Forest loss in India likely worse than conventionally believed

Jeremy Hance
July 06, 2010

Researchers have questioned 2009 findings by the Forest Survey of India (FSI) that found that India's forests were, unlike many tropical Asian nations', on the rebound. According to the FSI, Indian forests had grown by almost five percent from the 1990s. Yet, were these finding too good to be true?

According to Jean-Philippe Puyravaud and Priya Davidar of Pondicherry University, and William Laurance from James Cook University, the findings were very likely too optimistic.

"Unfortunately, as scientists who have long studied Asian forests, we believe that this view is misleading," the researchers write in a letter in Science.

They cite local studies that have shown that forests have decreased in some of India's most important conservation and biodiverse areas: the Western and Eastern Ghats, and the Himalayas.

In addition, the researchers point out that FSI employed automated analyses of forest satellite imagery to come up with its conclusion that forests were on the rise. However with such analyses comes a big problem.

With such a system "native forests are pooled with exotic tree plantations, such as eucalyptus, acacia, rubber, teak, or pine trees, which have very limited value for endangered biodiversity," the researchers explain. Many of these plantations and subsequent deforestation are driven by a huge demand for firewood.

Monoculture plantations are on the rise in India, expanding by nearly 6,000 square kilometers (2,300 square miles) to 18,000 square kilometers (nearly 7,000 square miles) per year.

"If one subtracts plantations from total forest cover then India’s native forests have actually declined at an alarming pace, from 0.8% to 3.5% per year," the researchers conclude. If these figures represent the reality on the ground, India is suffering from a higher rate of forest loss than either Brazil or Malaysia from 2000-2005.

"To me this illustrates the risks of our present over-reliance on satellite data to track changes in forest cover. It's pretty easy to estimate total forest cover, but often far harder to distinguish intact native forests from exotic plantations, degraded forest or secondary regrowth," Laurance told mongabay.com, adding that "we need to resolve this, as right now we just don't know what's happening to much of the world's native forests, which are crucial for conserving biodiversity. We might be fooling ourselves into thinking the situation is better than it actually is."

A bleak thought indeed.

CITATION: Jean-Philippe Puyravaud, Priya Davidar, and William Laurance. Cryptic Loss of India's Forests. Science. Vol. 329. July , 2010.

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Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (July 06, 2010).

Forest loss in India likely worse than conventionally believed.