A Region in Crisis: The Urgent Need to Restore the North East’s Forests


The National Green Tribunal’s (NGT) recent suo moto inquiry into India’s forest cover loss serves as a stark reminder of the environmental challenges India faces. Based on data from Global Forest Watch, the NGT raised a critical question – why has India lost a staggering 2.3 million hectares of forest cover since the year 2000? This inquiry comes at a crucial time, coinciding with the 2024 World Environment Day theme – ‘Land Restoration: From Desertification to Transformation.’

The Eastern Himalayas are a biodiversity hotspot. In India’s North East, they account for nearly 25% of the country’s forest cover, despite being less than 8% of India’s total geographical area. These mountain ranges and fertile plains boast some of the richest forests and grasslands in the world, teeming with unique flora and fauna. They also act as vital watersheds, feeding major river systems like the Brahmaputra and Ganges. However, the region has consistently been losing forest cover, with both the Forest Survey of India report 2019 and 2021 recognizing a loss of over 1,000 sq km (approx. 100,000 hectares) between each period of the survey.

Managing the North East’s Forests

Managing forests in the North East poses significant challenges. The steep topography and rugged terrain make monitoring forest integrity difficult and increase the risk of landslides and massive floods triggered by forest loss and degradation, as seen every year. Traditional agricultural practices in the region involving clearing forest patches for temporary cultivation can also be seen as some of the causes leading to forest degradation in the region as well as timber logging and the construction of various development infrastructures, which often fragment habitats and disrupt ecological corridors.

Rising temperatures and erratic rainfall patterns are putting additional stress on these fragile ecosystems. Limited forest per capita is ranked as one of the highest risks to climate resilience in the state of Assam, according to a study by the Department of Science & Technology. An estimated 12% of the region’s land is desertified, with this figure reaching as high as 40% in Nagaland – the result of forest loss and degradation, changing monsoon patterns, and soil depletion through poor land management. At the same time, the region’s aquifers are depleting, both because of overuse and increased runoff. The consequences of this are far-reaching, impacting the millions of people who depend on the region’s river basins and farmlands for water security and livelihoods.

A Strategy for Restoration

The theme of the 2024 World Environment Day, ‘Land Restoration: From Desertification to Transformation,’ offers a path forward to tackle the fast-escalating crisis. In the context of the Eastern Himalayas, restoration efforts need to be specifically tailored to address the region’s unique challenges and the requirements of the communities which exist within the diverse landscape. This would involve promoting sustainable agricultural practices, fostering community-based forest management programs, and investing in reforestation initiatives that prioritize native tree species. A comprehensive valuation of ecosystems will be critical in recognizing the economic value provided by forest landscapes in the North East: a 2006 study by the Green India States Trust indicated that 1 hectare of forest in Assam generates INR 35 lakh annually in natural capital, through direct economic benefits and through indirect economic value created through soil regeneration and erosion prevention. New valuation studies are needed to reflect the new economic scenario: the rising value of forests because of increasing carbon market prices, the increasing cost of flood damage, and soil erosion and desertification as a result of forest loss.

The NGT’s inquiry presents an opportunity for the region to investigate the drivers of forest loss – and critically identify areas for strengthening forest management practices, bringing together both government, civil society, and local community stakeholders. Great investment and a comprehensive plan for restoring its degraded forest landscapes are critical, along with policies to incentivize MSMEs for the scientific restoration of degraded land, and in enhancing the value chain – processing, transport, market access, and more.

Technological advancements like satellite monitoring and drone-assisted reforestation can significantly enhance the effectiveness of restoration efforts. Greater investment needs to be directed into research on these technologies to develop them not just for monitoring biodiversity, but also for building critical regional capacity to tap into a growing global appetite for carbon credits – and the now nascent biodiversity credit market following the Kunming-Montreal agreement to protect 30% of ecosystems by 2023.

With a renewed commitment to forest restoration, particularly in the Eastern Himalayas, India can not only address the challenges highlighted by the NGT inquiry but also contribute significantly to the global goals of combating climate change and desertification, aligning with the spirit of the 2024 World Environment Day. The future of the North East – from its people to its ecosystems – hinges on our collective commitment to restoring and preserving these precious forest ecosystems.

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