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Northeast accounted for 76% tree cover loss in India in 2001-20: Study

India lost 1.93 million hectares of tree cover between 2001 and 2020, equivalent to a 5% decrease in tree cover since 2000. Of this, about 1.45 million hectares was lost in the Northeastern states.

October 24, 2021 / 08:55 PM IST
Illustration by Suneesh K.

Illustration by Suneesh K.


India’s Northeast lost about 1.45 million hectares (Mha) of tree cover between 2001 and 2020, amounting to roughly 76% of the country’s total tree cover loss during the same period, according to a global study.

Research conducted by the University of Maryland's Global Land Analysis & Discovery (GLAD) laboratory in partnership with Google, and released by Global Forest Watch (GFW), says India as a whole lost 1.93 Mha of tree cover in 2001-20, equivalent to a 5% decrease in tree cover since 2000. GFW, an initiative of the World Resources Institute (WRI), is an open-source web application to monitor global forests in near real-time.

Assam had the highest share of the national tree cover loss in the period, at roughly 14%. From 2001 to 2020, the state lost 269 kilohectare (kha) of tree cover, equivalent to a 9.8% decrease since 2000, the study found, using more than a million satellite images.

Among other Northeast states, Mizoram lost 247 kha, Nagaland 225 kha, Arunachal Pradesh 222 kha, Manipur 196kha, Meghalaya 195 kha and Tripura lost 102 kha tree cover over the 20-year period, the report said. The top five states in the list with the maximum tree cover loss are from the Northeast. The seven sister states are also among the 10 worst performers in terms of tree cover loss. Odisha (115 kha) is in the seventh position, Kerala (72.6 kha) is at ninth and Chhattisgarh (46.3 kha) is at the No. 10 spot, the data showed.

Note of caution

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Scientists and conservationists working in the Northeast, while pointing to the problems of deforestation in the ecologically fragile region, however, caution against drawing any direct inference or conclusion from the data without taking local socio-economic situations into account.

Chintan Sheth, an independent geographer and naturalist who has worked in the Northeast, says the dataset is useful and important because overall tree cover loss and gain is estimated but certain caveats are to be added.

“The on-ground socio-cultural reasons for loss need to be kept in mind before interpreting the data. Additionally, the spatial resolution of the data set can easily miss tree cover loss below the 900 sq. m. area. Higher resolution satellite data is necessary to ascertain the true extent of the loss and gain of tree cover,” Sheth said.

Experts say interpreting such numbers is not easy as the issue of deforestation and green cover loss is complicated. In the Northeast, for example, jhum or shifting cultivation is a common practice. The satellite data, however, may take clearing of land for cultivation or harvesting as loss of tree cover, they argue. Then there are factors such as legal felling, tree loss because of fire, floods, etc.

Sheth explained how because of rain and secondary growth, a certain area cleared up for cultivation could replenish itself in a few years.

To be fair, GFW has added a disclaimer that says, “In this data set, ‘tree cover’ is defined as all vegetation greater than five metres in height, and may take the form of natural forests or plantations across a range of canopy densities.”

‘Loss’, the report said, indicates the removal or mortality of tree cover and can be due to a variety of factors, including mechanical harvesting, fire, disease, or storm damage. As such, ‘loss’ does not equate to deforestation, it said.

M. Firoz Ahmed, a wildlife biologist from the Northeast, also feels the data may not represent a complete true picture and needs to be analysed well.

“We have to take it with a pinch of salt and take local factors into account. Jhum cultivation is not deforestation, but clearing of reserve forests, which has an adverse effect on the ecology, is a problem. Likewise, we have to calculate many aspects before jumping to any conclusions,” said Ahmed, who is associated with Aaranyak, a non-profit working for the environment and wildlife conservation in Assam.

Raising awareness

Both of them, however, agreed that the research would help put the spotlight on the grave problem of deforestation because of various natural and man-made reasons, as well as illegal tree felling, in the biodiversity hot spot.

“In any case, the data is a very useful tool for law enforcement, researchers and journalists to ask important questions about the health and condition of our forests,” Sheth said.

On the brighter side, according to the GFW report, in India, the top four regions were also responsible for 61% of all tree cover gain between 2001 and 2012. Arunachal Pradesh had the most tree cover gain at 47.8 kha compared to an average of 7.09 kha. Nagaland stood second with a gain of 44 kha, Manipur gained 33.8 kha tree cover, Assam followed with 29.9 kha and Mizoram bagged the fifth spot with tree cover gain of 26.3kha.

Ahmed said the report will help raise awareness about the perennial problem of green cover loss and deforestation plaguing the region, which is among the 25 top biodiversity hotspots in the world. “Yes, one good thing about such research is that it creates sensitivity among people about the ill-effects of tree felling,” Ahmed said.

Northeast India is among the 25 top biodiversity hotspots in the world. Northeast India is among the 25 top biodiversity hotspots in the world.

A grave problem

Loss of greenery triggered by deforestation and other natural and man-made causes, prominent among which is illegal timber smuggling, is a big problem in Northeast India, which falls under the Indo-Burma and Eastern Himalayan biodiversity hotspots and accounts for a fourth (around 17 Mha) of India’s forest cover.

The region houses a host of vegetation types, endangered floral species, medicinal plants, a variety of insects, fishes, birds, mammalian species and animals, which makes preservation of its biodiversity a top priority for naturalists and environmentalists.

According to Sheth, the key reasons for tree loss in the Northeast include illegal logging, tree damage during road construction and infrastructure development, shifting cultivation, floods, landslides, etc. In Arunachal Pradesh and other high-altitude areas, when roads are built, the mud and other debris are often dumped along the hill slopes, over the old-growth forests, causing damage to the trees below, he said.

“Fire, too, can lead to loss of tree cover. But 90% of fires in Arunachal Pradesh are in open areas or fallow land during the shifting cultivation season. In the oak-pine savannas in western Arunachal, fires can be accidental or natural…intense fire can cause terrific loss if it is suppressed and dry litter accumulates. This is a key area of concern in West Kameng district,” Sheth explained.

Insurgent groups are also known to resort to illegal felling and timber trade to fund their projects, he explained. The Sonai-Rupai Wildlife Sanctuary in Assam, for example, was one such victim of rampant illegal logging and encroachment.

“In the lower areas of Arunachal Pradesh, there has been a lot of deforestation. In Manipur and Nagaland also, there is selective logging by people to sustain themselves. The problem of deforestation in Northeast India is grave, and more awareness is required,” Ahmed said.

Loss of forests, researchers explain, could have serious consequences for the tropical biodiversity in ecologically fragile regions such as the Northeast, as the destruction of suitable habitat would have an impact on the survival of different species.

Sushanta Talukdar, a Northeast observer and editor of Nezine, an online magazine focused on the region, says not just illegal timber trade, large-scale authorised tree felling has been reported during large infrastructure projects such as mega hydro power and national highway projects.

“More than 1.36 lakh trees were cut for the construction of the 670km East-West Corridor in Assam by the National Highways Authority of India. However, compensatory tree plantation as mandated is not visible along the four-lane national highway. In Arunachal, the 2880-megawatt Dibang Valley multipurpose project, the country’s largest hydropower project, will require felling of 3.21 lakh trees,” Talukdar said.

In Assam, 60% of all tree cover loss in 20 years took place in two hill districts. Karbi Anglong had the most loss at 97.4 kha, followed by Dima Hasao at 63.2 kha, the GFW report said. In Arunachal, West Siang had the most tree cover loss at 32.9 kha. In Manipur, Churachandpur (58.4 kha) and Tamenglong (43.9 kha) accounted for 52% of all tree cover loss in the state.

In Meghalaya, three regions reported 56% of all tree cover loss, with West Khasi Hills topping the list at 45.7 kha. Champhai led the loss with 67.6 kha in Mizoram, where three regions were responsible for 63% of all tree cover loss.

Mon, Tuensang, Mokokchang and Peren districts accounted for 57% of Nagaland’s total loss. Tripura fared better among the seven states. Dhalai and South Tripura districts reported 53% of the state’s total loss, the study said.

The region falls under the Indo-Burma and Eastern Himalayan biodiversity hotspots, and accounts for a fourth (around 17 Mha) of India’s forest cover. The region falls under the Indo-Burma and Eastern Himalayan biodiversity hotspots, and accounts for a fourth (around 17 Mha) of India’s forest cover.

The way out

The solution is not easy. Among other measures, Sheth suggested increased funding for forest laws enforcement, ecological restoration of degraded or previously logged forests, a ban on plantations of single or exotic species for the restoration of forests, very high resolution satellite data monitoring and appropriate ground surveys to know which type of logging is harmful and which is not.

Apart from better law enforcement by the agencies that tackle illegal felling, road construction companies should be held accountable for causing unnecessary damage to trees, Sheth said.

“There should be better tender allocation to deter defaulters who dump debris mid-downslope. Use of better road-topping material to prevent usage of wood to heat tar and distribution of LPG to road construction workers can prevent unneeded hacking of trees,” Sheth said.

Ahmed said a nature-based economy, and not mining and overexploitation of mineral resources, would help restore Northeast India’s green cover and maintain the region’s delicate ecological balance.

“We need an agro forestry-based industry, which will help replenish forests. There are so many medicinal plants and spices which can help create revenue. Our traditional knowledge is getting lost. We can use it to create employment and improve the economic condition of people, who would then not have to cut trees for a living,” Ahmed added.

Talukdar warned that if the loss of trees is not made up through afforestation, the consequences are bound to be irreversible.

Naturalists and environmental experts also warn against rampant and illegal mining of coal and limestone, key industries in Meghalaya and Assam, and monoculture plantations such as rubber and palm oil in environmentally sensitive areas.

Mines are said to be a key source of land and water pollution and cause environmental degradation and displacement. Last year, allegations of illegal coal mining near Upper Assam’s Dehing Patkai, a sensitive subtropical rainforest, led to a nationwide furore and a viral social media campaign.

Commercial monoculture or single species plantations have also been met with resistance as environmentalists say they do not support the region’s biodiversity. The Centre’s decision, especially, to go for water-guzzling palm oil plantations in the Northeast in a bid to reduce dependency on edible oil imports has generated a lot of debate and criticism, with political parties, NGOs, and environmentalists objecting to large-scale cultivation.

Conservationists argue that palm oil and other such commercial plantations will destroy the natural forestry, which, apart from maintaining ecological balance, provides food, fruits, and medicinal herbs to villagers.

Stone mining in Meghalaya. Naturalists and environmental experts warn against rampant and illegal mining of coal and limestone, key industries in Meghalaya and Assam. Stone mining in Meghalaya. Naturalists and environmental experts warn against rampant and illegal mining of coal and limestone, key industries in Meghalaya and Assam.

Tree cover link to climatic changes?

So is this loss of green cover responsible for the climatic changes and extreme weather patterns such as the gradual rise in temperatures and lower-than-normal rainfall in the Northeast region over the past few years?

Ahmed says changing climatic patterns are a result of years of changes across regions, though deforestation could be one of the triggering factors.

“It is not easy to summarise or pinpoint which factor is leading to what damage and needs in-depth study. But the way climate change is happening, we could be heading to a point of no return. Things have come to such a pass that we are sweating in the month of October,” Ahmed said.

Sheth also said it is difficult to link one thing to another. Floods, for example, have been ongoing in this region for centuries and have been removing some forest cover too. “But deforestation also can lead to bank erosion and so it's a complex cycle. Climate change because of pollution by large corporations has resulted in large-scale tree browning in Namdapha in Arunachal. But it's unclear if tree browning and tree cover loss are linked naturally.”

“Increased glacial melting due to climate change can result in floods and higher flow rates and erosion. It could lead to loss of tree cover in some areas such as Lower Dibang Valley and East Siang in Arunachal, but this link has not been established. It needs further research to confirm.”

In the next 30-100 years, Sheth said, catastrophic floods and glacial lake outburst floods have been predicted due to climate change. “An increase in extreme rainfall along with landslides, too, is predicted, so climate change could already be leading to tree cover loss but we don't know where, when, etc. It is unconfirmed and studies are required,” Sheth said.
Nilutpal Thakur is an independent journalist and content creator based in Delhi

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