Has Bhutan gone greener?

Latest assessment shows marked increase in forest coverage, though the jury is still out

Forest: As Bhutan attempts to set a record today and observe the social forestry day, forest coverage in the country in the last two decades has increased to about 80 percent from about 72 percent in the 1990s.

The figure, according to department of forest officials, is based on the Bhutan land cover assessment (LCMP) 2010.  Of the 80 percent, about 10 percent is made up of shrubs, while the rest is tree coverage.

The assessment shows the forest coverage at 31,057.26sqkm against the country’s new area of 38,394sqkm.  This is an increase of about 2,012sqkm from 1995, when the last assessment called land use planning project (LUPP) was conducted, which showed 29,045sqkm of land under forest coverage.

The forest coverage then stood at 75.65 percent of which tree coverage was 67.83 percent and shrub coverage 8.49 percent.  The country’s total area then stood at 40,077sqkm.

Despite the reduced area in 2010, the assessment still showed an increase in forest coverage when the LUPP 1995 data is compared with the recent area of the country.

Officials argue that the change in area at the tree line level won’t make much difference in the forest coverage.

forest

However, forest department officials remain divided on the increase in forest coverage, with some stressing that it has increased, while others feel it could have remained the same, as there is not much past data to rely on.

The agriculture and forests ministry’s website still mentions forest coverage at 72 percent.

Agriculture minister Yeshey Dorji said he didn’t believe the claim that forest coverage has increased. “Only after the forest inventory is complete, we’ll know the exact coverage,” lyonpo said.

The forest resource inventory began in 2012 and has been completed in 17 districts to date.  The inventory in three districts would be complete by this yearend.

Although, several forest coverage exercises were carried out in the past with assistance from India and Japan that showed a gradual increase in coverage, the reports were not released officially. 

Forest resource management division’s chief forestry officer Lobzang Dorji said the increase could be due to the change in country’s boundary.

To maintain forest coverage of 80 percent, Lobzang Dorji said tree plantations are carried out regularly in all the districts through the dzongkhag forest sectors and forests territorial divisions. In case of felling of trees for timber, reforestation of the same species is done. 

However challenges remain.  Lobzang Dorji said there was a growing demand from dzong and lhakhang renovation projects for preferred timber species like sandalwood and others that are limited in supply.  The other issues are forest fires and trees being affected by pests and diseases mainly attributed to climate change.

Some forestry officials attribute the increase in forest coverage to rural-urban migration leaving many barren land behind to grow into forests and less land used for grazing with a drop in farmers rearing cattle and yaks.

The government taking over sokshings, drop in tseri (shifting) cultivation and stringent forest protection policies and enforcement are also attributed to the increase in forest coverage.

The forest plantation record dates back to the late 1940s when the first plantation was carried out in Gelephu on 3.20 acres of land.   The annual tree planting activity was re-enforced after June 2 was declared as the Social Forestry Day in 1985 to commemorate the coronation of His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo.

Social forestry and extension division’s chief forest officer Gyeltshen said that as of last year about 44,530 acres of land across the country are covered by plantation.

According to Gyeltshen, the main threat in maintaining the forest coverage is not forest fires as regeneration takes place but the increasing population for which more land for expansion would be required and the growing demand for agriculture land.

The Constitution and National Forest Policy 1974 mandates the country to maintain a minimum of 60 percent forest coverage. The policy is to maintain soil and climatic equilibrium given the rugged mountainous terrain and topography.

The LCMP 2010, which is the most recent data on forest coverage was based on digital image processing of multispectral ALOS images from 2006 to 2009 winters combined with extensive ground validation besides Google earth and other satellite images.

The assessment states that of the 20 dzongkhags, 10 have a total forest cover of more than 80 percent while Gasa has the lowest with 25 percent followed by Thimphu with 41.73 percent.  Cultivated agricultural land in the country also dropped by 7.85 percent in 2010.

At about 62 percent, broadleaved forest dominates forest type in the country followed by mixed confer at about 23 percent and fir, chirpine and blue pine at about 7 percent, 4 percent and 3 percent respectively. 

Kinga Dema

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