State forest cover down by 17 sq km

Vijay Pinjarkar, Times News Network, February 15 2018

Link to the news article

Amid efforts to increase forest cover to the mandatory 33%, Maharashtra has lost 17 sq km forest, more than four times the area of Lonar wildlife sanctuary in Buldhana district.

The India State of Forest Report (ISFR) 2017 was released recently by Forest Survey of India (FSI), based on the interpretation of satellite data from October 2015 to January 2016. This shows forest cover in the state in 2015 was 50,699 sq km, whereas in 2017 it has decreased to 50,682 sq km, a loss of 17 sq km. The report is released every two years.

Shockingly, of the 35 districts, 20 have shown decrease in forest cover compared to 2015. FSI attributes net decrease in forest cover to rotational tree felling in territorial forest and by FDCM, besides submergence of area, agriculture expansion and development activities.

However, Nashik-based expert on forest land issues Hemant Chhajed says FSI has not considered huge encroachments and forest land grab under Forest Rights Act (FRA) as major reasons for decline in forest cover.

Chhajed said as per FSI of 1987, Maharashtra had 64,055 sq km forest. Now, it has decreased to 50,682 sq km, a loss of 2,318 sq km. “Even if officials claim that most of the forest area has been diverted for projects, an equivalent area has to be compensated by project proponents, and if such area is not available, compensatory afforestation has to be done on equal land. So, forest cover should increase and not decrease. It is a failure of officials,” said Chhajed.

However, even as forest cover is being lost every year, officials are content with increase in tree cover from 9,558 in 2015 to 9,831 in 2017, and increase in mangrove forest in Western Maharashtra by 82 sq km. A release issued by APCCF (conservation) picked up only the positive side of the FSI report.

However, Mumbai-based environmentalist Debi Goenka said, “Actually speaking, the mangrove cover is stagnant. In 2005, when the Bombay high court directed mapping of mangroves, it was 340 sq km. The FSI report puts it to 304 sq km. So where is the increase?”

State wildlife board member Kishor Rithe said, “It is difficult to see forest cover going up in the years to come unless forest degradation is stopped, and encroachments and biotic pressure are controlled. Besides, there is no forest regeneration.”

The report also states that Maharashtra has lost forest cover within recorded forest area (RFA) in all three categories — very dense forest (VDF), moderately dense forest (MDF) and open forest (OF). RFA includes forest inside the forest boundaries.

The VDF in 2017 is 8,027 sq km while in 2015 it was 8,361 sq km. Similarly, MDF, which was 15,939 sq km has been reduced to 14,168 sq km, and OF which was 13,143 sq km is 11,596 sq km now. Overall recorded forest area has been reduced by 3,652 sq km.

“This decline doesn’t mean that this much area has gone. It is quite possible that its status or class must have changed,” said a senior FSI official.

On the contrary, officials claimed forest cover outside recorded forest area has increased by 3,706 sq km from 13,185 sq km to 16,891 sq km. Chhajed says this may be due to various government and private agencies taking up plantations on their lands.
RTI activist Avinash Prabhune claimed that FSI has not considered encroachments under the Forest Rights Act. According to information received under RTI by Prabhune, 2.80 lakh individual titles on forest land have been rejected by the district level committee.

“Rejected titles mean those in possession of these forest lands are encroachments. Even if an individual is considered to be in possession of bare minimum one acre forest land, it will run into 2.80 lakh acres,” says Prabhune.

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