Published online 24 August 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.421

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Claims of growth in India's forests 'misleading'

The country's native forests are disappearing at an alarming rate, says a new study.

Indian forestGlobally, India ranks second in terms of total land area under plantation.W. Laurance

Native forests in India are disappearing at a rate of up to 2.7% per year. The figures, published in an analysis of the country's forest cover, stand in stark contrast to those of a 2009 survey by an Indian governmental organization, which said that forests have expanded by 5% over the past decade.

India is among the most densely forested countries in the world, and in 2008 the government announced goals to increase forest cover by nearly 10% by 2012. The India State of Forest Report 2009 by the Forest Survey of India (FSI) indicated that the outlook was good.

But William Laurance, a conservation biologist at James Cook University in Cairns, Queensland, Australia, and one of the authors of the analysis, to be published in the journal Conservation Letters1, says that while the figures showing that forest cover in India has grown are "technically correct", they are also "misleading".

"We found a very real and serious loss of native forest," he says, adding that it could put India ahead of most other countries in terms of deforestation.

Nature contacted the FSI for comment, but they did not respond by the time of publication.

India has been busy planting trees, including non-native eucalyptus and acacia, to provide timber and fuel wood — and in some cases to earn money from selling carbon credits under the Clean Development Mechanism established in 2001 as part of the Kyoto Protocol. The country now ranks second globally in terms of total land area under plantation.

Laurance says that much of India's claimed growth in forest cover has come from plantations, and that this is masking a fall in native forests.

"The Indian government has made a big deal of increasing forest cover. But they are not distinguishing between natural and artificial forests," he says.

A growing problem

This is bad for the environment because replanting native forests with non-native trees damages local biodiversity, says Neil Burgess, a conservation biologist at the University of Copenhagen.

"Most plantations of non-native trees have very low biological value. They are only good to store carbon," he says.

This distinction between native and non-native trees is important for an accurate picture of the state of the world's forests, says Laurance.

In the analysis, the researchers assessed data on the growth in Indian plantations collected for the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. It estimates that plantations grew by around 15,400 square kilometres a year between 1995 and 2005. The researchers subtracted the rates of plantation expansion from the growth in total forest cover as measured by remote-sensing imagery, and found that coverage of native Indian forests actually declined by 1.5–2.7% between 1995 and 2005 — an "alarming" average of 2.4% a year and a loss of more than 124,000 square kilometres over the decade.

The researchers checked these figures against changes in forest biovolume (the volume of wood and other above-ground forest material), estimated from field observations in the FSI report. They found a loss in native forest biovolume of around 2.7% per year.

A resolution for change

Laurance says that some assessments of forest cover, such as that carried out by the FAO, do not distinguish between native forests and plantations. They rely on relatively coarse data from sources including the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer satellites, which have a resolution of 1.1 square kilometres per pixel.

But the Indian Remote Sensing satellites used by the FSI have a much higher resolution — up to 23.5 square metres per pixel — so the agency has the means to distinguish native forests from plantations of non-native trees.

Laurance says he is hopeful that the United Nations' REDD+ initiative to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation — which includes a focus on conservation and sustainable management of forests — will encourage India and other countries in similar situations to distinguish between native and artificial forests, and pay more attention to protecting the former.

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He says that countries such as Norway — the programme's first and largest donor — will be interested more in paying to stop deforestation of native forests than in expanding plantations.

Bhaskar Vira, an environmental economist at the University of Cambridge, UK, says that he thinks "there is probably some truth" in the study's finding. But he warns that not all the trees planted each year reach maturity and show up in satellite imagery. Because the authors subtracted the FAO figures for the total area covered by plantations from a satellite-based estimate of total forest cover, the study may have overestimated the amount of deforestation taking place.

Laurance agrees that the data on plantations is "rough", but points out that the calculations of loss in biovolume used Forest Survey of India data. The figures derived were similar to his estimates for deforestation, so he is confident in the results. 

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