In November 2020, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Brazil's Amazon rainforest suffered the worst fires in a decade. According to a report in The Guardian, ‘Fires in Brazil’s Amazon increased 13% in the first nine months of 2020 compared to a year ago, as the rainforest region experiences its worst rash of blazes in a decade.’
But it is not just Amazon. 2020 recorded many cases of forest fires around the globe. In India, the Uttarakhand forest fires caused significant damages to the ecosystem.
Every time a wildfire breaks out, social media explodes with hashtags and challenges. But how often do we ponder upon certain fundamental questions such as: what exactly are forests? Are our forests under threat? Are fires the only threat to our forests?
Forests cover one-third of Earth's landmass, performing vital life-supporting functions. Around 1.6 billion people – including more than 2,000 indigenous cultures – depend on forests for their livelihoods, medicines, fuel, food and shelter. They are also home to more than 80% of the terrestrial species of animals, plants and insects.
On 28 November 2012, the United Nations General Assembly established International Day of Forests, to be observed annually on the 21st of March. It is organised by the United Nations Forum on Forests, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), in collaboration with governments, the Collaborative Partnership on Forests and other relevant organisations in the field.
According to the United Nations, ‘The Day celebrates and raises awareness of the importance of all types of forests. On each International Day of Forests, countries are encouraged to undertake local, national and international efforts to organize activities involving forests and trees, such as tree-planting campaigns. The theme for each International Day of Forests is chosen by the Collaborative Partnership on Forests.’
Forests cover over 26% of India’s geographical area. There are five major types of forests in India: moist tropical forests, dry tropical forest, montane temperate forest, montane subtropical forest, and alpine forest.
According to the ENVIS Centre on Wildlife & Protected Areas, the moist tropical forests are found along the Western Coast, in Upper Assam, the lower slopes of the eastern Himalayas, the Orissa coast and neighbouring hills, while dry tropical forests are mainly found in Indian northern hilly regions and some states of southern India.
The montane temperate and alpine forests can be found in the Himalayan regions and the montane subtropical forests can be found in northeastern India.
Being one of the 12 mega biodiverse regions of the world, these forests are home to some of Earth's unique flora and fauna.
India's Western Ghats and Eastern Himalayas are amongst the 32 biodiversity hotspots on Earth. Indian forests host over 90,000 animal species, representing about 7% of Earth's recorded faunal species. Our forests also host over 4,000 mammal species and about 12.5% of known species of birds.
The Indian forests are also home to endemic species such as the lion-tailed macaque, the rarest and the most threatened and endangered primate species found only in the Western Ghats of Southern India; the Nilgiri tahr, a wild sheep species, endangered and endemic to the Nilgiri Hills of the Western Ghats; and the Kashmir stag, a subspecies of elk found in the dense forests of Dachigam National Park, Kashmir Valley and Chamba district, Himachal Pradesh.
What are the threats our forests face?
Even though we started this section talking about forest fires, it is, of course, not the only challenge our forests face. They have long been threatened by a variety of destructive agents, both natural and anthropogenic.
Today, climate change has become a serious threat to our forests and their biodiversity. With the global temperature rising at a rapid speed, it is likely that some species may not be able to cope with the new climate. This can significantly diminish biodiversity. The rising temperatures can also affect the floral biodiversity, making forests gradually extinct.
Clearing of forests for agriculture, infrastructure development and mining, poaching of wildlife, and deforestation are some other challenges we need to overcome with good public policies.
What is happening to India’s forest cover?
Madhya Pradesh has some of the most beautiful forests in the country. The dense forests of Seoni inspired English novelist Joseph Rudyard Kipling to write his famous children’s classic, The Jungle Book.
As per the Indian State of Forest Report (ISFR) 2019, the total forest cover of Madhya Pradesh is 77,414 sq km, which is more than 25% of the total land area, making it the state with the largest forest cover in the country.
Madhya Pradesh is one of the most blessed states of India in terms of natural resources, including rich and diverse forests. According to the ENVIS Centre on Wildlife & Protected Areas, the state has 18 forest types belonging to three forest type groups: tropical moist deciduous, tropical dry deciduous, and tropical thorn forests. Out of these, tropical dry deciduous forest constitutes more than 88% of the total forest cover in the state.
The total forest cover of Madhya Pradesh in 2011 was 77,700 sq km. In 2017, it fell by 286 sq km, to 77,414 sq km. But by 2019, the situation was slightly improved when the total forest cover of the state increased, by 68 sq km, to 77,482 sq km.
However, in the last decade, according to the ISFR, the total forest cover in India increased significantly. From 6,92,027 sq km in 2011 to 7,12,249 sq km in 2019, an increase of 20,222 sq km has been recorded. India now constitutes 1.8% of the world’s total forests, making it one of the 10 countries in the world with the largest forest area.
While Madhya Pradesh showed a net decline in forest cover from 2011 to 2019, two southern states, Kerala and Karnataka, significantly increased their forest covers. Kerala’s total forest cover increased from 17,300 sq km in 2011 to 21,114 sq km in 2019, while Karnataka increased its cover from 36,194 sq km to 38,575 sq km in 2019.
However, according to an article published in Quartz India, ‘There have been constant queries raised about India’s forest data, either due to constant revision of official data due to factors like ‘better interpretation’, or because of questions raised by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).’
Talking about the northeastern region of the country, the article says, ‘A fact consistently noted by ISFR reports is that there has been a constant pressure on forests in northeastern India and in the tribal districts. According to the report, Northeast India includes eight states – Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura, and Sikkim.’
When we look at the ISFR data of Northeast India, from 2011 to 2019, we can see a net decrease in forest cover – from 1,73,219 sq km in 2011 to 1,70,541 in 2019, a decrease of 2,678 sq km. But if we allow some leeway and take a wider timeframe – from 1987 to 2019 – we can see a net increase of 5,121 sq km.
Northeast, however, is a cause of concern. If concerned authorities do not take immediate necessary measures to address the issue of forest loss, the current condition might rapidly slip into a downward spiral.
Article by Gokul GK
Infographic by Shivangi Pant