Thursday, December 27, 2007

When A Forest Is Not a Forest

A dense growth of trees and underbrush covering a large area - The American Heritage Science Dictionary

A large tract of land covered with trees and underbrush - Unabridged (v 1.1)

A large area covered with trees and undergrowth - Oxford dictionary

Judging by these definitions could one call the area shown in below image as a forest?

If the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has its way, then this dense growth of trees and underbrush (Law College land, Pune city) cannot be called a forest and can be exploited by commercial interests without permission from MoEF. The reason is an attempt to define forests in a way that excludes the common sense definitions of forest, three of which I quoted above. According to the new proposed definition, only those areas notified by the government as forests in any Act or recorded in any government documents as forests can be considered a forest. Other dense growths of trees and underbrush not under government control need not apply although the Supreme court has allowed the common sense definition to be considered irrespective of ownership. Only the Indian bureaucracy can come up with such an absurdity. Consider the situation in the image below.

Here the entire area in the image (reserved hills of Pune city) is a notified forest regardless of whether it is actually covered with trees or is barren. I have no problems with this. Afforestation can rejuvenate barren lands. With global warming threatening India, such large scale afforestation programs on barren forest land can contribute in mitigating climate change in many ways. So then why not protect already dense growths of trees which happen not to be official forests? If these lands lose protection as they will if this perverse definition is adopted, they will no doubt be stripped of their green cover in no time. According to the Forest Survey of India, around 2.5% of the total land area of India is covered by Trees outside Forests, i.e. woodlands, sacred groves, and other clumps of trees not officially under government control. This comes to around 80,000 sq km, which is an awful lot of greenery with no potential protection from the government.

Governments like blanket rules. So much easier to implement than to let scientists examine case by case whether an area is ecologically sensitive and should be protected regardless of whether it is an official forest or not. Doing that would be giving Indian scientists too much power. Never! Inch by inch, Act by Act, definition by definition the Indian government is abdicating its responsibility to conserve and manage India's forests and biodiversity. Our basic philosophy of forest management has not changed since the days of the British raj. They looked upon Indian forests as a resource to be exploited. Forest management working plans were written with this in mind. The focus has been and still is on timber and mono-culture plantations and not on conservation and biodiversity. Successive Indian governments have been no more enlightened in their thoughts and actions. Do you think the timber and mining industry has any say in the matter of this new "definition". These are worrying times for the environmental health of our country.

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