The demarcation of a 1-km buffer zone around the protected forests in Kerala on the direction of the Supreme Court has raised serious concerns in society. While the creation and maintenance of buffer zone around ecologically sensitive areas are considered essential, the exercise is often beset by a paucity of reliable ground-level data. In its special report on Climate Change and Land- Summary for Policy Makers (2019), the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) stressed on improving sustainable land management ‘by increasing the availability and accessibility of data’ and termed it one of the near-term actions to address the issue of climate change and adaptation. However, micro-level land use statistics in Kerala, or for that matter of the entire country, is mostly conjectural with marginal ground input.
According to official statistics, Kerala has 11,525 km2, or 29.7% of its total geographical area under forest cover. The category of dense and degraded forest accounts for 78.7% of the total forest area. The rest of the area is allotted for forest plantations, leased to other department or used to accommodate other non-forest activities. Protected forests cover 26.6% of the total forest area and a 1-km buffer zone is proposed around these protected forest areas. Due to the dominance of tree crops and plantations like rubber, there are technical limitations in isolating natural forest vegetation using satellite images at a finer scale. This is evident from the report of the Forest Survey of India (2021), according to which Kerala has 21,253km2 or 54.7% of the total area under forest. The difference in figures has arisen because of the inclusion of plantations.
The mismatch between the area under forest and the area under actual natural vegetation cover was highlighted in the early 1980s when the Centre for Earth Science Studies brought out a report on deforestation in Kerala. Forest areas are being used for various non-forestry purposes, including the expansion of human settlements, leading to the fragmentation of forest patches. The forest-settlement boundary is pushed deep into the Western Ghats, exposing trails of wildlife movement, and aggravating human-wildlife conflicts. In 2021, there were instances of 8,107 human-wildlife conflicts.
Fixing the boundary between natural forest vegetation and humanised landscape is necessary. It warrants a detailed land use survey on a cadastral scale at the plot level. Participation of local people is imperative. Such an exercise was first attempted in the U.K. where students provided the bulk of the manpower. The entire country was covered through plot level-land use survey from 1928 to 1932 under the leadership of Sir Dudley Stamp of Department of Geography, London School of Economics. This survey vastly improved the land use statistics of U.K. The same exercise was repeated in the 1960s.
Kerala experimented with plot-level land use documentation in 1975. However, being a departmental exercise, the data were not assimilated to the desired level.
In 1991, the Centre for Earth Science Studies, in collaboration with the Kerala State Land Use Board, and the Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad introduced participatory panchayat resource mapping in the State. The programme envisaged land use and asset mapping on a cadastral scale by trained local volunteers. Subject experts were involved in mapping land and water resources and assimilating the data through environmental appraisal. All the panchayats in the State were covered.
In the present context of buffer zone mapping, the requirement is specific. Land use and asset survey are necessary for 115 panchayats bordering the protected forests. It is not possible for the government department to complete the task in a reasonable time frame. Drawing from past experiences, local panchayat and residents can be mobilised to undertake the programme. Students from schools and colleges, along with teachers can be involved. Scientific institutes and departments may be mandated to extend technical support. The entire database will be on a digital platform and be made available to the public. This could perhaps help in a big way in resolving conflicts. Similar exercises will be required to preserve the ecosystem. The ownership of the maps and local action must rest with the local inhabitants.
The author is a (Retd) Scientist, Centre for Earth Science Studies, Thiruvananthapuram
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