Environment groups say India's forest survey misses the wood for the trees

Global Forest Watch estimates that natural forests in India have declined every year since 2002. PHOTO: APEEJAY TEA GARDEN, INDIA

BANGALORE - An official report released last month has led to public sparring between India's Environment Ministry and environmentalists over what a forest really is and where the country's climate priorities lie.

The biennial India State of Forest Report (ISFR) for 2021 says that forest cover has risen by 1,540 sq km in the last two years to about 714,000 sq km, more than a fifth of the country's total area.

But the report, prepared by the Forest Survey of India (FSI), has for years defined "forests" expansively as "all lands more than one hectare in area with tree canopy density of more than 10 per cent", which includes "road, rail and canal side plantations, rubber, tea and coffee plantations et cetera".

Environmentalists quickly pointed out that FSI's celebration that forest cover had increased was questionable because of how it defined forests.

In a detailed Twitter thread, ecologist Mysore Doreswamy Madhusudan said the "problematic and perverse redefinition" equated natural forests - crucial for biodiversity and livelihoods - with tea gardens, city parks and desert scrub.

The Environment Ministry has defended its position. Ministers have written op-eds stressing that their definitions follow international standards. They argued that plantations also have ecological value and told Parliament they do not plan to change any definitions.

But environmentalists warn that measuring forest cover this way may paint an inaccurate picture of the health of India's natural forests.

The State of Forest report acknowledges that only about 2 per cent of the increase in forest cover since 2019 came from "recorded forest areas", or natural forests.

Global Forest Watch, an online tracker from the World Resources Institute, estimates that natural forests in India have declined every year since 2002.

Dr Madhusudan said that satellite data from India's National Remote Sensing Centre also points to a fall in natural forest cover.

He cited the example of one district, Sonitpur in the north-eastern state of Assam, where massive forest loss is "plainly visible" in satellite imagery.

According to him, the official survey managed to record "an utterly mystifying increase", by counting thousands of hectares of private tea estates as forest.

The survey designates many human settlements, tea estates, coconut farms, fruit orchards and other monocultures such as eucalyptus and teak plantations in Naxalbari of West Bengal, Valparai of Tamil Nadu and heavily inhabited islands of Lakshadweep as "moderately dense forest" or even "very dense forest".

Even desert scrub in west India and the tree covered boulevards of central Delhi institutions have been counted as forest.

"If we go by the ISFR 2021, many of the city dwellers or coffee plantation owners are actually forest dwellers," said lawyer Riwick Dutta, whose Delhi-based organisation Legal Initiative for Forests and Environment won the Right Livelihood Award, known as Sweden's alternative Nobel Prize.

Environmental activists say that overcounting forests obscures the deforestation and damage done by razing forests for industry. They say it papers over the serious consequences of forest loss, like the frequent conflicts between villagers and elephants as farms replace natural forests, rise in malaria and increasingly endangered wildlife.

India's Environment Ministry has been accused for years of rushing through environmental clearances to industrial projects and diluting green regulations.

Last October, the ministry proposed to amend the Forest Conservation Act, which defines "forest" narrowly to, among other things, encourage private plantations.

Ms Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, said there was enough evidence that the "afforestation activities have promoted monocultures and have not been conscious that not all ecosystems can support all species".

The controversy comes as India is aiming to increase its forest cover to 33 per cent of its total area by 2030 to meet its international climate change commitments.

At the COP26 climate change summit last year, India chose not to sign on to a pledge to stop deforestation by 2030, reportedly because of concerns about the impact on international trade.

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