Vanishing act: Tree cover the size of Bengaluru lost in 18 years

The State has lost nearly 800 sq km (nearly the size of Bengaluru city) of tree cover since the turn of the millennium, shows data from Global Forest Watch, which uses satellite imagery to estimate loss of tree cover.

Using tree cover in the year 2000 as base, the project, which is run by the non-profit World Resources Institute, tabulates changes in areas where trees greater than 5 m in height are found. Considering only areas where tree canopy cover is 30% of the total area (which could be forests or private plantations), the State has lost 798.41 sq km of tree cover between 2001 and 2018, shows the report. The tree cover data is generated by University of Maryland's GLAD laboratory in partnership with Google.

Furthermore, the project tabulates the estimated above-ground biomass losses and associate carbon dioxide emissions that could have been absorbed by the flora removed. In all, 18.38 million tonnes of biomass is estimated to have been lost, which, if left as is, could have absorbed 33.67 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.

The project notes that at the heart of the tree cover losses are the districts of the Western Ghats, considered to the source of water and carbon sink in the State.

Western Ghat losses

The seven districts of the ghats — Uttara Kannada, Udupi, Dakshina Kannada, Kodagu, Hassan, Chikkamagalur and Shivamogga — have lost 785.80 sq km of tree cover, while the rest of the State has lost 12.61 sq km. The loss may be from removal, mortality or owing to a variety of factors including harvesting (as done cyclically in forest plantations), fire, disease, or storm damage.

However, official data and environmentalists point to forest diversion for infrastructural project playing a major role in diminishing tree cover.

Sahadev S.H., convener of Malnad Wildlife and Cultural Foundation, who is part of a group of environmentalists that are petitioning the State government against projects in the Western Ghats, estimates that seven major ongoing projects (road, hydel and irrigation) have cut over 1.36 lakh trees, while nearly triple the number of trees are on the chopping block.

“There are at least 21 projects that are in various stages that will destroy lakhs of trees. Instead of focussing on the roads already build, unnecessary projects of highway widening through multiple ghats are being pushed. This will gradually change the land-use patterns in the Western Ghats,” he said.

Forest diversions

A look at data from the Ministry of Environment and forests (MoEF) shows that individuals, companies, State, and Central government agencies have submitted proposals for the diversion of 535.04 sq km of forest land since 2000. Of this, nearly 138 sq km of forest land has been diverted for non-forest purposes.

In the past five years, the State has seen 679 proposals for diversion of nearly 81.75 sq km of land, of which 18 sq km of land for 155 projects has been diverted. MoEF data shows that more than a third of the applications received are for mining and quarrying, where 138 companies have sought diversion of nearly 27 sq km of forest land across the State, particularly in Ballari district.

Road and railway infrastructure is slated to come on 13 sq km of forest land, while, renewable energy sources of wind and hydel have sought 8 sq km of forests.

Mini-hydel power plants, roads, transmission lines, and river diversion or irrigation projects are the prime drivers of forest diversion in the Western Ghats, the data shows.

Mitigation dialogues

Jagmohan Sharma, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Forest Conservation Act), says that instead of blanket rejection of projects, the discourse was through mitigation.

“The idea is to have a bias towards conservation, while also viewing the benefits of infrastructure and other projects. The adverse effects of projects can be mitigated to an acceptable level,” he said.

On the Western ghats, he said: “There has been attempts to protect the Western Ghats through high-level committees, while the Regional Empowered Committee had twice rejected the Hubballi-Ankola Railway line proposal before it was passed.”

Rejection rates

Currently, the MoEF data shows rejection rates of projects to be less than 10%. However, Mr. Sharma said the process of scrutiny for forest clearance under the Forest Conversation Act has had an impact on protecting forest land.

“Before the introduction of the Act in 1980s, there was an average of 7 to 8 sq km being diverted annually. Now, it is around 2 sq km annually,” he said.

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Printable version | Mar 2, 2021 4:12:07 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/karnataka/vanishing-act-tree-cover-the-size-of-bengaluru-lost-in-18-years/article27473637.ece

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