Climate Change and the Management of Forests in India

Dr. R D Jakati

Globally the forest ecosystems are threatened with modifications due to climate change. These ecosystems which have evolved over thousand years may see change in the structure and composition of flora and fauna, and quite importantly the less studied associated soil micro-flora. Some species of flora and fauna may go locally extinct or migrate to favourable climatic conditions. These ecosystems have not been static but dynamic in nature and have been adapting to the gradually changing conditions. However, they may not absorb the rapidly changing climatic conditions causing the structural and the compositional changes which are bound to reflect in the ecosystem services. These changes may not necessarily be in the interest of mankind. This situation calls for careful documentation, analysis and monitoring of various forest systems, especially with respect to their historical structure and composition, if relevant data is available. Such studies are complex in tropical forest systems because there is a large number of species on every unit of area with little knowledge of their local inter-dependence and association with the soil micro-flora.

The traditional forest management in India considered forest as a resource and harvested the same in more or less orderly manner, generally termed as scientific management. It was based on two main principles: the principle of sustained yield and that of normal forest. The principle of sustained yield in practice meant sustained supply of wood to the market for which adequate forest areas were harvested.Since the growing stock was not uniformly spread over the entire forest area and also that quality of stocking was also not uniform, appropriate adjustment factors were used and applied in the practical forest management so that the supply of timber/ wood to the market remained constant. Many mixed species’ forests, which constituted and continue to be bulk of our forests, didn’t regenerate under clear felling systems. When some did the composition changed.

Along with the above, there was another practice of regenerating forests through coppicing. Most of the trees when cut near the base produce coppice shoots. Since the root system already exists the shoots grow vigorously. The area gets covered soon. In a mixed forest some species grow more rapidly than the others. Such rapidly growing species dominate the slow-growing ones. The composition thus tends to change. If such forests are harvested, say, at relatively short intervals the site degrades and gets exhausted of the nutrients. The possibility of such happening increases in areas which are dry and generally devoid of humus. This system of management with coppice regeneration was practiced in many forest areas in central India. Teak and sal (Shorea robusta) were the preferred species; other species were removed to favour these species. Many of these forests in central India are degraded and have a composition which reflects degradation. What constituted normal forest in a mixed forest was little studied and understood.

 Itarsi Hoshangabad -Photo R D Jakati, 2015
Itarsi Hoshangabad
-Photo R D Jakati, 2015

In many areas of dry deciduous teak forests in Madhya Pradesh significantly higher, at some places profuse, regeneration of Chloroxylon swietenia is seen. This clearly indicates site degradation /nutrient deficiency. (This species is an indicator of degraded site).

These concepts of traditional forest management were borrowed from the study of forestry science based on even aged single species forests in Europe. The normal forest meant densely packed forest blocks of even age and covering all age classes in an area. The principle of progressively increasing sustained yield was a further evolution of the principle of sustained yield. This principle advocated increasing the yield from the forest by adopting appropriate management practices like improving the density of stocking and harvesting more area so that the yield from forests increased. It was believed that the forests were inexhaustible store of renewable resource (under all circumstances). By middle of the nineteenth century Europeans had discovered that forests under such practices were not sustainable in the long run and had observed degradation of sites under such management. It came to be recognized that what nature produced on a particular site as an ecosystem is the best suited and also the most productive one for the site. This gave rise to the Dauerwald system/continuous cover forestry and eventually the close to nature forestry.

India has a long tradition of over hundred years of preparation of working plans. The nature, the contents and the legality of this document have undergone metamorphic changes over, especially, last two decades. It started as a well thought written plan of systematically harvesting forests keeping in view the concept of sustained yield and normal growing stock. As the general awareness regarding multiple use forestry grew, newer technologies made available for collecting necessary data and the society in general became more aware about environmental needs, the contents of such a plan underwent lot of changes. The first common working plan code was formulated in 1891 which was revised in 2004, after about hundred years.The next revision was felt necessary soon thereafter and the revised one was adopted in 2014. The principles of sustainable forest management were adopted in Rio conference followed by the twelve principles adopted by the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in 2003, after Malawi conference, in view of climate change. These developments associated with better knowledge of ecosystem conservation necessitated the revision of the working plan code. At present the working plans are made by the working plan officers, they are discussed in the state forest departments and are approved by the Regional Chief Conservators of Forests of Government of India. The approval of the management plans became necessary after the directions to that effect by the Supreme Court of India, in view of forest being on the concurrent list of the Constitution of India.

As per the current working plan code, the plan is broadly divided into two parts, as in the previous one. The first part containing twelve chapters is the summery of facts on which proposals are based and the second part, which prescribes the future management, has as many chapters as the number of working circles plus one. The extra one is the chapter on general constitution of working circles and the justification of making working circles. The twelve chapters of the first part describe the area, locality factors, forests and their vulnerability, composition, past management and the effect of on forests, growth and yield, socio economic status of the people living in and out of forests and their relationship with forests etc. Each chapter on working circle gives general status, management prescriptions; demand limits which can be put on the resource considering various factors etc.

In India, learning from the past follies foresters, as a community, have become more conservation oriented and generally are in favour of careful harvesting of forests. The society in general is also not in favour of felling trees. The activism on the part of the judiciary has also played its own role in directing the management to be careful in the utilisation of forest resource. These societal changes have made forest stand structure uneven aged and at many places tending to be selection type. These conditions are thus favourable for the adoption of ‘Close to Nature Forestry system’ for the well-stocked natural forests in India. The moderately stocked forests and the under stocked forests should be restocked with preferably native species considering the degradation stage and the nutrient status of forest soils etc. Although the contents of the working plans have improved a lot, there are gaps which are necessary for the management to be the ecosystem based.

Different forest types have different species composition. Within a forest type the composition also changes with site quality to some extent. At the time of making fresh enumeration (forest inventory), which is done at the time of revision /preparation of working plan, the data of composition of different forest types by site quality may be compiled. The genetic variation of the species may also be recorded to the extent possible. From the tables of diameter distribution of different species structural and compositional studies can be carried out for reflecting on the past management and making future management prescriptions. Sukachev (1954) at the World Forestry Congress in his paper “Forest types and their significance for forest economy” said forest types should form the basis of study and classification.

In India a large number of preservation plots were established in different forest types to study the composition, structure and the growth of the forests. Various Silviculture conferences, starting with one in 1929, discussed and encouraged establishment of such preservation plots. Many such plots established were not maintained and recorded properly at a later date. Data of some preservation plots is available with some states but proper study of these has not been undertaken. The data of such preservation plots can throw light on the composition and structure of the original natural vegetation of the given forest type. And if the data of adequate number of   preservation plots is available, the natural range of variability can be studied besides throwing light on the past management deficiencies.

It is quite often stated that fire and grazing are two most important degrading locality factors. It is true. There is no doubt about them. But how far our systems of forest management have contributed to the site degradation is a difficult question to answer. Research on this aspect needs to be conducted for better management in future. Some of our good forest areas, measured on the basis of the basal area, are depleted. They appear well stocked because of the presence of relatively larger proportion of young and pole crop. The number of big trees is very small. It seems that most forests had been harvested at shorter intervals like the forests worked under systems involving concentrated regeneration felling, and /or the coppice systems. Normally, the job of working plan officer ends at calculating the increment the forest puts on and recommending removal of equal to or less than the gross increment accrued. However, it may be remembered that even the depleted forests put on some increment. It is incorrect to recommend removal of increment if the forest is depleted. In fact the forest growing stock needs to be built up and the site conditions allowed to recuperate in case of depleted forests. Such decision can be taken if the working plan officer knows the level of stocking. And that is where the problem starts. In case of mixed forests there are no yield tables to compare the existing stocking and the level of depletion. Generally knowing that the forest is depleted and so recommending removal only part of increment, intuitively, is incorrect and unscientific. Here comes in the role of preservation plots data and the study of structure and composition of the forest under management which is the heart of ecosystem based forest management. The analysis of the crop which is generally written in the chapter on the forests or in the chapter on the statistics of growth and yield need to incorporate such studies on which management prescriptions can be based

The ecosystem approach to forest management is widely recommended to be adopted for the obvious reasons of its focus on the sustainability of the system considering the structure, composition and the functioning to be the heart and soul of forest management associated with decentralization of authority of management to the lowest possible level, and adopting the inter sectoral linkages. In India, laws regulating forests have been amended from time to time to consider the interest of forests and wildlife but inter-sectoral dialogue with agricultural sector or transport sector, that have fragmented the important biodiversity habitats, have not been initiated.

-Photo R D Jakati, 2015
-Photo R D Jakati, 2015

Natcom II report of Government of India, 2012, predicts top dying in teak and Sal forests. This, the report says, will happen due to nutrient deficiency despite favourable conditions for higher primary productivity under changing climate.

In so far as the adaptation to climate change in forest management is concerned the broad principles adopted are: 1) Increase tree species richness. Degradation of forests generally results in decrease in species diversity. Past management have generally favoured economically important species at the cost of others. 2) Increase structural diversity using uneven aged silvicultural system. 3) Maintain and increase genetic variation within tree species through tending and thinning practices or through enrichment planting of tolerant provenances of native species.   4) Increase resistance of individual trees to biotic and abiotic stress, for example, vigorously growing dominant and co-dominant tress are resistant to biotic stress and individuals with well developed big crowns are resistant to wind damage.

Normally working plans in India are written for the management of forests of a division. But there is a need to look beyond the boundaries of forests. This is because of the following reasons.1) Developments outside forest influence the forest resource condition. 2) National Forest Policy aims at increasing forest and tree cover to 33% which is possible if tree cultivation takes place outside forest boundary. It is also known that if agroforestry is promoted, the pressure on natural forests reduces. The promotion of agroforestry as a tool to conserve forest resource, therefore, should find place in the working plans. 3) Under the direction of the Supreme Court licensing of saw mills limited to the wood production capacity of the division / district is made mandatory. These saw mills / wood based industries may or may not use wood obtained from forests. It is, therefore, necessary to undertake survey of wood resource outside forest boundaries in the division/ district to monitor the pressure on forests. In view of this it is necessary that working plans may be written for the geographical area of the forest division and be called the natural resource management plan.

Dr. R D Jakati