The government has long used a broad definition of forests which is at odds with UN guidance and overstates India’s climate credentials.
A prison, a group of mansions, a missile manufacturer and a naval base are among the urban areas categorised as ‘forest’ by the Indian government, a Climate Home News analysis of satellite imagery reveals.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) guidelines say forests are defined by the “presence of trees and the absence of other predominant land uses”. It adds: “It does not include land that is predominantly under agricultural or urban land use”.
Indian forestry experts have accused successive governments of exaggerating the extent of India’s forest cover in order to make it easier to meet climate targets and access more climate finance for protecting forests.
For the first time, the government’s latest bi-annual ‘State of the Forests report’ (ISFR) maps what it regards as forestry cover in India’s seven biggest cities. The tally includes land larger than one hectare and with as low as 10% canopy density.
According to ISFR, Hyderabad’s forest cover now covers 5% of the area. This is more than twice the 2011 level.
But comparing the ISFR’s map of Hyderabad with satellite imagery from Google Earth shows that among the areas counted as medium density forests are the campus of Osmania University and the area known as “lab quarters” centred around headquarters of Indian missile manufacturer Bharat Dynamics.
Shubham Sharma was a researcher at the Indian Institute of Forest Management and lived in Hyderabad for a total of two years. He told Climate Home News: “This is a defence establishment. The Indian Defence and Research Development organisations, wherever they are, in multiple cities, they have these big campuses and residential areas and it might have a lot of green but that doesn’t make it a forest”.
Similarly, he said, large campuses of universities like Osmania often have landscaping which includes green carpets and trees.
In the coastal mega-city of Mumbai, the government has classified much of the area known as Navy Nagar as ‘open forest’. The area is on Mumbai’s southern tip and is controlled by the Indian Navy and houses its sailors. Satellite imagery reveals the ‘open forest’ is formed by trees in the streets and gardens around these naval offices and accommodation.
One Mumbai resident, who works near to the area and wanted to remain anonymous “because the government here is not the most friendly”, told Climate Home “there’s no forest in Navy Nagar”.
In the Gujarati city of Ahmedabad, ‘open forest’ includes the Sabarmati Central jail whose spoke-and-wheel design includes rows of trees between buildings. The prison is surrounded both by Vijay Nagar, a densely-populated neighbourhood, and a railway.
In Delhi, much of the city’s southern border around the Asola wildlife sanctuary is considered ‘open forest’ including holiday homes known as ‘farmhouses’ for the wealthy and densely-populated settlements like Bhatti Mines for the poor.
Souparna Lahiri, a Delhi-based campaigner for the Global Forest Coalition said: “For years, these have been illegally converted into settlements by the construction lobby and the very rich people who grabbed and bought land”.
Satellite imagery shows the farm houses’ long driveways, swimming pools and lawns. Lahiri said that most owners only visit these homes on weekends or for special occasions. Sometimes the properties are rented for weddings.
Sharma claimed that urban trees can help reduce air pollution and shade. But, he said, when they are outside forests they don’t help to sequester much carbon.
“You might think the trees are the main source absorbing carbon but it is is not the tree it is actually the soil,” he said. “In a forest, around 50% of the carbon is in the forest soil.”
Lahiri said that Indian governments have sought compensation for preventing their forests from being used for other purposes for decades. This incentivizes them to use a broad definition about what a forest looks like.
“India has been targeting international funding for [a]Long [time] on the basis of compensation for opportunity lost for development,” he said, citing India’s enthusiastic participation in the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development mechanism.
As part of its National Mission for a Green India, India has set a 2030 goal to have 33% of its land covered in trees. According to the ISFR, this figure is currently 22%.
The government committed to creating a carbon sink in 2015 to sequester additional 2.5 to 3 million tonnes of CO2 through increased tree and forest cover. This year’s climate plan is expected be updated with new forestry targets.
Source: Climate Change News