The minimum 60 percent forest cover was first mentioned in the National Forest Policy 1974. It states:
In consideration of the geo-physical conditions of Bhutan and the necessity of maintaining soil and climatic equilibrium, the objective will be to maintain a minimum of 60 percent of the total land under forests.
When the policy was being drafted, there was no forest cover information available in the country. It said that if after a comprehensive survey the forest cover turns out below 60 percent, the government would undertake afforestation on “all available land unfit for agriculture”. And, if the country’s forest cover turns out above 60 percent, “the forest area in excess of the prescribed proportion will not, however, be sacrificed”.
The minimum 60 percent forest cover commitment is now enshrined in the Constitution for which the country is lauded by the international community as an example to follow. Article 5 Section 3 reads:
The Government shall ensure that, in order to conserve the country’s natural resources and to prevent degradation of the ecosystem, a minimum of sixty percent of Bhutan’s total land shall be maintained under forest cover for all time.
The first forest cover survey in the country was carried out from 1976 to 1981. It covered 76 percent of the total land area, leaving out the mostly treeless northern part of the country. Based on aerial photographs from 1956 to 59, the tree cover was 56.24 percent and scrub forest 0.90 percent with total forest cover (tree + scrub) of 57.14 percent (percentages adjusted against new country figure of 38394 sq km). Since then, there have been seven land cover exercises in the country. Some of these reports have not been officially released. The current officially approved land cover figure is from the Bhutan Land Cover Assessment 2010. Based on satellite images from 2006 to 09, tree cover is 70.46 percent and shrubs 10.43 percent with total forest cover of 80.89 percent.
The land cover exercises for the past 50 years show significant forest cover increase from 57.14 percent to 80.89 percent. Many think that the country is greenest at any time in its history. But then, there are also those who think forest cover has decreased. The confusions over and disagreements on forest cover increase or decrease are to a large extent due to inconsistent forest definitions. It is said that there are more than 800 definitions of forest.
The notion of forest to most people is a large tract of land covered with trees or other woody vegetation. However, under many forest definitions, an area completely lacking trees may still be considered a forest if there were trees on it in the past and will have trees in the future. Similarly, land that is legally designated as a forest is defined as forest even if no trees are on it. And then, forests are classified in different ways and to different degrees of specificity, eg. closed vs. open forest, old growth vs. secondary forest, primary vs. degraded forest, natural forest vs. forest plantations, etc.
Technically speaking, there is a world of difference between “land under forests” in the 1974 Forest Policy and “land under forest cover” in the Constitution. Land under forests is a land use definition, which refers to areas with tree cover on it or they may not be covered with trees in a near future (or ever). It cannot be determined from satellite imagery. On the other hand, land under forest cover indicates presence of trees over any land at the point in time of assessment. It can be determined by analysing satellite imagery, and it provides information on the current landscape. To illustrate the point, say a 10 hectare forest was harvested in 2010 and replanted in 2013. Land cover would classify it as a forest before harvest in 2010, and scrub/shrub in 2014 after harvest. Land use and land cover are often used interchangeably. But they have specific meanings pertaining to land.
Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in its attempt to calculate forest both at regional and global levels has developed a common definition for its member countries, but it remains far from being universally accepted. At the international level, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) have their own forest definitions. Bhutan follows the FAO definition that defines forest as land area of more than 0.5 hectare with a tree canopy of more than 10 percent and tree height of 5m and above. Temporally, un-stocked land as a result of forest harvesting and forest fires, but which are expected to revert to forests, is also included under forest.
The current definitions of forest are criticised for their overemphasis on timber production aspects and for lacking environmental and social criteria. As mountains are among the fragile ecosystems, greatly valued are the protective functions of forests against soil erosion, landslides and water conservation. The forests are also equally valued for biological diversity and carbon sink. These environmental functions of forests have prompted the 1974 National Forest Policy and Constitution to pursue the important principle of maintaining the minimum 60 percent forest cover of total land area for all times.
Efforts to maintain and enhance these environmental functions of forests must start with a clear understanding of the existing knowledge and seeking new knowledge. Asking good questions is a cornerstone of learning which helps gain deeper insights of issues. What has as yet never crossed the minds of forest professionals is to ask some valid questions with regard to the minimum 60 percent forest cover policy such as (1) Are trees the primary focus in forest cover? (2) Do other land uses such as grasslands, open forest and non-forest land have a role in soil, water and biodiversity conservation? (3) How should the forest cover be distributed across the country and over time? (4) What does it mean by conservation of country’s natural resources? (5) What does it mean by ‘to prevent degradation of the ecosystem’?
Land for the increased forest cover has come from land under grasslands and agriculture land, including tseri and pangshing. Biodiversity richness is as rich as the ecosystem diversity. For example, grassland ecosystem is the habitat of certain species that can flourish only on grassland. Loss of grasslands means extinction of such species. Further, cultural landscapes in the country also face risk with human-wildlife conflicts and rural-urban migration as the Bhutanese character and culture are linked to the traditional agricultural use of the land. Management of biodiversity conservation requires the integration of different land uses at a landscape level.
Something we all unquestionably believe is the more trees, the more water. However, current forest hydrology research challenges this assumption. The forest ecosystem is in fact a major user of water through evapotranspiration. Studies show that forests are not the best land cover to increase downstream water yield, especially in arid or semi-arid ecosystems. Ground cover, shrubs and grass are most important component of the forest environment for protecting the soil from erosion and landslides.
It is obvious from above that different definitions are required for different purposes and at different scales. In order that we may uphold the Constitutional provision well based on best science and wisdom, it is that important we begin a national conversation on formulation of an explicit national definition as to what it means in Bhutanese context to maintain the minimum 60 percent forest cover.
(Dr) Phuntsho Namgyel