A.N. Khan writes: Forest means an extensive area so well covered with trees that they serve to modify the whole biological character of the area even the climate. If the tree cover is too irregular and open to do this, the area is popularly called a woodland; if the trees are planted mainly for their fruit – an orchard, or, if the area is small and open – a grove. A concept was developed of the forest as a resource yielding useful products – chiefly lumber - rather than essentially a land needing to be cleared of useless trees in order to develop agriculture or range use.
At the dawn of human history the forests did not offer favourable conditions for the development of civilization. Regions, where the earliest development of civilization occurred, e.g., Egypt, Mesopotamia, India andChina were predominantly open grass lands.
Today, as the most biologically diverse ecosystem on land, forests are home to more than half of terrestrial species, from the great apes to the smallest of creatures.
In support of the UN International Year of Forests, World Environment Day (WED) is being celebrated with the theme, ‘Forests : Nature at Your Service’, and focus on life sustaining services forests provide and raise awareness on management, conservation and sustainable development of all types of forests. The global host country for WED 2011 is India, a country in which forests constitute more than 20% of geographical land area.
India is a country of 1.2 billion people who continue to put pressure on forests especially in densely populated areas where people are cultivating on marginal lands and where overgrazing is contributing to desertification. Where the socio-economic pressures on the country’s forests are tremendous, India has instituted a tree planting system to combat land degradation and desertification including windbreaks and shelter belts to protect agricultural land.
The World’s forests have shrunk by 40% since agriculture began. Three-fourth of this loss occurred in the last two centuries as land was cleared for farming and to meet demand for timber.
Forests have often come to be referred to as the ‘lungs of the earth’, because deforestation and forest degradation account for nearly 20% global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, contributing to global warming, which forests would absorb if carefully managed. FAO data estimates that the world’s forests and forest soil store more than one trillion tons of carbon – twice the amount found in the atmosphere. The World Bank estimates that forests provide habitats to about 2/3rd of all species on earth, and that deforestation of closed tropical rainforest’s could account for biodiversity loss of as many as 100 species a day.
The steady increase in the atmospheric CO2, would cause profound climatic changes, due to the worldwide clearance of forests and accelerated burning of fossil fuels. These activities of mankind are adding 8-13 billion tons of CO2 to the atmosphere each year above the natural cycle, and at this rate the current level of CO2 in the atmosphere is supposed to double within 40 years. This build up could perhaps, be held down by restricting the burning of fossil fuel and allowing some croplands to return to forests – action likely to produce profound social upheaval. In keeping with its slogan ‘Forests for Survival’, the Government has drawn up an ambitious programmefor forestry, to restore the forest cover within 33% of the geographical area of the country.
The Prime Minister’s Council on climate change, has approved The National Mission for a ‘Green India’and project an ambitious target of 10 million hectares of forest cover by 2020 at a cost of Rs. 460 billion and aims to reach an annual CO2 sequestration of 50-60 million tons, that will increase the share of GHG emissions offsets by India’s forest and tree cover from 4.5 to 6%. The mission will also focus on improving ecosystem including biodiversity and hydrological services and aims to increase forest-based livelihood for forest dependent families and, hence, any initiative to conserve our forests and improve their quality cannot succeed without the active participation of local communities. There is a clear focus on preserving and enhancing biodiversity and restoring other-ecosystems and habitats including grassland, mangrove forests and the wetland.
Honey, amla, gums, resins, tubers, tamarind and some medicinal plants come from forests and find their way into our lives. The Government has now decided to provide minimum support price (MSP) for some select forest produce on the lines of wheat and paddy for the tribal who pluck, dig and extract them. This step could help around 40 million tribals who depend on income from forests. The Ministry of Environment & Forests has sent instructions to the states that bamboo should be treated as forest produce and villagers should be allowed to extract it instead of the forest department – that too in only declared ‘Community forests’. The Forest Right Act, 2006, has given the villagers right over all forest produce, but the Indian Forest Act 1927, empowered the forest department to control it – from taking it out of the forest to transporting and selling it, thus, depriving people of their rights and kept them away from participating in the conservation process.