The case for open, verifiable forest cowl knowledge

India is without doubt one of the few international locations to have a scientific system of periodic forest cowl evaluation that gives “valuable inputs for planning, policy formulation and evidence-based decision-making”. Since 19.53% within the early Nineteen Eighties, India’s forest cowl has elevated to 21.71% in 2021. Adding to this a notional 2.91% tree cowl estimated in 2021, the nation’s whole inexperienced cowl now stands at 24.62%, on paper.

Forest and tree cowl

While the Forest Survey of India (FSI) began publishing its biennial State of Forest reviews in 1987, it has been mapping India’s forest cowl for the reason that early Nineteen Eighties.

India counts all plots of 1 hectare or above, with no less than 10% tree cover density , regardless of land use or possession, inside forest cowl. This disregards the United Nation’s benchmark that doesn’t embrace areas predominantly underneath agricultural and concrete land use in forests.

india forest cover data All land areas with tree cover density of 40% and above are thought of dense forests and people between 10-40% are open forests. Since 2003, a brand new class — very dense forest — was assigned to land with 70% or extra cover density.

All land areas with tree cover density of 40% and above are thought of dense forests and people between 10-40% are open forests. Since 2003, a brand new class — very dense forest — was assigned to land with 70% or extra cover density.

Since 2001, remoted or small patches of bushes — lower than 1 hectare and never counted as forest — are assessed for figuring out a notional space underneath tree cowl by placing collectively the crowns of particular person patches and bushes.

NRSA versus FSI

The National Remote Sensing Agency (NRSA) underneath the Department of Space estimated India’s forest cowl utilizing satellite tv for pc imagery for intervals 1971-1975 and 1980-1982 to report a lack of 2.79% — from 16.89% to 14.10% — in simply seven years.

While dependable knowledge on encroachment is unavailable, authorities data present that 42,380 sq km — practically the scale of Haryana— of forest land was diverted for non-forest use between 1951 and 1980.

However, the federal government was reluctant to just accept such an enormous loss and, after a lot negotiations, the NRSA and the newly established FSI “reconciled” India’s forest cowl at 19.53% in 1987.

Significantly, the FSI didn’t contest the NRSA discovering that the dense forest cowl had fallen from 14.12% within the mid-Nineteen Seventies to 10.96% in 1981, and reconciled it to 10.88% in 1987.

Old forests misplaced

In India, land recorded as forest in income data or proclaimed as forest underneath a forest legislation is described as Recorded Forest Area. These areas had been recorded as forests sooner or later as a result of presence of forests on the land. Divided into Reserved, Protected and Unclassed forests, Recorded Forest Areas account for 23.58% of India.

A residential space in Delhi’s Dhaula Kuan reveals up as dense forest on India’s forest map

Over time, a few of these Recorded Forest Areas misplaced forest cowl as a consequence of encroachment, diversion, forest fireplace and many others. And tree cowl improved in lots of locations exterior the Recorded Forest Areas as a consequence of agro-forestry, orchards and many others.

In 2011, when the FSI furnished knowledge on India’s forest cowl inside and outdoors Recorded Forest Areas, it got here to mild that just about one-third of Recorded Forest Areas had no forest in any respect. In different phrases, virtually one-third of India’s outdated pure forests — over 2.44 lakh sq km (bigger than Uttar Pradesh) or 7.43% of India — had been already gone.

Of what stays of forests in Recorded Forest Areas, solely a fraction is dense forests.

Natural forests shrink

Even after in depth plantation by the forest division for the reason that Nineteen Nineties, dense forests inside Recorded Forest Areas added as much as cowl solely 9.96% of India in 2021. That is a one-tenth slide for the reason that FSI recorded 10.88% dense forest in 1987.

This loss stays invisible as a result of inclusion of economic plantations, orchards, village homesteads, city housings and many others as dense forests exterior Recorded Forest Areas. The SFR 2021, for instance, reviews 12.37% dense forest by together with random inexperienced patches like those The Indian Express sampled.

The FSI gives no particular info on the share of plantations within the remaining dense forests inside Recorded Forest Areas. But its knowledge affords some hints. Since 2003, practically 20,000 sq km of dense forests have change into non-forests. Much of that loss is compensated by practically 11,000 sq km of non-forest areas that turned dense forests in successive two-year home windows since 2003.

These are plantations, say consultants, since pure forests don’t develop so quick.

Natural vs artifical

The regular substitute of pure forests with plantations are worrisome. First, pure forests have advanced naturally to be numerous and, subsequently, help much more biodiversity. Simply put, it has many alternative crops to maintain quite a few species.

Secondly, plantation forests have bushes of the identical age, are extra prone to fireside, pests and epidemics, and infrequently act as a barrier to pure forest regeneration.

Thirdly, pure forests are outdated and subsequently inventory much more carbon of their physique and within the soil. In 2018, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) flagged India’s assumption that new forests (plantations) attain the carbon inventory degree of present forests in simply eight years.

On the opposite hand, plantations can develop much more and quicker than outdated pure forests. This additionally signifies that plantations can obtain further carbon targets quicker. But in comparison with pure forests, plantations are sometimes harvested extra readily, defeating carbon targets in the long run.

Sharp photos, smooth knowledge

Until the mid-Nineteen Eighties (SFR 1987), the forest cowl was estimated by means of satellite tv for pc photos at a 1:1 million scale. The decision then improved to 1:250,000, lowering the minimal mappable unit measurement from 400 to 25 hectares.

Since 19.53% within the early Nineteen Eighties, India’s forest cowl has elevated to 21.71% in 2021.

By 2001, the dimensions improved to 1:50,000, bringing down the unit measurement to 1 hectare, and interpretation went totally digital.

One final result of this refinement of the dimensions was that the forest cowl fell inside the forest space whereas it elevated exterior. That is as a result of “many small blank, non-forested and/or degraded forest patches” turned discernible inside the forest land that earlier appeared as a bigger inexperienced chunk. Similarly, a number of small woodlots or plantations exterior forest areas turned seen.

The forest cowl fluctuated with each change in know-how and the novel refinement in 2001 made the info incomparable with the earlier assessments. But the FSI additionally obtained right into a behavior of revising its knowledge in each successive report ever since.

Between 1997 and 2005, our forest cowl jumped by 9%, gaining 56,774 sq km, and dense forest cowl elevated by 10% or 36,160 sq km. Since 2015, the full acquire is 12,294 sq km, together with 5,297 sq km of dense forests.

Open, participatory

The FSI compares some interpreted knowledge with the corresponding reference knowledge collected from the bottom underneath the National Forest Inventory (NFI) programme. In 2021, it claimed to have established an total accuracy of 95.79% in figuring out forests from non-forests. However, given the restricted assets, the train was restricted to lower than 6,000 pattern factors.

Yet, the FSI by no means made its knowledge freely out there for public scrutiny. Inexplicably, It additionally bars the media from accessing its geo-referenced maps.

“In 1995, we shifted to our own satellite . The forest maps are based on the images purchased from NRSA, another arm of the government. Look at Brazil. They are losing forests at an alarming rate. But whatever be the quality, their forest data is open and free,” a former Environment ministry official mentioned.

Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) maintains an open net platform, TerraBrasilis, for queries, evaluation and dissemination of information on deforestation, forest cowl change and forest fireplace.

Since lack of manpower limits the FSI’s scope for verifying the standard of remotely sensed knowledge within the subject, making the sphere knowledge freely out there to the general public may additionally ease its burden.

With environmental consciousness on the rise, say consultants, 1000’s of researchers and fanatics can volunteer to confirm the nation’s forest knowledge on the bottom and be proud custodians of this important nationwide asset.

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