Answer from Praveen Bhargav, Trustee, Wildlife First
The data (300,000 hectares increase in forest) presented in the UN report is not in synch with the Government of India’s official State of the Forest Report 2011 published recently which documents that we lost 67,900 hectares of forest cover in 188 tribal districts of the country. Overall, there is a reported loss of 36,700 hectares of forest cover.
In terms of methodology, the Forest Survey of India makes a distinction between forest cover and tree cover. Even forest cover is not entirely natural forests but includes plantations of Eucalyptus, Rubber, Coffee and even road side plantations. Tree cover comprises of patches of trees outside forest area which are less than one hectare in extent.
We must be very clear that growing trees or “Greening India” does not mean we are increasing natural forests. Even with regard to tree cover the data is not encouraging. In 2005 the reported tree cover was 91,663 sq km while in 2011 it has marginally reduced to 90,844 sq km. So, it is unclear what data and methodology has been used in the UN report to arrive at the 300,000 hectare increase in forests.
It is scientifically well established that fragmentation or shrinking of forests into smaller patches honeycombed with human settlements, highways, dams, mines or developmental projects, is the most serious threat to biodiversity and forest conservation. Fragmentation also facilitates more intensive exploitation of forest products and poaching of wildlife, thanks to easier access to previously remote, interior forest areas. Fragmentation aggravates human-wildlife conflicts that are increasing all across the country.
With over one billion people and an economy growing at eight per cent, some amount of forest loss is indeed inevitable. However, the present system of compensatory afforestation through artificial plantations (other than natural recovery) does not adequately compensate for loss of dense forests.
Therefore, to mitigate such impacts we must innovate radically to de-fragment and consolidate large blocks of forests wherever they exist and facilitate natural recovery through protection measures. This in my view is the way forward to address the issues that you have rightly flagged in your question.