Forests of the Northeast

By: Sanjoy Choudhury and N Prasad
Over exploitation, habitat loss and fragmentation threaten the biodiversity in the northeast region of India. Serious efforts have to be made by the government as well as the people to protect and conserve the vestiges of virgin forests that still remain in the most forested zone of the country.
Forests

The eight states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura – the northeast region of India, constitute one of the 18 recognised biodiversity hotspots of the world. Occupying 7.7 per cent of India’s geographical area the northeast contains more than one third of the country’s total biodiversity. Of increasing concern is the region’s shrinking greenery and degrading ecosystems. Reasons cited for such destruction are:

  • Conversion of forests into agricultural land with growing demand for food,
  • Reducing cycle of shifting cultivation or jhum cycles in most parts of the region compounding the loss of forest cover,
  • Grazing beyond the carrying capacity of moderate forest cover by large herds of domestic animals,
  • Recurrent forest fires, man made and natural, besides destroying vegetation, harden the surface decreasing soil porosity resulting in low rain water infiltration,
  • Lumbering for domestic and commercial purposes with increasing industrial expansion, urban growth and rapidly growing human population that damage the natural forests, and
  • Multipurpose river projects that require large reservoir area submerging pristine forested tracts.
Image 1: Hill top agriculture results in rapid erosion and deterioration of top soil
Image 1: Hill top agriculture results in rapid erosion and deterioration of top soil

Loss of livelihood

The northeast is home to several tribal communities for whom forests have been an invaluable source of livelihood. The tribes traditionally protected the forests. Echoes of continuity in the age old practice may be found still today as ‘sacred forests’ or ‘sacred groves’ in Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland, the ‘sacred landscapes’ in Sikkim and the ‘sacred hilltops’ in Arunachal. Unfortunately, such acts of biodiversity conservation is slowly disappearing with conversion from traditional animistic religions to Christianity, western education system, expansion of agricultural activities etc.

Table 1: Area and percentage of forests in the northeast VDF: Very dense forest; MDF: Moderately dense forest; OF: Open forest; FA: Forest area; GA: Geographic area
Table 1: Area and percentage of forests in the northeast
VDF: Very dense forest; MDF: Moderately dense forest; OF: Open forest; FA: Forest area; GA: Geographic area

State of Forests

A review, based on the State of Forest Report 2009, published by Forest Survey of India, reveals some unexpected and contradictory trends in the northeast. Forests represented are classified as very dense with tree canopy density of 70 per cent and above; moderately dense with 40 to 70 per cent canopy density and open with density between 10 to 40 percent. Below 10 per cent it is classified as scrub. For the purpose of this discussion we will restrict our analysis to the first three classifications as the northeast is known for its resplendent forests.

At the outset forested area of the eight northeast states computed in the Report stands at a whopping 66.28 per cent, much above the target of 33 per cent set by the government of India. Mizoram stands tallest with 91.27 per cent of its area under forests, followed by Nagaland and Arunachal. Understandably, Assam, being the most industrialised state in the area, has the lowest forest cover of 35.30 per cent, which is still higher than the national target.

But this broad picture does not capture the nuances of change that are taking place in the northeast. Delving deeper into the net change matrix of different forest types the degradation is palpable. Dense forests in Tripura are disappearing. In two years, from 2005 to 2007 the decline measured is nearly 2 percent. Similarly in Nagaland, although less, a decline of nearly 0.5 per cent in dense forest cover has been noted. Opposed to this however, is a huge gain of nearly 19 per cent in Meghalaya, offsetting the marked decline in other northeast regions. Analysis of moderately dense forests reveals a decline at each stage, with Nagaland topping the list. In fact, the three states of Nagaland, Assam and Arunachal have mapped a decline in every category of forests. In case of Assam the decline in forest cover is significantly discernible in Kokrajhar, Karbi-Anglong and North Cachar Hills districts. It is also to be understood that forest areas move from one category to the other, but decline of moderately dense forests and increase of open forests may be taken as a proxy variable to demarcate degradation of forests. In totality the northeast has lost 599 km2 amounting to nearly 0.8 per cent of moderately dense forest and gained 1121 km2 (about 1.6 per cent) of open forests.

Table 2: Net change from 2005 to 2007 in km2 Figure in parenthesis indicates per cent change in area VDF: Very dense forest; MDF: Moderately dense forest; OF: Open forest; FA: Forest area; GA: Geographic area Net change data for Sikkim was not available.
Table 2: Net change from 2005 to 2007 in km2
Figure in parenthesis indicates per cent change in area
VDF: Very dense forest; MDF: Moderately dense forest; OF: Open forest; FA: Forest area; GA: Geographic area
Net change data for Sikkim was not available.

Steps taken by the government

Three factors that primarily threaten the biodiversity of the northeast are over exploitation, habitat loss and fragmentation. Serious public private partnerships efforts have to be made in tandem with governmental interventions to protect and conserve the forests. The National Forest Policy of India, 1998, is now in force. The policy emphasises on increasing the area under forest cover to 33 per cent or one third of the country’s total geographical area and to 60 per cent in the hills of northeast India. Also the Forest Development Agency (FDA) is a central agency which provides financial help to the state governments for the planting of trees and conservation of forest area. The policy of joint forest management (JFM) introduced during the 1980’s also encourages participation of local communities in forest management.

In a recent development, the government of Assam has formulated a forest policy, developing a common approach to manage both environment and biodiversity. The new policy is comprehensive and considers all major environmental concerns – flora, fauna, wildlife, soil fertility etc. The policy provides a comprehensive strategy for environmental conservation and improved support system for livelihood of the people living in the fringe areas of forests and thereby seeks to overcome degradation of biodiversity and forest cover.

Image 2: Conversion of forests into agricultural land with growing demand for food and reduced cycles of shifting cultivation in most parts of the region compounds the loss of forest cover in the region.
Image 2: Conversion of forests into agricultural land with growing demand for food and reduced cycles of shifting cultivation in most parts of the region compounds the loss of forest cover in the region.

Endnote

Environmental stability, biodiversity conservation, food security and sustainable development have been widely recognised at many aspects of conservation strategies. Conservation of forest resources would entail management of biosphere reserves, national parks, sanctuaries etc.; regulation of sacred groves; introduction of sustainable afforestation programmes; regulations of community forest management (CFM); possible replacement of areas under jhum by alternative economic activities; adoption of ecosystem based forest management to maintain ecological balance; regulation of reforestation in the deforested areas to restore the ecological balance; compulsory plantation projects in educational institutes, youth clubs and communities; watershed management through afforestation programmes; and, provision of alternate livelihoods for forest dwellers of north east India.

 

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