Home/ Politics / Policy/  When the last of India’s forest corridors vanish, so will the wildlife

It’s World Environment Day again (5 June), and the government has announced a massive plantation drive—the second urban forest programme—that seeks to take up the nation’s forest cover from the present 24% to 33% in the next five years.

A galaxy of sporting icons have been roped in for this and associated sapling planting events. The government has piloted a bill in Parliament seeking nearly 35,000 crore to help states green India. On Thursday, Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar said if forests can be developed, “particularly with native fruit-bearing and other trees in urban areas", they will work as a carbon sink.

There’s just one small glitch: Little is known about the species to be planted and how the saplings will be looked after in the years to come—a vital piece of information because it goes to the heart of forestry statistics and, indeed, the very definition of forests.

Take, for instance, the environment ministry’s statistics that 24% of India is under forest cover. Environmentalists say even that is debatable as large parts of the green cover are technically man-made plantations.

The Forest Survey of India shows “dense forest cover" and “moderate dense forest cover" to be less than 3% and 10% respectively. Data acquired through the Right to Information Act in 2013 by the Environment Impact Assessment Resources and Response Centre, a non-governmental group, says that India’s daily average forest loss stands at 135 hectares—equivalent of at least 184 football pitches.

Scientists and conservationists argue that plantations are not true forests.

Saving a tree is more important than planting one because plantations cannot provide the same ecosystem services as an old-growth forest. In the Western Ghats, plantations are thought to be the main cause of habitat fragmentation and biodiversity loss.

The real cliffhanger is due in a few weeks’ time, when the Supreme Court reopens after its summer break.

The environment ministry will then tell the court how the government defines the term ‘forest’. The definition, sought by the National Green Tribunal, will let the cat out of the bag—it will indicate if there is going to be further dilution of forest land in the name of development.

Between 2004 and 2013, when United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was in power, 4.07 lakh hectares of forests were cleared for development projects, media reports suggest.

The same area of forest land is now said to be under consideration for various project clearances.

“Today, forest protection happens against all odds. There is no economic value seen in forests, but there is value seen in the development project for which forest land is required," writes Sunita Narain, director general of the non-profit Centre for Science and Environment, in Down To Earth magazine.

An e-book titled Development Without Destruction - A Saga of Turnaround, by the ministry of environment and forest, quotes environment minister Javadekar as saying, “Our motto is to strike a balance between development and environment protection. This is not only desirable but perfectly possible."

Nevertheless, the government’s eagerness to fast-track forest clearances for industrial and development projects around protected forest areas (National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries) does not match its green promises.

The example of Satpura-Maikal forest in central India is sobering. This 45,000 sq. km landscape contains 17% of India’s tiger population and 12% of its tiger habitat.

“Human activity in and around the Satpura-Maikal forest has dramatically changed the landscape over the course of 300 years. From 1700 to 2000, the habitat underwent a 25-fold increase in urbanization," says a study by a group of scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. “Human population increased 10-fold and anthropogenic activities resulted in the clearing of 78% of the forest, leaving just 32% of viable habitat for leopards and tigers. The reduced and fragmented landscape makes it difficult for these solitary animals to safely move between protected reserves in search of mates and territory."

Forest clearances for development have been a contentious subject between environmentalists and industrialists—the former blames the latter for killing forests, while industrialists say conservationists are stalling economic growth.

The 16,000 sq. km Kanha-Pench corridor, one of the most important in India that facilitates tiger and other wildlife dispersal between the Kanha and Pench Tiger Reserves, has also faced the march of development. Earlier this year, Javadekar rejected recommendations from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), a government-run institute, to counter the impact of the four-laning of NH-7 cutting through the Pench National Park. WII experts suggested three flyovers to enable wild animals to cross at vulnerable points.

Nagpur-based wildlife biologist Milind Pariwakam says a series of environmental laws were violated for the expansion of NH-7 and NH-6.

Pariwakam is fighting the case in the National Green Tribunal. For now, the tribunal has put a stay on the project and will resume hearing the case in July.

Ecologists say forests are always vulnerable in the face of human advancement. When land is required for a new industry or linear project, it’s usually the forest that gets the chop.

Precious minerals such as coal lie under large tracts of pristine forest. But forests are of immense ecological importance and provide humans with the ecosystem necessary for survival—food, fresh water, climate and natural hazard regulation.

Anthropogenic pressures on forests also adversely impact the greenhouse gas emissions and the mitigation role of forests. It poses a direct threat to the forest areas and the communities that are dependent on them.

In January, at a parliamentary consultative committee meeting on environment held at Bandipur, a forest in Karnataka, the environment minister reportedly rejected the proposal from wildlife conservationists to reduce train speeds during seasonal elephant migration to 40km/hr along forest corridors.

According to members present in that meeting, the idea was deemed to be “anti-development". Besides the Kanha-Pench corridor, the Satpura-Maikal landscape has three linked forest corridors—the Achanakmar-Phen-Kanha corridor, Pench-Satpuda corridor and Satpuda-Melghat corridor.

These corridors run through fragmented forests interspersed with agriculture, human habitation, industrial development and mines. Yet, genetic studies show that there is gene flow of tigers between these corridors.

“These forest corridors are like umbilical cords, without which biodiversity will perish," says Rajesh Gopal, who retired as the head of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (formerly known as Project Tiger) earlier this year. In his new book, Dynamics of Tiger Management in Priority Landscapes, Gopal says, “Even a good tiger population inside a tiger reserve today may become extinct if there is no forest corridor."

According to Gopal, coal and non-coal mining, thermal power, iron, steel and cement industries pose the largest threats to forest contiguity in this landscape.

On 4 June, the government announced that the third round of coal block auction will take place between 11 and 17 August. Ten coal blocks with 13.47 million tonne of reserves are up for sale to steel and cement firms.

Greenpeace, an environmental campaigning group, has reported on how the majority of India’s untapped coal reserves lie in the central Indian landscape. All of India’s major coalfields with coal reserves of over one billion tonnes fall within this area.

Corridors linking eight tiger reserves in central India—Bandhavgarh, Sanjay-Dubri, Palamau, Kanha, Achanakmar, Satkosia, Simlipal and Tadoba-Andhari—stand to be impacted in varying degrees if mining companies get their way.

A geographic information system (GIS) analysis conducted by the Ecoinformatics Lab at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE), Bengaluru, shows that mining existing forest areas will lead to the destruction of more than one million hectares of forest, of which more than 739,000 hectares is dense forest.

If the coal blocks are opened up by the government, connecting forest corridors between several of the major protected areas in central India will stand isolated.

Altogether, 13 coal fields in this landscape will impact eight tiger reserves. These reserves are home to more than 250 tigers and other endangered wildlife, and connecting forest corridors are essential for their survival.

A tiger estimation study released in May conducted by the Wildlife Conservation Trust (WCT) in areas outside protected areas of the Chandrapur district of Maharashtra revealed the presence of 48 adult tigers.

“The tiger density in some reserve forest blocks is actually higher than that of some tiger reserves of India. For instance, tiger density in the Kanhalgaon-Central Chanda block is 2.34, which is more than that of the Melghat Tiger Reserve. In the Junona-Central Chanda block, tiger density stood at 1.77, higher than that of the Sahyadri Tiger Reserve," said Anish Andheria, president, WCT.

If these corridors—parts of India’s forest cover—vanish, so will the wildlife.

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Updated: 05 Jun 2015, 01:41 AM IST
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