Home >Opinion >Views >Opinion | Global warming puts forests, plantations in the country at risk

India has succeeded in reducing deforestation to some extent through an effective Forest Conservation Act and large-scale afforestation programmes, compared with other forest-rich tropical countries such as Brazil, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Without the Forest Conservation Act and its reasonably effective implementation, India would have lost significant extent of forest area.

India has also been implementing significant scale afforestation, though the rates of afforestation have declined recently, compared with the earlier decades. Agro-forestry, involving raising fruit tree plantations and commercial plantations of eucalyptus, casuarina, teak, poplar, etc., have been raised by farmers for commercial purposes, which have potentially reduced pressure on natural forests.

According to the latest biennial State of Forest Report of the Forest Survey of India (FSI), area under forests has been increasing. Given the definition of forest used by FSI, which is generally consistent with international norms, it is not clear what percentage of increase in forest area is due to changes in natural forests (generally rich in biodiversity), what percentage is due to fast growing commercial plantations (of poplar, eucalyptus, etc.,) and what percentage is contributed by horticultural or fruit orchards of mango, coconut, cashew, areca nut, coffee and urban parks.

What will be of most concern to forest and biodiversity conservation is to understand the status of natural forest and biodiversity. India can still use the same definition of forests, but must estimate and report the area under natural forests and other forest plantation categories. We need to define ‘natural forests’ first. Further, this would involve additional staff time and resources for large-scale ground truthing for baseline mapping of natural forests, which may not be available.

Another issue of great concern is climate change and its impact on forests, commercial plantations, fruit gardens and biodiversity. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports have repeatedly concluded that climate change will lead to large-scale loss of biodiversity, before the end of the current century or even earlier. Preliminary modelling studies by Indian Institute of Science (IISc) have shown that about 20% of forests will be impacted by climate change, which means that existing forest biodiversity and its structure and composition will not be able to adapt to the new climate and there could be mortality or forest dieback.

Further, warming, drought and El Niño will lead to increased forest fires, and may even be favourable to forest pests. Unfortunately, the models currently in use for assessing the impact of climate change are not suitable for the complex and highly diverse forest types that exist in India.

Tropical forests rich in biodiversity are likely to be more resilient than monoculture dominated plantations or exotics. Studies by the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) have shown that degraded forests, fragmented forests and biodiversity-poor forests are more vulnerable to climate change.

Given that global warming will continue, India will have to brace itself to adapt to the impending impacts. In India, there is very limited research on climate change and its impacts on forests, putting our famed biodiversity-rich country status under threat. We need to realistically assess, monitor and model climate change and its impacts and be prepared to adapt to impending climate change.

N.H. Ravindranath is a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore.

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