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Reckless Destruction of Forests

Deforestation affects the people and animals where trees are cut, as well as the wider world. Forests are over-exploited and their biodiversity continues to decline rapidly, while millions of people living around biodiversity-rich forests continue to suffer from poverty. Some 250 million people living in forest and savannah areas depend on them for subsistence and income—many of them among the world’s rural poor. Eighty percent of Earth’s land animals and plants live in forests, and deforestation threatens species including the orangutan, Sumatran tiger, and many species of birds. Removing trees deprives the forest of portions of its canopy, which blocks the sun’s rays during the day and retains heat at night.

The decades of exploitation have destroyed and degraded much of the earth’s natural forests. In fact, we have already lost half of our forestland globally. Across the planet, from the Amazon to Canada and Indonesia, large areas are being degraded, due to unsustainable industrial activities.

The maximum forest loss in India has been estimated between 1950 and 1980, just before the enactment of Forest Conservation Act. During this period, a huge forest area was allotted to various sectors in the name of development. The non-forestry uses, for which forest area was converted during the period, included agriculture, river valley projects, industrial growth, development of townships and roads etc.

Over-consumption of forests

The forests are a national resource and a social asset. They yield a great social profit, which lies wholly outside the realm of business. However, at present, most of the forests of the world are so over-used that experts predict dire calamities in the not too distant future and irreparable damage on a catastrophic scale. Although trees are considered as perennial resource, when exploited on a very large scale, their revival cannot be possible. Despite growing efforts to protect the forests, they continue to decline under the pressure of human population growth and competing needs for land. Over the past 25 years, the extent of the world’s forests has declined by about 3 percent.

Increasing pressure on natural forest

Due to various reasons, the pressure on natural forest is increasing throughout the world. The forests today have at least five times more pressure than what they can withstand. Like many other developing countries, forests in India are also under tremendous pressure mainly because of increased demand for forest produce viz. fuel, fodder, timber, non-timber forest produce etc. Presently, a major chunk of forest area in the country is under illegal encroachment. The collection of fuel wood is considerably higher than what can sustainably be removed from the forests.

Forest cover under tremendous pressure

The forest cover of our country, though quite rich in biodiversity is under tremendous pressure as it supports more than one billion people, i.e., equivalent to about 16 percent of world’s population and 450 million livestock heads. Immense biotic pressure, low productivity and acute degradation characterize the Indian forests. About 78 percent of the forest in our country is subject to grazing and 51 percent is open to occasional forest fire.

Illegal and unsustainable logging

Expanding agriculture, due to an increased population and shifts in diet, is responsible for most of the world’s deforestation. Illegal and unsustainable logging, usually resulting from the demand for wood and paper, is responsible for most of the degradation of the world’s forests. In degraded forests, small trees, bushes and plants are often severely damaged or dead; rivers are polluted; slopes are eroded; and more.

The threats are so severe that we are losing our forests at an alarming rate. The Amazon, the planet’s largest rain forest, lost at least 17 percent of its forest cover in the last half century due to human activities, mainly clearing trees to create new and larger farms and ranches.

Illegal deforestation and clearing of farmland

The vast majority of the fires in the Amazon and Indonesia are man-made and intentional; the result of illegal deforestation and clearing of farmland. Wildfires are in fact quite rare in tropical rainforests, due to the high humidity.

Increasing demand for fuel wood

Fuel wood burning is the major source of energy for cooking and other small scale industries in India .The consumption of fuel wood in our country is about five times higher than what can sustainably be removed from forests. Fuel wood meets about 40 percent energy needs of the country. The estimated fuel wood consumption in the country is about 320 million tones.

Cattle grazing and fodder supply

India has the largest cattle population in the world. In the absence of adequate productive pasturelands and appropriate grazing policy, forests have become the major source of grazing and fodder. Grazing not only directly harm the forest, it also increase soil erosion and deteriorate soil quality, thus having adverse impact on forest regeneration and growth. As per an estimate, around 60 percent of the livestock (about 300 million) graze in forests. These include traditional sedentary village livestock and migratory animals herded by ethnic grazers. Additionally, grazers collect about 175 million tones of green fodder annually, by lopping and harvesting grasses, which adversely affect regeneration of forests.

Need of Conservation of Forests

We depend on forests for our survival, from the air we breathe to the wood we use. Besides providing habitats for animals and livelihoods for humans, forests also prevent soil erosion and mitigate climate changes. Yet, despite our dependence on forests, we are still allowing them to disappear.

Conservation of forest biological diversity, including forest genetic resources, is essential for sustaining the productive values of forests, for maintaining the health and vitality of forest ecosystems and, thereby, for maintaining their protective and environmental roles.

Forests should be protected

Trees are friends of man-kind and forests are inevitable necessity for human existence, healthy living and the civilisation to thrive and flourish.

The need of protection and preservation of forests is thus fundamental duty of every citizen. Maintenance of ecology is not only the primary duty of the State to prevent any further degradation of the ecology and environment, but is equally the duty of every citizen. Samatha vs State of AP1)

In the case of Pradeep Krishen vs Union of India2) Hon’ble Supreme Court has pointed out that the total forest cover in our country is far less than the ideal minimum of 1/3rd of the total land. We cannot, therefore, afford any further shrinkage in the forest cover in our country. If one of the reasons for this shrinkage is the entry of villagers and tribals living in and around the sanctuaries and the National Park, there can be no doubt that urgent steps must be taken to prevent any destruction or damage to the environment, the flora and fauna and wildlife in those areas. The State Government is, therefore, expected to act with a sense of urgency in matters enjoined by Article 48A of the Constitution keeping in mind the duty enshrined in Article 51A (g).

Development and environmental protection have to go hand in hand

Forests are a vital component to sustain the life support system on the earth. Forests in India have been dwindling over the years for a number of reasons, one of it being the need to use forest area for development activities including economic development. Undoubtedly, in any nation, development is also necessary, but it has to be consistent with protection of environment and not at the cost of degradation of environment. Any programme, policy or vision for overall development has to evolve a systemic approach to balance economic development and environmental protection. Both have to go hand in hand. In the ultimate analysis, economic development at the cost of degradation of environments and depletion of forest cover would not be long lasting. Such development would be counter-productive.TN Godavarman Thirumulpad vs Union of India3)

About the Author

Adv. Sunil Sharma is a writer for about 25 years and has authored more than 40 books on Law.

AIR 1997 SC 3297
1996 8 SCC 599
AIR 2005 SC 4256

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