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india deforestation
Boats cruising the Dhola Sadiya Bridge in the Lohit River, in India's northeastern region. Photo: deepgoswami/Flickr.

Once a rainforest treasure, deforestation spikes in Northeast India

The Northeast is India’s greenest region, accounting for one-fourth of the country’s forest cover. However, recent increases in deforestation now threaten the region’s pristine biodiversity.

The rate of deforestation in India’s Northeast has increased sharply over a span of 18 years, according to data from the online monitoring platform Global Forest Watch collated by the University of Maryland.

Deforestation in the northeastern region led to a 70% of tree cover loss in India between 2001 and 2018. Most of the deforestation happened in the northeastern states of Nagaland, Tripura, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Manipur. 

With sprawling forests worth nearly 17 million hectares, the region —comprising the states of Sikkim, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Assam, Nagaland, Tripura, Mizoram and Manipur— falls under the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot. This area ranks 6th among the 25 biodiversity hotspots of the world, according to Global Forest Watch. 

The state of Assam fared the worst deforestation rates during the analyzed period, with 2388 km2 tree cover loss, a bigger area than the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. 

In Assam, the conversion of unclassified forests —regions without any restriction to the cutting of trees— into tea gardens in part had amounted to forest loss, according to Dr. Narayan Sharma, assistant professor at the Department of Environment Biology and Wildlife Science, Cotton University.

By pursuing policies such as compensatory afforestation and reforestation, India seeks to meet its Paris Climate pledge of creating a cumulative carbon sink of 2.5-3 billion tonnes by 2030. To achieve this, the country must bring at least 33% of its total geographical area under forests. 

Already, the India State of Forest Report 2019 revealed that India is well on its track with 25% of its total area under tree and forest cover. Nevertheless, data from this report has been met with some criticism from experts, who argue that it could be counting agricultural plantations as forests.

india deforestation
Oil palm cultivation in Mizoram. Photo: TR Shankar Raman, Nature Conservation Foundation, India.

Illegal Timber Smuggling Threatens Forests

Since the late 1980s, the onset of militant groups in the states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh had been the main reasons for the vandalism of forests, speeding up the illegal felling of forests until around 2011. 

As a result, the visible destruction of forests was seen in the Himalayan foothills of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. “The insurgents engaged in the illegal timber trade to fund their activities. The menace has been curbed to some extent after the militants surrendered”, said Chintan Sheth, an independent geographer and naturalist told Climate Tracker. 

Plunder of forest resources–especially illegal timber–gave economic power to insurgents such as the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) fighting for a separate Bodoland state. 

These rebels operated from within the reserve forests bordering Assam and Bhutan, engaging in excess extraction of resources without any forest department to preside over. 

In Assam, the government had patronised a counter-insurgency force known as SULFA (Surrendered United Liberation Front of Assam)  to fight the ULFA (United Liberation Front of Assam)–a major rebel outfit born out of their resentment against their perceived exploitation by ‘India’. 

The illicit trade wouldn’t have been possible with the participation of India’s forest department officials and police at every stage, said Rajkamal Goswami, a conservation scientist at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment. 

“Everyone, from big politicians to the Divisional Forest Officer presiding over such reserve forests had a share in the profits. The politicians needed the money to win elections”, notes Goswami.

Additionally, poor socioeconomic conditions in the region forced communities to take up logging for quick money, accelerating deforestation rates. 

As a result, the main casualties have been trees of enormous size, with crowns as long as 60 m, exclusively found in Assam’s Sonai Rupai Wildlife Sanctuary and India’s Andaman and Nicobar islands, according to Chintan Sheth. 

Habitat fragmentation, restricting the group of primates such as the Hoolock Gibbon to live among 1-2 trees only, has also been collateral damage, he added. 

Cutting trees for fossil fuels

From 2001 to 2020, the state of Meghalaya —the world’s wettest region— lost 195,000 hectares of forest, according to the Global Forest Watch figures, representing 12% of the state’s forest cover. 

The primary reasons are the sprouting of coal and limestone mines and the state-sponsored commercial farming across acres of forested areas in Meghalaya, according to  Rajkamal Goswami. 

The fossil fuel industry in Meghalaya is a result of the state’s messy work of politics, said  Rajkamal Goswami. The region’s indigenous communities are lured in the name of employment while political big-wigs and the powerful among the community–enjoy a lifetime free supply of cement, Goswami added. 

Apart from the carbon-intensive coal, the mines pollute land and water resources. “Meghalaya’s healthier streams signify the power of the carbon sequestration in forests, without which they won’t exist”, explains Rajkamal Goswami. 

India deforestation
Jhum cultivation in Nokrek Biosphere Reserve, Meghalaya. Photo: Baharul Choudhury, Concordia University

Government disagrees

The Global Forests Watch data differs strikingly from that of the Forest Survey of India, which might be counting forests where there are none, according to researchers. 

There is an overestimate in the Global Forests Watch data, according to Chintan Sheth. “The tree cover loss dataset includes loss of tree cover because of shifting cultivation which is often included as deforestation when in fact it shouldn’t”, Chintan Sheth. Whereas shifting cultivation fallows revive into forests over a period of 5-10 years. 

The Indian State of Forest Report 2019 assessment published by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change shows that the total forest cover in the northeastern region is 170,541 km2 making up 65.05% of India’s geographical cover. 

Former environment minister Prakash Javadekar claimed that India was on its track to meet its Paris Climate goal of achieving the 33% target of its total area under forest cover by 2030, and successfully reaching 25% last year.  

The report showed a scant 0.45% decrease of forest cover in the region: an area amounting to 765 sq km except for the states of Tripura and Assam. According to the report, both Tripura and Assam gained a forest cover of 12 km2 and 222 km2 respectively. 

The increase is questionable according to researchers who believe that monoculture plantations–consisting of one type of crop in a given area–have been classified as forests.  

“In Assam’s case, rubber plantations occupying an area of 19.6 km2 have been included as forests,” said Dr Narayan Sharma. Monoculture plantations cannot qualify as forest as the newly introduced plant species fail to support a diverse forest ecosystem providing the necessary checks and balances to support biodiversity. 

Monoculture plantations spreading 

On August 18, India’s cabinet approved Rs 11,000 crore (149,665,500 USD) to incentivise palm oil cultivation, especially across Northeast India and Andaman and Nicobar islands. The idea is to reduce India’s dependency on edible oil imports. 

However, experts concur that it is not in the best interests of the farmers and biodiversity. First, palm oil consumes 150-200 litres of water daily, which mounts stress on the region’s already fragile water resources. 

Secondly, the conversion of jhum fallows into oil palms is a biodiversity risk. A 2016 study found a significant loss of birds in Mizoram’s oil palm cultivations, in comparison with the shifting cultivation fallows which recover forests in 10 years or more.

Mizoram lost 247000 hectares of forest from 2001 to 2020: a 13 percent decrease in the state’s forest over and palm oil accounts for a part of the loss, says Jaydev Mandal, the researcher in the study. 

Under the state’s New Land Use Policy implemented in 2011, farmers were asked to abandon shifting cultivation and move to palm oil with subsidies provided by the state,” said Mandal.

Additionally, indigenous communities derive wild edibles, medicines and micronutrients from shifting cultivation done on traditional community lands. 

“A patch of shifting cultivation is surrounded by forests that facilitate pollination.If forests are replaced by palm oil, food productivity will drastically decrease. If pollination leads to 500 kilos of potatoes, there will be just 100 kilos without it”, said Rajkamal Goswami.