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Chapter 23. South Asia

Figure 23-1. South Asia: forest cover map

The South Asia subregion spans seven countries (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka).[39] The areas of these countries vary from 30 000 ha (Maldives) to 297 319 000 ha (India). The subregion is a reservoir of great biodiversity, in and outside forests, and has untapped potential to develop the use of trees outside the forest. The subregion supports about 22 percent of the global population but has only about 2 percent of the world's forests spread over about 3 percent of total land area (Figure 23-1).

National and international developments during the last decade have changed the way people and institutions in South Asia perceive and value forests and their functions. This has redefined the roles of the State and the people and is leading to new approaches to forest management, planning, monitoring and policy. Increasingly, sustainable forests and healthy ecosystems, rather than merely sustained yield, are being adopted as objectives for managing forests. People and local institutions are being viewed as part of the solution in promoting sustainable forests and ecosystems rather than as merely agents of deforestation.

Table 23-1. South Asia: forest resources and management


Land area

Forest area 2000

Area change 1990-2000 (total forest)

Volume and above-ground biomass (total forest)

Forest under management plan

Natural forest

Forest plantation

Total forest

000 ha

000 ha

000 ha

000 ha


ha/ capita

000 ha/ year




000 ha



13 017



1 334







1 334



4 701

2 995


3 016










297 319

31 535

32 578

64 113







46 159
















14 300

3 767


3 900







1 010



77 087

1 381


2 361









Sri Lanka

6 463

1 625


1 940







1 940


Total South Asia

412 917

42 013

34 652

76 665









Total Asia

3 084 746

431 946

115 847

547 793










13 063 900

3 682 722

186 733

3 869 455



-9 391






Source: Appendix 3, Tables 3, 4, 6, 7 and 9.
Figure 23-2. South Asia: natural forest and forest plantation areas 2000 and net area changes 1990-2000

Poverty and population pressure are the two factors most responsible for the degradation of forest resources in the subregion. Therefore, apart from control of population growth, countries of the subregion are working hard to achieve higher rates of economic growth to provide additional employment and income.


FRA 2000 organized two regional workshops in the subregion - one to explain concepts, definitions and data needs and the other to compile country information, including preliminary trends, and to seek comments from the country representatives. The second workshop also reviewed the use of forest information in planning and the use of electronic networking. A strategy was developed for integrated information collection, storage and use for sustainable forest planning.

The coverage, reference year and definitions of forest assessments differ among the countries. For example, forest assessments in Bangladesh and Nepal have been done in part while those in Bhutan, Sri Lanka and India have covered the entire forested area. The forest assessment of Bhutan used in FRA 2000 utilized 1989 panchromatic SPOT 1 images. Information for Pakistan is available only for 1990. India regularly assesses its forest cover every second year for the entire country. The last assessment (1997) utilized remote sensing imagery from Indian satellites and used FAO definitions. Nepal completed its latest forest assessment over a period of ten years (1986-1996). It used three independent sets of information (Landsat TM satellite imagery for 14 Terai districts, aerial photos for 51 hill districts and the latest inventory data for the remaining ten districts). Sri Lanka utilized 1992 Landsat TM imagery supplemented by IRS-1 imagery in its last assessment, using its own set of definitions.

This subregion has a negative rate (0.13 percent per annum) of forest cover change, which is roughly double the negative rate of change for the Asia region (0.07 percent per annum) but is roughly half the negative rate (0.22 percent per annum) of change for the world (Table 23-1). The forest cover for Bhutan and Maldives has remained roughly the same during the last decade. It has increased in Bangladesh and India but has decreased for Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka (Figure 23-2). The total increase in forest cover for Bangladesh is a result of plantation programmes - the natural forest cover is highly impacted and a large proportion of the forests have been significantly degraded. The maximum rate of decline is found in Nepal and the least in Pakistan. The countries with the highest proportion of forest cover are Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Nepal with 64.2 percent, 30.0 percent and 27.3 percent, respectively (FAO 2000a, b, c, d).

India has the largest area of plantations in the subregion for the production of industrial raw material and fuelwood, and Bhutan has the lowest plantation area. The subregion has made a very large commitment to plantations for the size of its land area. With only about 3 percent of the world's land area, the region has 18.5 percent of the world's plantations. Similarly, with only about 13.4 percent of the land area, the contribution of this subregion to the total plantation area in the Asia region is about 29.9 percent.

Although plantation activity in the subregion is more than a century and a half old, all the countries still need to improve the quality of their planting material, maintenance, monitoring, assessment and databases. Strategic and commercial aspects motivated plantation activity in the subregion, starting with teak (Tectona grandis) in 1840 in India, irrigated plantations of sheesham (Dalbergia sissoo) in Pakistan in 1866, teak plantations in 1871 in Bangladesh and similar plantations in Sri Lanka and Bhutan in 1947. The current level of private planting exceeds public planting, which currently focuses on satisfying social (conservation and environmental) rather than commercial needs. This has changed the landscape picture across the subregion over the last two decades. The most preferred plantation species in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have been teak and eucalyptus while in Pakistan and Nepal it has been sheesham.

The average volume (49 m3 per hectare) and biomass (77 tonnes per hectare) estimates for the subregion are slightly less than for the Asia region (63 m3 per hectare and 82 tonnes per hectare, respectively) and much less than for the world (100 m3 and 109 tonnes, respectively). It is noteworthy that volume (163 m3 per hectare) and biomass (178 tonnes per hectare) of the forests in Bhutan are more than one and a half times the world average.

At the ecosystem level the forests in South Asian countries have been classified from two to 16 broad forest types. The forests of Bangladesh are classified into three broad categories based on topographic conditions: hill forests, plain sal forests (Shorea robusta) and littoral mangrove forests. The hill forests contain most of the productive forest areas and plain sal forests the least. Hill forests consist of seven forest types (tropical wet evergreen, tropical mixed evergreen, tropical moist deciduous, tropical open deciduous, bamboo, lowland fresh water swamp and savannah). The plain sal forests are of the tropical moist deciduous type. The mangrove littoral forests along the southern coast are of five types (fresh water mangrove, moderately saline mangrove, salt water mangrove and mangroves on rapidly accreting sand and mudflats or on low-lying offshore islands) and occupy numerous estuaries and offshore islands. Most of the original natural habitats have been lost owing to disturbance and the main undisturbed areas are confined to protected areas, where about 968 species belonging to 812 genera and 501 families have been identified.

Bhutan has seven broad natural forest types: fir, mixed conifer, blue pine (Pinus wallichiana), chir pine (Pinus roxburghii), hardwoods, broad-leaved hardwoods mixed with conifers, broad-leaved and forest scrub. The fir forests are found between 2 700 and 3 800 m. Towards the tree line (3 600 to 3 800 m) the fir forests become stunted and grade into juniper and rhododendron scrub. The mixed conifer forests occur between 2 000 and 2 700 m and occupy the largest portion of the subalpine zone. Blue pine forests occur in the temperate zone between 1 800 and 3 000 m. The chir pine forests are found at low altitude (900 to 1 800 m) under subtropical conditions. The broad-leaved hardwood forest can be divided into three subcategories: upland hardwood (2 000 to 2 900 m), lowland hardwood (1 000 to 2 000 m) and tropical hardwood (below 1 000 m). The forest scrub type includes alpine and temperate scrub occurring naturally between the limits of the tree line and barren rocks.

India has 16 broad forest types: tropical wet evergreen, tropical semi-evergreen, tropical moist deciduous, littoral and swamp, tropical dry deciduous, tropical thorn, tropical dry evergreen, subtropical broad-leaved hill, subtropical pine, subtropical dry evergreen, montane wet temperate, Himalayan moist temperate, Himalayan dry temperate, subalpine, moist alpine scrub and dry alpine scrub (Champion and Seth 1968). The tropical wet evergreen forests are found in the Western Ghats, Upper Assam and the Andamans. The tropical semi-evergreen forests occur along the western coast and in Assam, the eastern Himalaya, Orissa and the Andamans. The tropical moist deciduous forests are present in the Andamans, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Mysore and Kerala. The littoral forests are found all along the coast and the swamp forests in the deltas of the larger rivers. The tropical dry deciduous forests occur from the foot of the Himalaya to Cape Comorin except in Rajasthan, the Western Ghats and Bengal. The tropical thorn forests grow in a large strip in South Punjab, Rajasthan, the upper Gangetic Plains, the Deccan Plateau and lower peninsular India. The tropical dry evergreen forests are restricted to the Karnataka coast. The subtropical broad-leaved hill forests are limited to the lower slopes of the Himalaya in Bengal and Assam and other hill ranges such as Khasi, Nilgiri and Mahableswar. The subtropical pine forests are found between 1 000 and 1 800 m throughout the whole length of the Himalaya. The subtropical dry evergreen forests are present in the Bhabar, the Siwalik and the western Himalaya up to about 1 000 m. The montane wet temperate forests are found in Madras, Kerala, the eastern Himalayas, Bengal, Assam and Northeast India. The Himalayan moist temperate forests occur between 1 400 and 3 300 m in Indian-administered Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Darjeeling and Sikkim. The Himalayan dry temperate forests occur in Ladakh, Lahol and Chamba. The subalpine forests are present at the upper limit of trees in the Himalaya. The moist alpine scrub occurs along the entire length of the Himalaya above 3 000 m. Dry alpine scrub vegetation is found at the uppermost limit (3 500 m) of vegetation in the Himalaya.

Maldives has two main forest types (mangrove and littoral). These forests have a pattern of salt-tolerant bushes and trees at the island edges and larger trees and coconut palms further inland. The forests at the coastal fringes mainly consist of Pemphis acidula and Suriana maritima. Inland, the low-lying, richer soils support numerous species such as Calophyllum inophyllum and Hibiscus tiliaceus that are very important to local people.

Nepal has six bioclimatic forest vegetation types (tropical, subtropical, temperate, subalpine, alpine and nival). The tropical forests are below 1 000 m and account for a total of 1 829 species of flowering plants and about 81 species of pteridophytes. Subtropical forests occur between 1 000 and 2 000 m and support more than 1 945 flowering plant species. The temperate forests are spread between 2 000 and 3 000 m and mainly support broad-leaved evergreen forest. The subalpine forests are present between 3 000 and 4 000 m and support more than 1 400 flowering plants and about 177 endemic species out of a total of 246 endemic plants in Nepal. The alpine forests occur between 4 000 and 5 000 m and are characterized by the presence of various stunted bushy shrubs. Nival vegetation is found above 5 000 m. This zone is mostly without vegetation except for some lichens on exposed rocky places.

Pakistan has four major types of forest (mangrove, coniferous, riverain and scrub). The mangrove or coastal forests are located in shallow waters along the coast near the mouth of the Indus River. The riverain forests occur in Sind and Punjab along the banks of the Indus and other rivers. The coniferous forests can be grouped into four types: chir pine, upland hardwoods, high-level conifers and alpine. The chir pine forests, or low-level conifers, occur from a little below 900 m up to 1 650 m on the mountain slopes. The upland hardwood forests are present on mountains above 1 500 m elevation. The high-level conifers grow in the temperate zone and range in altitude from 1 650 m up to about 3 000 m. The alpine forests are present between 2 850 and 3 600 m and are a mixture of conifers and broad-leaved trees. The shrub category includes three types of forest (tropical thorn forests, subtropical dry evergreen forests and alpine scrub). The tropical thorn forests occur in the plains and are also known as desert scrub. The subtropical dry evergreen forests are present on hill slopes up to about 1 000 m. The alpine scrub is found above 3 500 m.

Sri Lanka has eight forest types. Lowland mesophyllous evergreen dipterocarp forests are common in wet zones at elevations up to 900 m. Lower montane notophyllous dipterocarp rain forests are common in the wet zone, especially at an elevation between 900 and 1 525 m. Lower montane notophyllous evergreen mixed rain forests are common at elevations between 900 and 1 370 m. Upper montane microphyllous evergreen dipterocarp rain forests are widespread above 1 525 m. Upper montane microphyllous evergreen mixed rain forests are common at elevations above 1 370 m. Lowland semi-deciduous forests are widespread in dry zone lowlands and mainly consist of deciduous species supplemented with evergreen and semi-evergreen species. Lowland semi-deciduous woodland/thorn shrub is widespread in low arid areas.


Forest management has a long tradition in South Asia and all countries, except Pakistan and the Maldives, provided national-level information for FRA 2000 on the forest area covered by a formal, nationally approved forest management plan (Table 24-1). The figures reported by Bhutan and Nepal equalled 23 and 26 percent of their total forest area in 2000, respectively, while the area reported by India equalled 72 percent of its forest area. Bangladesh and Sri Lanka both reported that all their forests were being managed according to a formal, nationally approved forest management plan.

Problems such as the inability of forest resources to satisfy demand at the local level are ubiquitous across the subregion. The rapidly increasing use of forest resources by a fast-growing population, poverty and poor enforcement of forest regulations are the three main problems that adversely affect the forest resources of this subregion.

Forest planning and management in these countries is guided by their respective national forest policies. Countries in the subregion have increasingly recognized the importance of biodiversity contained in their forests and have set aside forests for conservation of biodiversity. The past decade has witnessed an increase in the involvement of the private sector, increased empowerment and participation of stakeholders in local forest processes, and considerable investments in poverty alleviation and promotion of alternative sources of renewable energy. Several programmes were initiated to increase the stock of trees outside the forest and forest plantations.

During the last 12 years, all the countries except Maldives have adapted new national forest policies or are in the process of doing so (Bangladesh in 1994, Bhutan in 1991, India in 1988, Nepal in 1989, Pakistan [under revision] and Sri Lanka in 1995). The general thrust of these policies is to promote participatory and people-oriented planning and management and provide a framework to address institutional inadequacies preventing the sustainable use of forest resources.

Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka plan forests at two (national and district) levels. Other countries, such as India, Pakistan and Nepal, do so at three levels (national, region/state and district/division). All of the countries except Maldives have a long-term plan at the national level such as a forestry master plan or national forest action plan that spans about 20 years and working/management/operational plans at the district level for a period of about 10 to 15 years. The availability of financial resources largely defines the level of implementation of these plans, which varies from country to country.

Many countries have more than 100 years of experience in raising forests. Most of the forests and planted trees on village, private and institutional lands do not, however, have management plans even though they meet most domestic requirements for forest products.

Forests are mainly owned by the State. However, all countries now realize the importance of local social institutions and capacity building in sustaining forest resources and are working to revive or establish such institutions and develop participative forest management programmes.

This new perception has not yet been able to make significant changes in the traditional use of goods and services from forests. The collection of fuelwood is still the main use since fuelwood continues to be the main source of domestic energy. The domestic energy consumption level, when expressed in terms of energy units per capita, seems quite modest but when expressed as per hectare of forest area it is quite high and probably unsustainable owing mainly to the high rural population in the subregion.

The ability of natural forests to meet domestic timber and fuelwood requirements is continuously declining. The unsatisfied requirements are often met from private plantations or from illegal ad hoc harvesting in natural forests. Uncontrolled access and excessive use of forest resources in many places is leading to forest degradation, fragmentation and deforestation.


In general, the country statistics for the South Asia subregion are relatively accurate, up to date and reliable. India, the largest country in the region, has one of the most extensive national forest inventories in the world, with regular assessments and good baseline information. The main difficulties in assessing forest cover and change occurred where local definitions of forest types had changed or did not relate to FAO definitions, such as in Sri Lanka.

Forest planning and management in the subregion is increasingly guided by national forest policies that recognize the need to set aside some forests for the conservation of biodiversity and plan for the remaining forests in a manner that tries to satisfy local needs while supporting resource sustainability. The countries are emphasizing more involvement of the private sector, empowerment and participation of stakeholders, alleviation of poverty and promotion of alternative sources of renewable energy. Efforts are being made throughout the subregion to meet the growing demands of the population by increasing the stock of trees outside the forest and forest plantations to augment the production of forest products and services and to help offset reductions in supply of raw materials due to increased emphasis on sustainable management and the conservation of biodiversity.

National and international developments during the last decade have changed the way people and institutions in the subregion perceive and value their forests. Countries throughout the subregion are seeking to redefine traditional roles and to expand participation in forest management, planning, monitoring and policy. However, these new perceptions and approaches have not yet been able to make significant changes in the traditional uses of goods and services from forests. The collection of fuelwood remains the main use of the forest, and it is recognized that fundamental changes will be difficult to make without major strides in economic development and poverty reduction.

The subregion has apparently been successful in lowering the rate of deforestation in the past decade even though it suffers from a scarcity of forest land, poverty and high population levels. The major concern is human-induced degradation of forests and other natural resources that ultimately threatens the sustainability of life, livelihoods and long-term development. The countries of the subregion are working hard to lower population growth and to achieve higher rates of economic growth to provide additional employment and income. Promoting economic development while conserving the environment and natural resources is a great challenge for South Asian countries.


Champion, H.G. & Seth, S.K. 1968. A revised survey of the forest types of India. Delhi, Publication Division, Government of India.

FAO. 2000a. Forest resources of Bhutan. FRA 2000 Working Paper No. 18.

FAO. 2000b. Forest resources of Bangladesh. FRA 2000 Working Paper No. 19.

FAO. 2000c. Forest resources of Nepal. FRA 2000 Working Paper No. 20.

FAO. 2000d. Forest resources of Sri Lanka. FRA 2000 Working Paper No. 21.

[39] For more details by country, see

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