 sq km in size.

And, except Assam and Tripura, all the states in the region were part of the overall loss.

However, despite the loss, five north-eastern states- Mizoram (85.41%), Arunachal Pradesh (79.63%), Meghalaya (76.33%), Manipur (75.46%) and Nagaland (75.31%) have the highest forest cover as a percentage of the total geographical area in India as per the report.

During the release of the report, union minister Prakash Javedkar attributed the loss of forest cover in Northeast mainly because of shifting cultivation. He said, "We will make a focused attempt for the northeast region as well."

Smoke screened behind the green and lush belts of the region which already cover about 70-80% of land is the fact that the region has been witnessing a continuous trend of decline in forest area.

The decline of the forest area in the northeast region is a continuous trend reported Mongabay.com, and since 2009 the region witnessed a loss of about 3,199 sq km of forest area. For instance, when the ISFR 2017 was released, there was a decline of 630 sq km of forest cover compared to the ISFR 2015. The ISFR 2015 had marked a decrease of 628 sq km of forest cover compared to the 2013 data.

ISFR attributes the gain of forest cover to better conservation measures, protection, afforestation, tree plantation drives and agroforestry, whereas loss in forest cover and impairment of forest canopy may be attributed to shifting cultivation, forest fires, felling of trees, natural calamities, anthropogenic pressure and development activities.

The states which lost forest cover as per the 2019 assessment are: Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Sikkim.

Compared to ISFR 2017, Arunachal Pradesh added 374 sq km of very dense forest, and lost 398 sq km of moderately dense forest and 252 sq km of open forest, which brings it at a total loss of 276 sq km of forest cover.

Manipur lost 3 sq km of VDF, 124 sq km of MDF and further, it lost 372 sq km of open forest, bringing the total decrease in forest cover of the state to 499 sq km.

Meghalaya's moderately dense forest went down by 119 sq km, while it gained 36 sq km of VDF and 56 sq km of OF, bringing the total decrease to 27 sq km. In the meantime, Mizoram lost 60 sq km MDF and 146 sq km of OF while it added 26 sq km of VDF, coming to a total loss of 180 sq km of forest cover.

Nagaland lost 6 sq km of VDF and 53 sq km of MDF whilst it gains 56 sq km of OF, to bring down the decrease in forest cover to 3 sq km. Sikkim too lost 23 sq km of MDF, but it almost covered up the loss by adding 21 sq km to VDF, hence bringing down the loss to only 2 sq km of forest cover.

In the two Northeast states- Assam and Tripura - which did not see a decrease in total forest cover, too lost some sub-sects of forests but made up for it with gains. For instance, Tripura lost 2 sq km of VDF and 10 sq km of MDF, but it gained the same area, that is, 12 sq km of OF. In Assam, only 2 sq km of VDF was lost, however, the state gained 87 sq km of MDF and 137 OF, bringing the total gain to 222 sq km.

States with the highest forest cover loss

Manipur

The hilly state of Manipur where total forest cover is 16,846 sq km, that is, 75.46% of the state's geographical area, accounted for a total decrease of forest cover of 499.10 sq km compared to the previous assessment report in ISFR 2017.

Interacting with media persons earlier this month, Manipur's forest and environment minister Thounaojam Shyamkumar said attributed the substantial loss in forest cover of the state to extensive felling of trees for poppy cultivation and development works.

Dwelling into the reasons for depletion of forest cover, Shyamkumar pointed out that in the Hill districts the state has mainly “unclassed forest” which is under the control of the communities.

The forest department is not in the position to enforce the Indian Forest Act, 1927 in the Hills.

Moreover, the forest department is unable to follow the prescriptions under the working plan particularly in Hill districts as the areas under the unclassed forests are controlled by the communities, he added.

Out of the total forest area lost, 491 sq km is in hill districts of Churachandpur, Tamenglong, Senapati, Chandel and Ukhrul, he said. Adding that maximum loss of green cover is in Churachandpur with 250 sq km. Churachandpur and Tamenglong are extremely fire-prone areas and the tree cover of Manipur outside forest land has reduced by 47 sq km, the minister said.

A scene of fire at Shirui Peak from Manipur’s Ukhrul district headquarters
A scene of fire at Shirui Peak from Manipur’s Ukhrul district headquarters Facebook

Interestingly, on January 17, Shirui Peak of Ukhrul district saw a massive fire. The blaze could be seen from Ukhrul town.

As per reports, Ukhrul district was the most affected district by forest fire in Manipur with 1,399 cases during 2018-19.

People in the region use fires to burn forest wastes for farming purposes which often causes fire during the dry season. Forest fires remain a serious threat to forest resources and wetlands.

Also, according to the report, another factor for the decrease in forest cover is the heavy dependence on forest in the socio-economic and socio-cultural context.

Arunachal Pradesh

The frontier state of Arunachal is blessed with a bounty of natural resources, so much that forest cover accounts for 79.63% of the state's total geographical area. However, after Manipur, it recorded the second-highest decrease in forest cover of 276.22 sq km.

According to the report, forests are the mainstay of the economy, and livelihoods of the local people have been closely linked and heavily dependent on forest sources since time immemorial. However, increasing population, development activities and practices like shifting cultivation have put pressure on forest resources leading to their degradation and effecting regeneration and productivity.

Mizoram

This north-eastern state has 85.41% of its total geographical area under forest cover, the highest in terms of percentage of geographical area compared to the rest of the country. However, among the Northeastern states, Mizoram was third in line to lose 180.49 sq km of its forest cover as compared to ISFR 2017.

The report said that the main reasons for the decrease in forest cover in the state are shifting cultivation and development activities. Also, of the total forest cover, more than 80% is highly fire-prone.

Meanwhile, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Sikkim saw nominal to little loss in forest covers.

Reasons for forest cover loss

To get a better understanding of the reasons for the decrease, EastMojo spoke with K Balamurugan, IFS, conservator of forests, West Bengal. He said that in Northeast, the main two reasons for the decrease in forest cover is deforestation and forest degradation.

Deforestation in the region is relatively high compared to the rest of the country due to wide-scale prevalence of shifting cultivation. Meanwhile, dependence on forests leads to a decrease in its density.

To defeat degradation, the Supreme Court banned timber logging in Northeast. However, this was not the means to end as in Northeast, there are several private and community-owned forests.

For indigenous communities the forests are an important source of livelihood, providing them with fuel and food among other things. Balamurugan said that community-owned forests are a complex issue.

"Wherever there is a forest, it works as a system," said the forest conservator. They are the cementing component of the region. Giving an exemplar, he said, in a solar system, if you remove a planet, then it will collapse. Likewise, when we clear forests, we are misbalancing the system.

This doesn't come without repercussions. Things like floods, soil erosion etc. are part and parcel of the package that comes with deforestation.

Likewise, in areas which do not have says forests or rivers as a part of its system, introducing new elements can skew the system.

"We can't afford to lose this much hectares of forests," stated Balamurugan.

Further, he emphasised on why are forests being cleared? Whether it is for meeting basic needs like roads, electricity and infrastructure or is it for corporate to come up and establish a business. He stressed on the need to look into why the forests are being cleared.

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