16% increase in Maharashtra’s forest cover in 22 years

By Hindustan Times on 22 Mar 2018 | read

From 43,843 sq km in 1995 to 50,692 sq km in 2017, Maharashtra’s forest cover has increased by 6,839 sq km [15.59%] revealed a report released by the conservation wing of the state forest department. The report was released on Wednesday to mark the International Day of Forests 2018.

Meanwhile, the mangrove cover witnessed a whopping 96% increase — from 155 sq km in 1995 to 304 sq km in 2017 — with every coastal district recording a rise in intertidal tree numbers. However a substantial decline [108 sq km] was recorded between 1995 and 1999.

“Protection of mangrove forests intensified after the formation of state mangrove cell in 2012. In other areas, awareness drives and strengthening the law helped curb mangrove destruction. Media reports spreading information about the coastal trees further aided the effort. Even increased siltation along the creeks have helped better mangrove cover along isolated patches,” said N Vasudevan, additional principal chief conservator of forests, state mangrove cell.

The report also mentions that dense forest canopy cover increased by 24.4% [5,766 sq km]. In 17 years [ 2001 to 2017], trees cover outside forests increased by 18.8% [1,562 sq km] – the highest in India. Also, the carbon stock — calculated to estimate the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by a forest patch — increased by 16.65% [1,011 sq km] since 1994 and water bodies within forests increased by 1.15% [2005 to 2015].

“Based on scientific and reliable source of information form the India State of Forest Report by the Forest Survey of India, we submitted the report after compiling the area and percentage increase of forest cover, and how it has changed over the past two decades,” said Shailesh Tembhurnikar, additional principal chief conservator of forests (conservation), state forest department, who authored the report.

He said the main reason for the increase was better conservation effort in each district. “Density of forests has gone up through better vigilance, patrolling and focus towards protecting our natural resources. Other reasons are the participation of local people in joint forest management, and reduction in biotic pressures on forests such as dependence of people on forest resources for survival has reduced. For example, provision of cooking gas to tribal hamlets has led to a drop in tree felling,” said Tembhurnikar. “Overall, plantation drives carried out by the state has further aided the increase in green cover, which is expected to further rise by 2019.”

The data is significant as Maharashtra ranks fourth in India to have diverted maximum forest land [63 sq km] for non-forestry purposes, including mining over three years [2014 to 2017], area roughly equivalent to the size of Mumbai island city. HT had also reported in January this year that 670 sq km of forest area in the state was under encroachment and another report from December last year said that forest fire cases increased from 702 in 2014 to 3,487 in 2017.

“Reduction in forest cover in districts located in interior Maharashtra is owing to encroachments for agricultural purposes. Forest cover near urban spaces has reduced owing to developmental activities, irrigation and highway projects,” said Tembhurnikar.

However, environmentalists said the method of estimating forest cover by relying on satellite imagery is flawed. “What is seen as an increase in canopy is the growth of the mother trees, which is not an increase in forest cover. Hardly any new forests have been generated in Maharashtra. The main reason is the forest fires that are so frequent and rampant across the state,” said Stalin D, director, NGO Vanashakti. “Estimations made using satellite imagery must be backed up by ground surveys. This kind of reports are prepared, used and put out to defeat public resistance to destruction bid forests. We are woefully short of the required cover. However, mangroves have increased due to excessive siltation primarily and also due to the diligent efforts of the state mangrove cell.”