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Trees outside forests: India

Dr. Devendra Pandey,
Former Director of the Forest Survey of India
Consultant to the International Centre for Forest Research,
Bogor, Indonesia

Photo 51. Agroforestry utilization of land in the Middle Hills section of the Indian Himalayas. Irrigable terraces. ( Hofer/FAO).


India is the world's seventh largest country and one of the most heavily populated. The country covers a total of 328 720 000 ha. India's population, which is 74 percent rural, was estimated in 1997 at 995 million: a population density of 290/ha2. Of the total area, 43 percent is farmland, 19.4 is forested and 1.6 is savannah. Cultivated trees and woodlots cover one percent, pasture 3.7 percent, and human settlements 6.7 percent (FSI, 2000a). Between 1951 and 1999, development plans were responsible for implementing tree-planting on 9.8 percent of the total land area, mostly Trees outside forests.

With an annual population growth rate of 1.58 percent (World Fact Book, 2000), there is a constant and growing demand for food. Farmland cuts into forestland and the expansion of livestock herds encroaches upon the forest, where the herds often graze. Since the introduction of social forestry in 1980, a great many trees have been planted, of which 35-40 percent on private, communal or village lands outside the forest domain. The Government has sponsored tree-planting along roads, railways, canals and around ponds. Over 70 percent of these trees are growing outside forest areas (FSI, 2000b).

Official bodies responsible for land-use planning and tree-planting long neglected Trees outside forests. Then, as awareness mounted of the critical role of this resource for rural populations. their focus on the issue sharpened. In 1991, the FSI - Forest Survey of India - which is responsible for forest inventories, launched a process to assess trees growing outside forests , starting in the States of Kerala and Haryana.


The expression `Trees outside forests', which has a strong connotation of social forestry in India, is not the term commonly used. The KFRI - Kerala Forest Research Institute - selected two designations for its survey: trees on homesteads and trees on estates. The first category includes trees on inhabited lands and areas, and the second rubbertree, cardamom, coffee and tea plantations (Krishnakutty, 1990).

The FSI, which works under the Ministry of the Environment and Forest, coined the term `non-forest areas (rural)' to designate trees in non-forest areas. This term includes all areas other than the traditional or gazetted protected forests or forest reserves, excluding inhabited areas. The non-forest areas are sub-divided into eight categories:

  1. trees bordering homesteads and woodlots under 0.1 ha (social forestry)
  2. trees growing naturally or planted on communal or private lands (village woodlots.
  3. block plantations over 0.1 ha
  4. trees planted in and around ponds
  5. trees bordering roads
  6. trees bordering railways
  7. trees bordering canals
  8. other categories not included in the above, including homesteads.

States which have assessed their tree resources (surveys of wood production and consumption: forests plus trees outside forests) have used terms such as trees on non-forest lands, or trees on private land.

Patterns and extent of change

There is growing interest in the conservation and protection of natural forest. During the 1970s, 12-14 million m3 of wood were extracted from the forest each year (Anon, 1976), whereas the figure today has dropped to 4 million m3/yr (ICFRE, 1999). Private, non-forest areas supply 80 percent of the aggregate output of wood, and forest areas supply 49 percent of the fuelwood - the latter figure is estimated by some to be even higher (Natarajan, 1996; Saxena, 1997; Agarwal, 1998).

Government agencies have planted a great many trees for the purpose of stabilizing dunes, checking erosion along coastlines and rivers, reclaiming gully-eroded areas, and establishing windbreaks. They have also planted trees along roads to provide shade and shelter to travelers, and in parks and gardens for shade and aesthetic purposes.

Despite the goods and services these trees offer to society, their contribution to the local and national economy remains mostly `invisible'. And yet, in rural areas the resource meets domestic wood needs for fuelwood and construction, provides fruit, fodder and shade, and is a source of income. There are also sacred groves, places of worship which may be man-made but are more often remnants of natural forests. The biodiversity in these is often quite remarkable.

Most fruit trees grow in small, privately owned orchards. When they no longer bear fruit, their wood is used for construction and fuelwood. Mangifera indica, the famous Indian mango, covers some 1 million ha (MAG, 2000), and is the most important indigenous species. Other multi-use indigenous fruit trees cover smaller areas, such as Artocarpus heterophylla (jackfruit), Tamarindus indica (tamarind), and Madhuca indica. The 0.53 million ha of cashew plantations are found mostly along coastal areas. Domesticated fruit tree species mainly include apples, which grow at high altitude and cover 187 200 ha, a further 102 500 ha of guava plantations, and 349 000 ha of citruses (MAG, 1994). There are also 0.55 million ha of rubber plantations, 1.8 million ha of coconut plantations, and a number of oil palm plantations. Most plantations are privately owned.

Institutional and management aspects

The legislation on forest resources varies from one State to the next, as most of the natural forests belong to the State in which they are found. Generally speaking, the rules and regulations on the felling and transport of trees away from private lands have had a negative impact on tree-planting in this sector. Land ownership regulations stipulated that a designated land use could not be altered, which had the indirect result of limiting tree-planting (Hedge, 1991) There is now a trend in several States to simplify the rules governing private plantations. Unfortunately, however, the issue of marketing wood products from non-forest zones is rarely addressed (Saxena, 1991).

There is no specific policy to promote tree-planting in areas outside forests. The Ministry of Environment and Forest's own National Forest Policy (1998) does specify, however, that the wood industries must procure their own raw materials for forest-based industries, and that these industries are allowed to purchase supplies from persons practicing agroforestry in the private sector, provided food production is not adversely affected. Farmers have tapped into their traditional skills to breed, plant and manage fruit trees and the other useful species which used to be planted rather sparingly on their farms and around their fields. With the rise of social forestry in the early 1980s, farmers' decisions on which trees to plant came to depend on the availability of seedlings in the government tree nurseries, and quite a few farmers learned to grow economically beneficial trees.

There is a modest though growing interest in genetically superior planting materials. The Forestry Science Centres (Van Vigyan Kendra), operated by the Government and NGOs, have been instrumental in promoting this interest. The Forest Research Institutes have helped to develop the relevant technologies. In 1994 and 1995, private agencies spearheaded the production of clonal seedlings to enhance the productivity of plantations. New clonal seedlings of eucalyptus, poplar and teak for which farmers are willing to pay five to six times more are now being produced in the tree nurseries of the Department of Forests and in farmers' nurseries (Kisan). Hopefully, the production of high-quality seedlings will be improved and expanded in future to include more species.

Photo 52. Hedgerows criss-cross a mountain farming district in India ( Hofer/FAO).

Assessment and planning

The Revenue Departments, which are the government agencies responsible for land use records, try to maintain updated lists of tree species in non-forest areas, but the data is often incomplete or out-of-date. The Horticulture Department collects data on fruit tree species and the Rubber Board draws on the records of private growers for its data. These, however, are purely numerical data which have little bearing on the management of trees growing outside forests..

The lack of information on the commercial scope of the resource has been a constraint to studies on its productive aspects. Not until 1990 were the development and production of two specific species, eucalyptus and poplar, investigated. The study showed that the growth rate of trees in agroforestry systems outpaced that of trees planted in forest areas (Dwivedi et al, 1990).

In the 1980s, with the advent of social forestry programmes in a number of States, the need for an inventory of Trees outside forests became increasingly apparent. Tree resources were thus made an integral component of the FSI. But the production of wood from this source was tentatively estimated based on local knowledge or aerial photos, and ignored if the contribution was not deemed significant. The data were also gathered over a very short timeframe and the selected methodology lacked precision.

Systematic assessment of trees in non-forested areas, including a proper sampling procedure (given the time and budget constraints), dates back only to 1988-89. This inventory was conducted by the KFRI in the State of Kerala. Aware that the resource was a major contributor of timber and fuelwood, the FSI followed this up with a nationwide assessment in 1991. The pace of inventory has accelerated since 1999, and the four FSI zonal offices are now working exclusively on this inventory. The methodology has been modified to reduce the extent of fieldwork, and the FSI is the sole agency in charge.

The KFRI designed a three-stage sampling procedure for the survey of homesteads. The State of Kerala was stratified in terms of farmland area and population density. The first-stage sampling units in each stratum were the villages. A group of households made up the second-stage units, and from this group a number were randomly selected as third-stage units based on the ownership criterion of dryland holdings. All trees in the selected homesteads were then counted and measured. Growing stock in the estates was estimated from collateral data.

The FSI adopted a stratified random sampling procedure where the district or group of districts in a given State were treated as the strata and the villages as sampling units. All standing trees over 10 cm in diameter in the villages selected were physically counted and measured. In some States trees 5 cm or over were also measured. In Haryana State, 219 villages were selected out of the total 7 000, and the inventory took four years. The design was modified in 1999 to speed up the process. The percentage of trees enumerated and measured in a village is now established in accordance with the total number of standing trees: i.e, 50 percent for 2 000 or more trees, 25 percent for 5 000 or more trees, and 10 percent for 10 000 or more trees.

Inventory of trees outside forests in the States of Kerala and Haryana

The FSI methodology described above was put into practice in several States, including Kerala and Haryana, which are economically more developed than most Indian States. Kerala and Haryana are quite different in terms of climate and social conditions. Kerala, India's most densely populated State, lies in the south and has a humid climate and long coastline. Haryana is located in a dry region of northern India.

The total number of trees on homesteads in the State of Kerala, excepting rubbertree plantations and palms other than coconut palms, is estimated at 442 million, with an average 113 trees/ha. The figure for coconut palms is 21 percent higher. The volume of growing stock is assessed at 104 million m3, averaging 26.6 m3/ha. Of this volume, coconut trees account for 33 percent, jack-trees for 15 percent, mango for 11 percent and cashew for 12 percent -- these are the most numerous species. About 50 percent of the growing stock is in the 20-30 cm diameter class. The volume has been measured down to 10 cm over bark and includes branch wood. The percentage of commercial volume (stem wood down to 20 cm diameter ) in the total growing stock was only 27.4 percent (Krishnakutty, 1990).

Of the estimated total annual production of 14.4 million m3, a full 83 percent came from homesteads, 10 percent from estates and only about 7 percent from forest areas, though 26 percent of the State of Kerala is covered by forest. In terms of species, 10 species alone accounted for 85 percent of the volume of production (FSI, 2000). Trees outside forests met 90 percent of the fuelwood needs, and of this figure, 70 percent was made up of the woody and non-wood parts of the coconut palm. The coconut is a multi-purpose tree, offering the benefits of both agricultural crop and tree crop, furnishing a constant supply of nuts for food, and a biomass of leaves, fibre, husks etc., from six to sixty years of age. Coconut, like many other versatile trees, is valued as much for the income it produces as for its products.

In the State of Haryana, 80 percent of the land is under crops, and only 2.2 percent is forested (FSI, 2000). The total number of trees in the rural, non-forest, areas is estimated at 55 million, with an average 13 trees/ha. Acacia nilotica, the main species, accounts for 25 percent of the total. The total growing stock (measured down to 10 cm in diameter) in the entire rural area of Haryana was estimated at 10.34 m3, an average of 2.43 m3/ha. Though the number of trees in the lowest diameter classes is quite high at 62.7 percent, volume is evenly distributed in the various diameter classes (23.6 percent from 10- to under 20 cm, 25 percent from 20 to under 30 cm, 28.4 percent up to 40 cm, and 23 percent 40 cm and over). The volume of growing stock consists primarily of Eucalyptus spp, (2l.6 percent), Acacia nilotica (21.2 percent), Prosopis spp (17.4 percent), and Dalbergia sissoo (12.5 percent).

Social forestry, an increasingly popular practice, supplies 41.2 percent of the volume of growing stock, with village woodlots contributing 24 percent. Most of the roads and canals in Haryana are lined with trees. Roadside trees account for 13 percent and trees along canals 9.6 percent of the total volume (FSI, 2000). The State of Haryana has fuelwood and pulpwood surpluses, mostly produced by Trees outside forests (Anon, 1996).

The data from these two States give a fair indication of the importance of non-forest tree resources for India. The composition of species, the area they cover and the types of planting are governed by a vast range of factors, predominately climate, land distribution and socioeconomic conditions.


India's growing population will inevitably exert mounting pressure on its natural resources. People were very quick to adopt social forestry, and trees outside forests are a constantly expanding resource. Their promotion is crucial, therefore. It must be solidly based on a sound agroforestry policy consolidating the agricultural, forestry and rural sectors, covering market mechanisms, and simplifying land ownership regulations.

Such a policy can only bloom if the increased productivity of these tree resources is tied to crop productivity, and this means identifying the optimum tree/crop associations. A standard methodology must be developed to assess off-forest tree resources using a combination of remote sensing technology and field inventories (Panday, 2000). Exchanges of regional assessment experiences, such as those of Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, should be promoted.


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