Why Some Forest Lands Have No Forest At All, And What Threat They Pose To Local Ecosystem?

General Studies Contemporary Issues 07; UPSC 2020/IAS2020/Ecology & Environment: In India, 29.5% of land classified as forests, does not have any forest cover. This is the finding of the official data on India’s forest cover. According to the India State of Forest Report 2019, some of the officially classified forest lands are either agricultural land or these lands have been diverted for development related works.

Of 767,419 sq km of land recorded as forest area in governmental records, 226,542 sq km has no forest cover.

Some non-forest lands are continued to be classified as forest lands.

India State of Forest Report defines forest as land that is larger than 0.01 sq km, or one hectare, and has a tree canopy density of more than 10%, notwithstanding the legal status of the land.

land that belongs to the local forest department but has no forest cover gets the status of Recorded forest area by the forest officials.

Why do the non-forest lands continue to enjoy the status of forest land?

Blame it on the law. Official law says the legal status of land will not change even after it gets diverted for other use, and forest is cleared.

In North Eastern states, shifting cultivation is done in many parts. These parts don’t have any forests. Similarly, in many tribal areas, lands have unsettled claims under the Forest Rights Act or FRA. These types of lands too don’t have any forest cover left.

Interestingly, some of the lands having no forest cover, are ecologically important areas. Deserts, high altitude areas don’t have forest cover, but still they ecologically important and need protection.

Shifting cultivation lands are those over which communities in North East have practised shifting cultivation over generations.

Many shifting cultivation lands have been abandoned by farmers. They have now become fallow lands over which a secondary forest has grown. And, even this secondary forest cover is mapped as ‘forest cover’ in India State of Forest Report, 2019.

General Studies Contemporary Issues 07: Mains Study Material

Limitations of Official Response

The Forest Conservation Act calls for afforestation on areas where forest land is diverted for development related purposes.

But, this policy has invited many criticism from environmentalists.

This policy of promoting afforestation in non-forest or degraded lands is criticized for promoting monoculture plantations.

Monoculture plantation have few environmental benefits. They neither absorb carbon, nor add the recharge of groundwater. They don’t even provide shelter to wildlife.

Further, if lands without forest continue to be classified as forest land, then such land may even be considered as degraded where monocropping could be carried out without knowledge of the local ecosystem.

A grassland maybe used for plantation activities, jeopardizing local ecosystems. This policy has been followed by the forest department in North East, which led to destruction of non-forest biomass.

Areas that have lost forest cover must be saved from the ill-advised plantation activities, which have little regard for local ecosystems. What we need instead is natural regeneration and forest officials who have access to quality data and a knowledge of the local ecosystem.