One of the few countries having such a system is India, which provides “critical inputs for planning, policy formation, and evidence-based decision-making” on a periodic basis.
Early in the 1980s, India had a forest cover of 19.53%; by 2021, it had increased to 21.71%. After adding a fictitious 2.91% tree cover predicted for 2021, the nation’s overall green cover as of right now is 24.62%.
Forests and tree cover:
Although the Forest Survey of India (FSI) started publishing its biennial State of Forest reports in 1987, it has been surveying India’s forest cover since the early 1980s.
The phrase “forest cover” is used to describe all tree patches in India that have a canopy density of more than 10% and a size of at least one hectare, independent of land use, legal status, or ownership. It can include orchards, bamboo, and palm trees, among other things, and is examined via remote sensing.
This disregards the criteria established by the UN, which eliminates forest regions that are predominantly used for living and agriculture.
Regardless of whether there are any trees there, any geographic areas that are classified in official documents as “Forests” are referred to as “Recorded Forest Area” or “Forest Area”. The three main RFA components—Reserved Forests (RF), Protected Forests (PF), and Unclassified Forests—were established by the Indian Forest Act of 1927 or the applicable State Forest Acts.
FSI and NRSA:
Using satellite imagery from the decades 1971-1975 and 1980-1982, the National Remote Sensing Agency (NRSA), a division of the Department of Space, calculated the loss of 2.79% from 16.89% to 14.10% in just seven years in India’s forest cover.
Despite the lack of precise figures on encroachment, government records show that 42,380 sq km of forest land—roughly the size of Haryana—was diverted for non-forest use between 1951 and 1980.
India’s forest cover was “reconciled” in 1987 at 19.53% by the NRSA and the newly formed FSI after protracted negotiations because the government was reluctant to accept such a considerable loss.
Significantly, the FSI accepted without questioning the NRSA conclusion that the dense forest cover had declined from 14.12% in the middle of the 1970s to 10.96% in 1981.
Vanishing ancient woodlands:
The phrase “registered forest area” refers to land that has been designated as a forest in tax records for India or in accordance with a forest law.
These areas were historically noted as forests because there were woods on the land. India’s recorded forest areas, which are broken down into protected, reserved, and unclassified forests, account for 23.58% of the country.
Some of these Designated Forest Areas over time lost their forest cover as a result of encroachment, diversion, forest fires, etc. Additionally, outside of Designated Forest Areas, tree cover grew in several places as a result of agroforestry, orchards, etc.
When the FSI supplied information on India’s forest cover both inside and outside the Recorded Forest Areas in 2011, it was found that around one-third of such areas had no forest at all. In other words, more than 2.44 lakh sq km, or 7.43%, of India’s ancient natural forests have already vanished (this is larger than the state of Uttar Pradesh).
Even after extensive planting by the forest department throughout the 1990s, just 9.96% of India’s land was covered in dense forests under Registered Forest Areas in 2021. There has been a tenth slide since the FSI recorded 10.88% dense woodland in 1987.
This loss is still unrecognised since urban buildings, orchards, villages, plantations, and other non-registered forest areas are included as dense forests.
To give one example, the SFR 2021 forecasts 12.37% thick woods with occasional green patches.
Natural versus artificial: The growing displacement of natural forests by plantations.
Secondly, natural forests support a far higher diversity of species because they have naturally evolved to be diverse. It has a vast array of plants that may support several species, to put it simply.
Second, plantation woods frequently hinder the normal regeneration of forests, have consistently aged trees, and are more susceptible to fire, pests, and diseases.
Thirdly, natural forests store a lot more carbon in their tissues and soil because they are older. India’s prediction that new forests (plantations) will surpass the carbon stock levels of current forests in under eight years in 2018 drew criticism from the UNFCCC.
Older wild woods don’t have the same capacity for expansion as plantations have. Also, this suggests that plantations can achieve new carbon goals more quickly. Yet, plantations are usually cut down more quickly than natural forests, which eventually defeats the purpose of reducing carbon emissions.
The reference data for the National Forest Inventory (NFI) programme are gathered from the ground and contrasted with some interpreted data by the FSI.
It claimed that in 2021, it was able to discern between forests and non-forests with an overall accuracy of 95.79%. However, due to the limited resources, the exercise was limited to fewer than 6,000 sample points.
Yet, the FSI did not allow the public to view its statistics. Oddly, it also blocks media access to its geo-referenced maps.
In 1995, we made the transfer to our own satellite. The forest maps were produced using images obtained from NRSA, a different government agency.
Much as in Brazil, forests are rapidly disappearing. Nonetheless, a former official with the Environment Ministry claims that their forest data, regardless of quality, is available and free.
TerraBrasilis, an open web platform maintained by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, allows users to query, analyse, and share data on deforestation, changing forest cover, and forest fires (INPE).
Making the field data accessible to everyone may also make it easier for the FSI to verify the accuracy of remotely sensed data in the field, which is now hampered by a lack of staff.
A more realistic picture of forest preservation and conservation would be provided by making India’s forest data online accessible for greater involvement and inspection.