Biodiversity conservation—Why India needs Close to Nature forest management

By Dr R D JAKATI

Most of the forests in India are owned by State. The State Governments but policies manage the forests, professional training and certain regulations like forest land-use changes are controlled by the central government. The National Forest Policy (NFP) of 1988, in its Preamble cites,  “serious depletion” of forests which has resulted from relentless pressure “for fuel wood, fodder, and timber; inadequacy of protection measures, diversion of forest lands to non-forest uses without ensuring compensatory afforestation and essential environmental safeguards; and the tendency to look upon forests as revenue earning resource. The NFP 1988 starts with the statement on the depletion of forest resources and ends with strategies for conservation of forests, maintenance, sustainable utilization, restoration and enhancement of the natural environment. The status of forest resources in India according to the Forest Survey of India’s (FSI) State of Forest Resources Report 2017 is given below:

Table 1

Forest coverArea (Sq. km)Percentage to total forest coverPercentage to total geographic area
Very dense ( 0.7 +)98,15813.862.99
Mod dense (0.4-0.7)308,31843.539.38
Open (0.1- 0.4)301,79742.619.18
Total Forest Cover708,27321.54
Scrub45,979
The Status of Forest Resources

The general condition of forests is not satisfactory in terms of stocking, productivity and biodivesity. About 80% forest is of seedling origin, about 14% of coppice origin and about 5.3% is manmade (plantation). In about half of the forest area natural regeneration is inadequate, about 30% of forest is plantable. About half of the forest area suffers from mild (ground) fire annually, about forty is subjected to grazing by the rural communities and about two third of the forest land suffers from mild soil erosion.

In a study conducted by FAO- FSI in 2004 the sustainability of forest management scored only 56 on 100 scales: health and vitality, socio- economic functions got less than 50. The average growing stock per hectare is 54.96 cum.

The canopy cover of the major forest types is given below.

Table 2

Forest Types and canopy density

Forest typePercentage of total forest cover  (A)Very dense (0.7 +)Mod  dense (0.4-0.7Open (0.1-0.4)
Percentage of APercentage of APercentage of APercentage of A
Tropical wet ever green (biodiversity hot spot)3.421.7761.1617.06
Tropical semi-ever green14.551349.4737.08
Tropical moist deciduous20.77.555.8136.69
Tropical dry deciduous40.074.9548.0847
Tropical thorn forest1.740.8826.272.92
Temperate moist4.8714.5250.435.09
Tropical/Subtropical dry ever green hill2.977.5742.3750.06
Subtropical pine2.716.0755.6838.25
Subalpine dry temp2.710.9950.5438.47
Alpine scrub0.0639.1931.8428.97
Littoral and swamp0.7224.4540.4635.09
Plantation5.321.5132.6965.8

The dry and moist forest types, which together constitute over 60% of the forest  area  of the country have about 50% area in open degraded category.

The study conducted by Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology(IITM) on the effect of climate change on the forests of India reveals, as quoted in the NATCOM Report of 2012, that 45% of the forested grids (of the country) are vulnerable with higher concentration in upper Himalayan stretches, parts of central India, northern Western Ghats etc. The report suggests that sub-alpine and alpine forests, the Himalayan dry forests, and the Himalayan moist temperate forests are susceptible to the adverse effects of climate change.

             The test run studies on teak (Tectona grandis) and sal (Shorea robusta)forests have indicated that although there would be a net increase in primary productivity with increase in temperature and rainfall yet this would lead to a die-back with the induced stress to nutrient availability.  The biggest victim of climate change will be the biodiversity of various forest types.

The predictions made by the IITM study about the mortality of species are visible on the ground.  In the sal forests of Dehradun there is enhanced mortality of sal and of species like Terminalia tomentosa. In central India there is profuse regeneration of a, a species which reflects site degradation,  and also enhanced mortality of Teak. These enhanced mortality rates may probably be because of climate change and may also have been contributed by faulty management which inter alia focused attention on only economically important species and selective  removal of the so called ‘miscellaneous‘ tree species, thus initiating the process of degradation.

The forests in the country are degrading and about half of them are already depleted. As can be seen from the Table 1 the percentage of very dense (about 13%) and moderately dense (about43%) together constitute only 57% of the total forest cover of the country. Rest of the area, open forest, has canopy cover of less than 40%.   

For the forest ecosystem to provide intended goods and services the ecosystem must remain in a healthy condition. The Paris Agreement recognizes the importance of the integrity of the ecosystems. The Agreement states  “Noting the importance of ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems, including oceans, and the protection of biodiversity, recognized by some cultures as Mother Earth, and noting the importance for some of the concept of “climate justice”, when taking action to address climate change——“.

 Forest management in the country, as also world over in the past, never treated forest as an ecosystem but only as renewable resource. All the operations were oriented towards promoting the growth of economically important species .  Species with low or no economic importance were selectively removed in favor of the economically important ones. The traditional forest management was based on the principles of normal forest and sustained yield. However, when it was observed that under such a system of management the site gradually degrades resulting in the reduction of the productivity, the traditional systems of management were abandoned , especially in Europe and were replaced by systems involving continuous forest cover. The concept of closed to nature forest management evolved out of these considerations.

The concept of ecosystem integrity as applied to forest management is of relatively recent origin. It is based on the assumption that what nature has produced, the species combination and the structure of forest, on any site is the best suited and the most productive one for the site with its locality factors. “ For the purposes of biodiversity conservation, functionality or integrity of a conservation area can perhaps best be judged by the extent to which the structure and composition of the focal ecosystems and species are within their natural ranges of variability. Even for conservation areas with intact or nearly intact ecological processes, conservationists should not assume that focal ecosystems and the species are compositionally and structurally intact.”  “In addition, preliminary evidence shows that compositional and structural integrity may be critical in maintaining internal stability, productivity and resilience of the ecosystem itself”(Karen A Poiani et. al., 2000).  

 The Malawi declaration of 2003 under CBD recognized the structure and composition of forest as the primary parameter in the ecosystem approach to management.    The keystone species, which hold together the ecosystem , of the forest play an important role in maintaining the structure and composition  inter alia the integrity of the ecosystem.  However, their role in maintaining the integrity of the forest ecosystem  is yet to be recognized  in management. Simple ways of managing the forest ecosystem recognizing the role of keystone species needs to be evolved. In the absence of the knowledge of the keystone species for various forest types the structure and composition of  the preservation plots could be taken as the models. The eminent forester of the country Late Mr. S K Seth termed preservation plots as ‘miniature nature’.

 In this connection the results of the experiment undertaken in Canada could be cited . The experiment using radio active carbon showed that there is transfer of nutrients from some species to other species  through root contact. And  that there is network of root contact of some species with some others but   not  with all. Thus establishing the fact that there are some species  which are friendly  to each other but not with all. This probably  explains why in the natural forests certain species are associated some species.    The  tropical forest ecosystems are generally characterized by a large number species per unit area. Which species are friendly with which others  and not with the remaining is not known. The selective removal of the so called miscellaneous species  in the past management practices may be the reason why forests at many places are not regenerating  naturally but are gradually degrading.

With a view to study the growth, structure and composition of various forest types the need for establishing preservation plots was felt and was recommended in the past. 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 were established in different forest types in the country but 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 of a forest type is available, the natural range of variability of different species can be found out which can be used to throw light on the present condition of the forest and its past management. This would help in the preservation of the biodiversity occurring in the forest.  

India is one of the eight mega biodiversity regions of the world. To protect the biodiversity, the species and the genetic diversity, various ecosystems need to be conserved  in their near natural condition.  The forest management  needs to be reoriented by incorporating close to nature forestry system, using the old preservation plot data, especially for the very dense and moderately dense forests,  which constitute about 57% of the forest cover in the country.