Forest and trees

Is the Earth Still God’s Own Creation?

Is the Earth Still God’s Own Creation?  
-Usha Nair
                         No Birds Sing in Monoculture “Forests”-Dalia Acosta     
How many children today in urban cities are able to smell, let alone, appreciate the fragrance of flowers? Very few, because flowers are largely ‘engineered’-visually beautiful but emitting no fragrance. Similarly the children of tomorrow may not be able to see the variety of flora and fauna that were sighted by their forefathers, because forests have also become ‘engineered’. 

 Primary forests are the original forests of native tree species, which covered the Earth, and are defined as virgin forests where there are no clearly visible indications of human activities and the ecological processes are not significantly disturbed. Primary forests, according to Wikipedia, attain great age; they include diverse trees with multi-layered canopies, varying tree heights/diameters, various tree species/classes and woody debris. But today, a lot of wooded areas are categorised as forests and are visually pretty, but do not have the features or benefits of the primary forests. 

Primary forest created by Gurukul Botanical sanctuary, Wayanad, Kerala

Thus, Secondary forests regenerate on native forests, which have been cleared by natural or man-made causes. These forests display a major difference in forest structure and species composition and are generally unstable. Modified natural forests are forests of naturally regenerated native tree species in places with indications of human activities. Semi-natural forests are forests of native tree species, established through planting, seeding or assisted natural regeneration. Forest plantations or monoculture forests are forested areas artificially established by planting or seeding. The trees usually belong to the same specie (whether native or introduced), have the same age and are regularly spaced. The objective of forest plantations can be the production of wood and non- wood goods (productive forest plantations) or the provision of ecosystem services (protective forest plantations). (Source: GreenFacts, based on FAO Forestry Department Terms and Definitions) 

 Primary forests (also called old growth /virgin/primeval forests) have been documented to host the greatest biodiversity, with the diverse ecosystems generally being more stable, productive and resistant to invasion and other disturbances. But flora and fauna progressively declines in selectively logged forests, secondary forests and plantation forests. Hence, a transition from primary forest to degraded forest affects diversity without deforestation, while plantations will add to the stock of forests but will host less biodiversity.  It is now recognised that much of the human exploitation of forests has been at the expense of biodiversity impacting water, climate and carbon storage. Biodiversity is impacted by climate, and generally there is an increase in species from the Poles to the Tropics. The tropical rainforests hosts at least two-thirds of the Earth’s terrestrial species. Old-growth forests also store large amounts of carbon, above and below the ground (either as humus, or in wet soils as peat). Destruction of these primary forests releases this carbon as greenhouse gases, and may increase the risk of global climate change. Besides raw materials, old-growth forests provide ecosystem services that include breathable air, pure water, carbon storage, regeneration of nutrients, and maintenance of soils, pest control by insectivorous bats and insects, micro- and macro-climate control, and the storage of a wide variety of genes. 

Spores from ferns in primary forests spread wide

Primary forests are rapidly vanishing. According to the World Resources Institute, as of January 2009, only 21% of the original old-growth forests that once existed on earth are remaining. The combined influence of high rates of deforestation, degradation, over-harvesting, invasive species and global environmental change threatens to destroy tropical forests to extinction. Greenpeace reported that the continent-wise percentage distribution of the world's remaining intact forest landscape is 35% in Latin America, 28% in North America, 19% in Northern Asia, and 8% in Africa (which has lost most of its forest in the last 30 years) 7% in South Asia Pacific and 3% in Europe. 
The original rationale and justification for clearing forestland was for food. Food continues to be a compelling reason for deforestation, as food demand is projected to double by 2050. Under current farming practices, this will require an additional 1 billion hectares (10 million sq. kms) of farming and grazing land— an area the size of Canada. 

In recent decades, commercial considerations have overtaken basic needs. 
Across continents, monoculture eucalyptus and pine plantations are advancing to supply paper pulp factories. Plantations of oil palm and artificial single-species forests, the so- called green deserts, are expanding fast across the Equatorial belt, fuelled by low production costs and incentives from governments, causing severe social and environmental impacts. Guadalupe Rodríguez, a member of the Germany-based Rainforest Rescue, states that “monoculture forests tend to be seen as a good thing, because they are green and pretty. But if you approach them, you won’t hear a single bird, because there is nothing there, just silence. A monoculture forest is almost like a stone quarry,” she added. “In tropical rainforests, by contrast, you hear animals, water flowing, because they are full of life.” Brazil is a prime example - currently around seven million forested hectares in Brazil, mainly eucalyptus, are in plantations.

Further, forest crimes, the nexus of powerful lobbies and mafias, have become a harsh reality today. There have been instances where widespread forest fires have been suspected to have been started by timber mafias. Often companies planting artificial forests, also kill off animals, like baboons, (approx. 3,000 baboons slaughtered in the last 10 years in South Africa), tigers and elephants (for smuggling of skins/ elephant tusks). In fact, illegal wildlife trade ranges from $7billion to $17 billion, while illegal logging and trade in stolen timber range from $30 billion to $100billion annually. These forest crimes are growing and are amongst the top 5 types of transnational organised crimes.  
Greenpeace rejects the industry’s claim that current practices are sustainable, and seeks restoration of natural site conditions and productivity, propagates mixed species plantation systems that work within the limits of natural soil and site conditions. It envisages future market demands for ecologically sustainable wood products.

A Malabar pit viper in the GB sanctuary

As the 21st century grapples with the looming global challenge of climate change and its disastrous consequences,  one wonders whether Thomas a Kempis’ 15th century quote of ‘Man Proposes, God Disposes’ needs to be corrected to ‘God Proposes and Man Disposes(Destroys)’. The ecological equilibrium that Man was bestowed with, and the subsequent rampant, and often insensible, destruction of this unique balance of Nature has perched the globe and all of mankind on a precarious time bomb. It is evident that without clear policy intervention and strengthening of national and regional forest governance, the remaining primary forests may disappear within the next few decades, to the detriment of all life on Earth.  

"There can be no rainforest beings - plants, animals and fungi - without an actual rainforest, be it large or small. Furthermore, there can be no sweet water, rain or cloud, without primary rainforest (primary habitat)."
-Quote from
The photographs are by Susan Sharma
Usha Nair is a nature lover who can be contacted at

Forest and trees


                      The shoe that fits one person pinches another-Carl Jung 

-Usha Nair                  

There is sometimes a very fine line between what is right and what appears to be right. Policy makers are often placed in the unenviable position of having to decide between conflicting interests and lobbies where both sides have genuine arguments. Take the case of environmentalists and developers-the former pleads the case for retaining and increasing the natural forests, flora and fauna; and the latter seeks to urbanize, industrialise, develop, so that people can have improved standards of living.

The current Aravalli imbroglio in India exemplifies the conflict between environmentalists and developers around the world. The ancient Aravalli Range extends for over 800 kms along Western India  and is some 1500 million years old (compared to just 50 million for the Himalaya).According to Dr Rathore and Sukhadia, at the beginning of the 20th century, 80% of the total geographical area of the Great Aravalli mountain region was under natural vegetation cover. By 2001, the vegetative cover reduced to around 7%, due to the widespread felling of the trees, extensive mining, industrialisation, climatic changes and other direct or indirect factors,causing reduced rainfall, deforestation and denudation, increased soil erosion, drying up of water aquifers and lowering of the water table. The Aravallis are today, an eco-fragile zone.

According to Greenpeace, the Aravallis are ecologically very significant, and form the catchments of rivers that originate from the hills and irrigate the plains of Northern India. They serve as an important groundwater recharge zone, providing sweet drinking water to millions of people. The Aravallis also consist of unspoilt forests like the Mangarbani which are home to nearly 300 native plant species, 120 bird species and many animals (jackal, neelgai, mongoose).The Ridge, which is a northern extension of the Aravallis, are the green lungs for the city of Delhi and protects it from the hot winds of the deserts of Rajasthan to the west. It is also responsible for earning Delhi the tag of the world's second most bird-rich capital city, after Kenya's Nairobi.[Wikipedia}.

The scrub forest is home to our National Bird

 Recently, a study paper, placed on public domain, by the Institute of Forest Management, with the objective of bringing a minimum one-third of India’s geographical area under forest cover, has got environmentalists up in arms. While defining forests, the paper excludes scrub forests, defined by the Forest Survey of India, as areas which have 0%-10% crown cover. An estimated 11500 hectares of the Aravallis, having scrub forests with less than 10% crown cover, which hitherto was declared a ‘No Construction Zone’ through judicial intervention, may not get protection, if this paper serves as the basis of the future forest policy of India.  

The resultant uproar is one of many around the world, and stems from the widely quoted/relied definition of forests, put forward by the United Nations’ FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation)in 2010, as land spanning more than 0.5 hectares with trees higher than 5 metres and a canopy cover of more than 10% or trees able to reach those thresholds in-situ. This definition is viewed as more official and international than the many other definitions of forest in different parts of the world, and is used by forest departments of national governments and even by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The importance of defining a forest is to ‘provide the conceptual, institutional, legal, and operational basis for the policies and monitoring systems that drive or enable deforestation, forest degradation, reforestation, and forest restoration (van Noordwijk and Minang). 

A forest guard on the look out for tigers in the scrub jungle of Sariska

The World Rainforest Movement alleges that FAO’s definition does not capture the complexity of forest ecosystems, but instead represents the paper and forest product industry lobbies by legitimising monoculture plantations. ’This greenwashing also opens the doors of investors and governments to constant expansion projects’ and more subsidies and profits for the sector. The Movement pleads for a reconsideration of the definition by engaging in dialogue with local communities. Saski & Putz comment that there are dangers where simple definitions are applied locally and there is need for a more nuanced and diversified approach to defining forest & reforest, to distinguish natural from planted forests, forests damaged by logging from second growth forests. In the article ‘When is a forest, a forest?’ (2016), Chazdon observes that the definition of forest varies in tandem with management perspectives and objectives, e.g. value for timber or value for carbon storage, improving livelihoods of forest dependent people, natural or planted forests, pre-existing or newly-established, continuous or fragmented, native or non-native species, etc. ‘Purpose-built and contextualized definitions are needed to support policies that successfully protect, sustain, and regrow forests at national and global scales’. 
It is evident that the definition of forest influences how we assess and interpret forest transition. If tree cover is the sole criteria, the change over time in the balance between ‘forest loss’ and ‘forest gain’ within a geographic region is extremely difficult to measure and monitor. While ‘forest loss’ is concentrated and abrupt, easily documented through satellite imagery or aerial photos; ‘forest gain’ is a highly variable, dispersed and protracted process that is challenging to document and monitor. There are those who question why the definition focuses exclusively on trees, and not on other living beings and organisms, such as plants, insects, mammals, reptiles, birds and even forest people. From the “land cover” perspective, forests are viewed as ecosystems or vegetation types supporting unique assemblages of plants and animals. But from the “land use” perspective, forests are landholdings that are legally designated as forest, regardless of their current vegetation. No single operational forest definition can, or should, embody all of these dimensions.

A pack of wild dogs hunting in the scrub forest 

While global experts will take time to evolve a suitable definition of forests, national policy makers will have to grapple with the existing ambiguities; while the march of developers trampling on the environment will continue in the absence of unambiguous norms that will clearly delineate forests. The Aravalli imbroglio is one of many such issues the world over, that falls between the letter and spirit of the definition of forest. Are we fighting a losing battle over forest conservation?

The photographs are by Susan Sharma, taken in the Sariska Tiger Reserve.
 Usha Nair is a nature lover who can be contacted at

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