‘Plantations Meet Ecological Functions of Natural Forests’: Bhupender Yadav

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The India State of Forests Report 2021 has sparked intense debate over whether the results accurately reflect India’s forests or whether plantations, monocultures and urban trees in parks are counted as forests, obscuring the true picture. In an email interview, Union Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav told Jayashree Nandi that India has defined forests according to its national capabilities, saying that all plantations play a crucial ecological role.

Edited excerpts:

Experts have raised concerns about India’s definition of forests as it also counts orchards and plantations. Why don’t we change the definition to include only natural forests?

Combating climate change by maintaining and restoring the country’s ecological balance is very important to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This is reflected in the fact that India’s forest and tree cover increased by 2,261 square kilometers between 2019 and 2021. Forest and tree cover now covers 80.9 million hectares, 24.62% of India’s geographic area.

ISFR is a scientific document that provides a complete picture of the country’s forest and tree resources based on a solid and established methodology. With the introduction of the digital interpretation method from 2001, FSI was able to delineate and map all forest areas down to 1 hectare… For forest cover assessment, the definition adopted by India is “all countries, more than one hectare in area, with a canopy density greater than 10%, regardless of ownership and legal status”. Such lands need not necessarily be a registered forest area…

Why don’t we count plantations and forests separately?

We need to understand that the forest cover assessment is based on the interpretation of satellite data, which essentially identifies the umbrella-shaped canopies from the sky, and it is not possible to distinguish different species on an image with a spatial resolution of 23.5 m. For clarity, however, the forest cover figures are further subdivided into “within the recorded forest area” and “outside the recorded forest area” …

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

Do we really have to exclude plantations? Cashew plantations, which grow mainly along the coast, serve as the first line of defense against hurricanes, which are now becoming more frequent… Mixed plantations, especially native species, fulfill all the ecological functions of natural forests and the soil flora takes over… I don’t advocate it for equating natural forests with plantations, but at the same time let’s also acknowledge their ecological functions…

At the United Nations High Level Dialogue on Desertification, Land Degradation and Drought in 2021, PM Modi highlighted how India is working to stay on track to meet its national commitment to land degradation neutrality through forest and tree cover growth. He cited the example of the Banni region in Rann of Kutch in Gujarat… In the Banni region, land restoration was carried out through the development of grasslands, which helped to achieve neutrality of land degradation…

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

All tree areas in Lutyens’ Delhi with an area of ​​more than 1 hectare and a canopy density of more than 10% will be covered with forest. The tree stands in urban areas perform important ecological functions by creating their own microclimate and microecosystems… If we look closely we will notice a lot of bird fauna…

The State of Forest report by Forest Survey of India states that the country’s total forest and tree area has increased by 2,261 km² (0.28%) compared to 2019. However, the data also shows a moderate loss of 1,582 km² of dense forest. Are we losing more forest than we are gaining?

According to ISFR 2021, there is a decrease of 1,582 km² of moderately dense forest (MDF). At the same time, there are gains due to cross-density improvements in forest cover area from lower-density forest-cover classes to higher-density forest-cover classes. Overall, there is a net gain of 9.67 million tons of carbon stocks. Between the 2019 and 2021 assessments, there is a 31 km² increase in forest area within the recorded forest area and a 1,509 km² increase in forest area outside the recorded forest area. Continuous efforts are being made to increase the extent, natural regeneration and improvement of forest quality in the area through various afforestation and forest protection programs implemented by both the MoEFCC and states.

There is also an overall decline in forest cover of 22.62 square kilometers (0.04%) in 52 tiger reserves over the past decade and also in the lion reserve. Why is that?

According to ISFR 2021, 20 tiger reserves have experienced an overall increase in forest cover over the past decade, while 32 reserves have experienced an overall loss in forest cover. The decrease in forest cover in these areas can be attributed to habitat improvement measures within the recommendations of the management plan.

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

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

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