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Role of agroforestry in forest conservation and agricultural development

13 February, 2020
4:09 PM

Agro-forestry is necessary not only for increasing the tree cover but also to ensure that the ongoing agricultural activities in the State are environmentally and economically sustainable, says Dipak Sarmah, ex-PCCF (Govt. of Karnataka) in this two-part series on why tree-based agriculture is the future of farming.

Role of agroforestry in forest conservation and agricultural development

According to India’s National Forest Policy of 1988, the national goal should be to have a minimum of one-third of the total land area of the country under forest or tree cover. It is therefore desirable that every State should also have the same goal of having at least one-third of its geographical area under forest and tree cover. Karnataka’s geographical area is about 1,91,819 km2. Therefore, in Karnataka we should aim to have a minimum of 63,940 km2 under forest and tree cover. According to the India State of Forest Report, 2019 (ISFR-2019) published by the Forest Survey of India (FSI), Karnataka has 44,832 km2 of land area under forest and tree cover (Forest cover 38,575 km2 + Tree cover 6,257 km2). Thus, the state is short of the national goal by about 19,100 km2. Here, forest and tree cover includes trees grown on private lands also. According to the above report of the FSI, out of the 44,832 km2 of forest and tree cover, 22,471 km2 are contributed by the forest cover within the recorded forest area (RFA), i.e. forests with the Karnataka Forest Department, and the remaining 22,361 km2 are contributed by forest and tree cover outside the RFA, which consists of the natural forests on revenue land, plantations raised on non-forest lands (social forestry and roadside plantations) and plantations on private lands including the horticultural plantations of coffee, tea, coconut, areca nut, rubber, cashew, mango, pomegranate, citrus, etc. Any perennial tree with woody stem is included in the category of private plantations that contribute to forest or tree cover.

The India State of Forest Reports of 2015, 2017 and 2019 have also broadly indicated that in recent years the forest and tree cover outside the RFA has increased at a much faster rate than the forest cover inside the RFA. This trend is indicative of the positive impacts of agroforestry and horticultural plantations on the forest and tree cover of the state. Faster increase of forest and tree cover outside the RFA augurs well for the future of the forest cover inside the RFA. The more forest and tree cover we have outside the RFA, the lesser is the pressure on our natural forests and better is their future. 

Here it may be relevant to point out that although the total notified forest area of Karnataka is about 33,358 km2, forest cover as reported in SFR-2019 is only 22,471 km2, thus indicating a gap of about 10,900 km2. This difference is on account of the fact that forest areas with less than 10% crown density are excluded while computing forest cover. Such excluded areas are high-level grasslands, stony and rocky patches, water bodies within forest areas, scrub forests and barren lands. Scrub forests and barren lands constitute about 7,500 km2. Most of the planting activities of the Forest Department are carried out in these areas which are usually located around human habitations. Although these plantations by and large do well, they thin out in about six-seven years due to heavy withdrawal of biomass through social felling, grazing and browsing. As a result, despite large-scale plantations being raised by the Forest Department every year, the increase in forest cover over the years has been marginal. The only way to enable the scrub forests to improve their crown density beyond 10% is to reduce excessive removal of biomass from these forests. This is possible only by creation of abundant biomass resource outside the forest through intensive agro-forestry.

The advantage of agro-forestry is that on one hand it increases tree cover due to tree-planting on private land and, on the other it reduces pressure on the scrub forests resulting in their improvement and eventual promotion into forest with higher crown density. 

Agro-forestry is necessary not only for increasing the tree cover as indicated above, it is also necessary for ensuring that the ongoing agricultural activities in the State are environmentally and economically sustainable. Agricultural activities together with agro-forestry can provide better security to the farmers in situations of deficient rainfall or drought.

This is where initiatives like the Cauvery Calling movement can add value. The initiative promotes the adoption of agroforestry by farmers. Farmlands are where trees are most needed as they are not only ecologically and economically beneficial for the farmer but they also enrich the soil and improve the quality of crop yield.

Agro-forestry refers to the inclusion of woody perennials within farming systems and is manifested by the presence of trees on external and internal boundaries, cropland and homestead plots or any other available areas within or in the periphery of farmlands. It is an old practice and has been in vogue as a traditional land-use and livelihood option since time immemorial. It was practiced on agricultural lands and rural areas for a variety of reasons like bio-fertilizer trees to enrich soil and helping in land regeneration enabling food security, fuelwood and fodder trees, fruit trees as cash crops, medicinal trees, trees providing non-timber forest products (NTFP), trees providing timber, shelter, shade, etc. It has been observed that farmers usually prefer multipurpose tree species.

The trees grown in agro-forestry systems should meet the requirement of feed, fodder, fruits, timber, fuelwood, medicines, resins, gums, and green manure, besides providing indirect benefits such as biological nitrogen fixation, reduction in soil erosion, increase in water percolation, improving the microclimate, etc. [State of Environment Report (SoER) Karnataka-2015]

The author, Dipak Sarmah, is a retired IFS officer who served as the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF), Govt. of Karnataka. He may be contacted at sarmahdipak1@gmail.com

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