Biodiversity conservation—Why India needs Close to Nature forest management


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
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

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.

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


Irshad Khan

According to the Inter-government Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group II report land use change and cover (LUCC) is both a cause and consequence of climate change and constitutes a major driver of changes in a natural ecosystem and biodiversity. The major ongoing changes in subtropical and tropical regions are clearance of forests and woodlands for conversion to agriculture, pasture and commercial cash crops (such as soy, palm oil and rubber). These changes have been causing green house gas (GHG) emissions and their increased concentrations in the atmosphere. The green vegetation is both a source and sink of GHGs. Deforestation for many people in tropical countries creates economic opportunities that is encouraged by growing demand for food products and also creates export potential.

Forests help mitigate climate change impact through removal of large quantities of carbon from the atmosphere, through absorption or reflection of solar radiation (albedo) the production of aerosols that form clouds and also some cooling effect through evapotranspiration.

The IPCC fifth assessment report (AR5) claims with high confidence that the global forests currently are net sink. The intake of carbon by well-stocked and regenerating forests was counterbalanced by release of GHG due to land use change, deforestation and forest degradation between 2000 and 2007 resulting in a net balance of 1.1± 0.8GtCyr-1. However, there are also recent scientific findings that point out that the forest carbon sink is gradually becoming weaker as a number of complex drivers are causing deforestation and forest degradation.

Interestingly, the impact of climate change on temperate forests is that there is an increase in growth rates of trees and corresponding carbon stocks. This is attributed to increased length of growing season, atmospheric CO2 concentration, nitrogen deposition, and forest management involving regeneration of area heavily harvested in the past. On the contrary the impact of climate change on tropical forests is still not very clear with degree of certainty and there are conflicting views. There is no clarity regarding the rates of photosynthesis due to increased CO2 concentrations, erratic patterns of precipitation, frequency of drought, forest fires and pests and pathogen epidemics. Climate models have not been able to provide reasonable conclusions. However, there is agreement that many tree species in moist tropical forests are sensitive to drought and may face migration and mortality. There is also agreement that forest fire frequency and severity is also increasing.

Dry tropical forests have characteristics that develop under seasonal rainfall regime. Monsoon rains occur only in a certain part of the year for 2-3 months and these forests face long periods of heat and drought. There is likelihood that significant parts of these forests are going to be under severe climate change stress due to over exposure to high temperatures and lower rainfall. The productivity of these forests is likely to decrease due to climate change and associated increased risk of fires, pest and pathogen attacks and other drivers.

There are evidences that plantation forests created by afforestation and reforestation are showing increased growth rates and productivity due to increased CO2 the atmosphere. However, the effect of increased fire frequency and intensity, drought, pathogen, and storms have not been taken into account that will affect or offset the increased productivity. The plantation forests are also vulnerable due to their even aged and single species composition that makes them less resilient. It is believed by scientists that uneven aged and mixed species tree plantations are better equipped to face climate change stress, are more resilient and have better chance of surviving.

It is well recognized that earth’s forest ecosystems are vulnerable to climate change impacts; the only question remains is the severity in different regions. Certain changes are being observed in forest ecosystems and are being attributed to rising global temperature and changed precipitation patterns. On the other hand, there are indications that the productivity of boreal forests is increasing due to increased temperature. There is likelihood that the climate change will lead to species migration, tree mortality, early tree flowering and seed production, early leave fall among deciduous species, pest and pathogen epidemic, droughts, absence of natural regeneration as well as loss of biodiversity and even species extinction. Changes are likely to increase both forest fire frequency and intensity.

Some forests in temperate regions may expand northward and in some tropical regions forest cover and area may reduce. Unsustainable land use and non-availability of water in many tropical regions may result in forest species die back. There are observations in south Asia that Tectona grandis (teak) and Shorea robusta, two valuable timber species, are showing top dying phenomenon and it is expanding to large areas. Although scientific research and data are lacking, the changes are closely associated with climate change.

The adverse impact on forest health and productivity will reduce availability of ecosystem services and goods from forests that will adversely affect local communities that depend on forests for sustenance and livelihood in the tropical countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America. These countries are likely to suffer the worst impact that may be difficult to visualize today.

It is a matter of concern that there appears to be no preparedness to face the climate challenges. The approach is one of watching passively and even a feeling of skepticism about the scientific forecast as emerges from climate change models. The adaptation strategies for forest ecosystems are lacking.cropped-IMG_2762.jpg

There is also a sense of lack of clarity as to what exactly would be the impacts, and what would be the intensity and which species and ecosystems will be more vulnerable than the others. It remains difficult to make exact or tenable forecasts on these issues. In view of the complexities of the natural ecosystems, modeling for scenario forecasting has its own limitations. Many people tend to argue that the best course is watch and observe the changes taking place and at what speed as well as resilience of these systems. The predictions point out that the impacts will be highly conspicuous and even irreversible in the second half of this century.