16.9 Deforestation

Deforestation is the conversion of forested areas to non-forested ones. According to an estimate, almost 40 per cent forests have been lost in the tropics, compared to only 1 per cent in the temperate region.

The present scenario of deforestation is particularly grim in India. At the beginning of the twentieth century, forests covered about 30 per cent of the land of India. By the end of the century, it shrunk to 19.4 per cent, whereas the National Forest Policy (1988) of India has recommended 33 per cent forest cover for the plains and 67 per cent for the hills. How does deforestation occur?

A number of human activities contribute to it. One of the major reasons is the conversion of forest to agricultural land so as to feed the growing human population.

Trees are axed for timber, firewood, cattle ranching and for several other purposes. Slash and burn agriculture, commonly called as Jhum cultivation in the north-eastern states of India, has also contributed to deforestation. In slash and burn agriculture, the farmers cut down the trees of the forest and burn the plant remains. The ash is used as a fertiliser and the land is then used for farming or cattle grazing.

After cultivation, the area is left for several years so as to allow its recovery. The farmers then move on to other areas and repeat this process. In earlier days, when Jhum cultivation was in prevalence, enough time-gap was given such that the land recovered from the effect of cultivation.

With increasing population, and repeated cultivation, this recovery phase is done away with, resulting in deforestation. What are the consequences of deforestation? One of the major effects is enhanced carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere because trees that could hold a lot of carbon in their biomass are lost with deforestation.

Deforestation also causes loss of biodiversity due to habitat destruction, disturbs hydrologic cycle, causes soil erosion, and may lead to desertification in extreme cases. Reforestation is the process of restoring a forest that once existed but was removed at some point of time in the past.

Reforestation may occur naturally in a deforested area. However, we can speed it up by planting trees with due consideration to biodiversity that earlier existed in that area.

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