Restoring Indian Forests

First published in: Sanctuary Asia, December 2019

By Kamal Bawa

Part II of VI,
Cover Story December Sanctuary Asia

Distinguished Professor of Biology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and President of ATREE, Kamal Bawa, writes on how India can and must bring its forests back to life to help us mitigate, adapt and deal with the conjoined issues of ecological and economic stress and social inequity in the age of our galloping climate crisis.

For several decades, bureaucrats have perpetuated the myth that complex tropical forests can be cleared for development at one place and then recreated elsewhere. Species-rich tropical forests are the most complex ecosystems on earth. They accumulate species over millions of years of evolution, with various species linked with each other in complex trophic webs. The natural ecosystems differ from one place to another. Once destroyed, they are gone forever. We face insurmountable odds in bringing them back, even at the same place, let alone elsewhere.

Although there is limited potential of recovering lost forests, CAMPA (Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority), and GIM (Green India Mission) continue to offer unprecedented opportunities to restore vegetation cover on India’s degraded lands, enhance forest stocks on existing forest lands, increase rural incomes, and usher a new system of participatory management of our natural assets that will secure our future.

State of India’s natural ecosystems

Restoration and afforestation challenges are huge, and progress in meeting these challenges during the last several decades has been abysmal, but can be vastly accelerated. Approximately 30 per cent of India’s land is degraded and much of this land should have the potential to be brought under green cover. Often ignored is the fact that the latest report of the Forest Survey of India (2017) classifies almost 45 per cent (301,971 sq. km.) of India’s forests (708,273 sq. km.) as open forests with 10 per cent or less tree canopy density, and almost the same amount as moderately dense forests with 10-40 per cent tree canopy density, leaving only 10 per cent, a mere, 98,158 sq. km., as dense forests.

Furthermore, most of our remaining forests and other ecosystems are full of alien invasive species and devoid of species interactions that make ecosystems function and provide a multitude of ecosystem services. Failures in management have resulted in the infestation of forest understories by Lantana camara and other invasive weeds. Lack of top carnivores has disrupted species interactions down the food chain.

On the other hand, our need to ecologically regenerate more forests to combat climate change and mitigate the water crisis has increased. Under the Paris Agreement of 2015, we have committed to enhancing the carbon sequestration potential of our forests by increasing the area under forest cover by 50,000 sq. km., while also improving the quality of forest cover on another 50,000 sq. km. – all by 2030. The last Forest Survey of India (2017) report indicates that between 2015 and 2017, the forest cover increased by approximately 4,000 sq. km. However, much of these new areas may be under plantations of exotic trees, and there is no evidence that forest stocking has increased. 

What Needs to be Done

First: Quicken the pace and nature of restoration efforts dramatically by creating new institutions that can engage local communities and citizens at the grassroots level to increase natural assets that enhance human wellbeing.

Second: Rely on cutting-edge science for the restoration of below and above ground biodiversity. Restoration does not mean planting trees, or just any trees. Restoration involves creating landscapes that bring back soil health and the biodiversity that might have naturally existed at the site. 

Third: Our targets for ecosystem restoration must be systematically monitored and evaluated. Such monitoring should include changes in biodiversity, carbon budgets, and measurement of societal benefits in both restored and extant ecosystems.

Our present and future is linked with the speed with which we increase and revive our native ecosystems. The management of our natural assets cannot be the exclusive domain of bureaucrats. We should nurture and expand institutions to create a mass movement to recover our lost heritage to ensure our survival and that of future generations.

Our need to ecologically regenerate more forests to combat climate change and mitigate the water crisis has increased. The last Forest Survey of India (2017) report indicates that between 2015 and 2017, the forest cover increased by approximately 4,000 sq. km. However, much of these new areas may be under plantations of exotic trees, and there is no evidence that forest stocking has increased. 

join the conversation