How can geospatial help in forest management?

Forests are the containers of ecology. Apart from providing us air to breathe and wood for multi-purposes, they provide habitats for animals, offer watershed protection, prevent soil erosion, and mitigate climate change. Forests are an integral part of our ecosystem that supports life, economies, and societies. They provide a wide range of services which include prevention of soil erosion, floods, landslides, maintenance of soil fertility, and fixing carbon from the atmosphere as biomass and soil-organic carbon.

From an economic perspective, a study commissioned by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change in 2014 estimated the Net Present Value of forest land to be Rs. 115 trillion (USD 1.7 trillion), which is higher than the GDPs of countries like Canada, Korea, Mexico or Russia.

India ranks 10th in the world for forest cover with a total forest cover of 21.67% of the geographical area of the country. The Forest and Tree Cover is the parameter for monitoring progress against the national forest policy goal of 33% of the country’s geographical area under it.

Reasons leading to afforestation and steps taken by the Government

The main reason of depletion of forest reserves is the requirement of fodder, fuel, and pasture. The fuelwood is still the primary source of fuel in rural areas; hence they are heavily dependent on forest reserves. Unless these requirements are not provided by the government in an alternative or a controlled manner, the forest depletion might very well fall below the sustainable level.

In India, institutions such as the Forest Survey of India (FSI), National Remote Sensing Centre and Department of Land Resources have the task of monitoring forest resources. FSI has been collecting data on forest cover, the forest stock volume, and the trends of changes in the stocking of forest lands. The Government of India has prepared working plans for the management of territorial forest divisions and management plans for protected areas, usually formulated for a decade. While the National Action Plan on Climate Change of 2008 has already been developed, the government of India also has a National Working Plan Code (2014) for formulation of future plans.

Two significant steps taken by the government for preserving forest land are:

Forest Rights Act

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, is a key section of forest legislation in India. It identifies and assigns the forest rights and occupation in forest land to Forest Dwelling Scheduled Tribes (FDST) and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFD) who have been inhabiting in such forests for generations. It also establishes the responsibilities and authority for sustainable use, conservation of biodiversity and maintenance of ecological balance of FDST and OTFD.

Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA)

The Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act (CAMPA) was introduced in 2015 to promote afforestation and regeneration activities as a way of compensating for forest land diverted to non-forest uses. State CAMPAs receive funds collected from user agencies towards compensatory afforestation, additional compensatory afforestation, penal compensatory afforestation, Net Present Value (NPV) and all other amounts recovered from such agencies under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. The collected fund is used for activates like compensatory afforestation, natural regeneration of forest, conservation and protection of forests, infrastructure development, wildlife conservation and protection.

Role of technologies in saving forests

Forestry is one of the foremost user domains for geospatial information and technology. Satellite Remote Sensing, Positioning Systems and GIS technologies combine to deliver many useful applications for the sector.

Emerging technologies like Unmanned Vehicle Systems and Drones, Survey, Measurement and Scanning, Artificial Intelligence, Smart Sensors, and Internet of Things, are redefining the way we measure, monitor, report and manage our environment.

Generating high-resolution digital elevation models (DEM) through drone technology is one of the latest innovations in remote sensing technology. Similarly, with advent of AI and Big Data Analytics, modelling scenarios will become faster, more efficient, leading to quicker actions for resolving environmental challenges. In coming times, sensors as small as a speck of dust will help in monitoring soil health, patterns in plants and animal behaviour and ecosystem changes, and with advancements in simulation technologies, environmental modelling and advanced warning systems will greatly improve. Eventually, Geospatial technologies are moving towards Real-Time Earth Observation, which can alter the way we measure forest resources to deliver better outcomes.

In the Indian context, some of the uses of geospatial technologies in this segment include:

  • Indian Remote Sensing Data has been used for assessing forest resources, forest cover, forest type and carbon stocks.
  • Forest cover map of 1:50,000 scale is produced by undertaking wall-to-wall mapping of forests using remote sensing and GIS technologies for ortho-rectification of satellite imagery, radiometric corrections of orthorectified satellite images, as well as use of GPS based mobile technologies for rigorous ground truthing.
  • Plans are underway for procuring LiDAR technology solution for identifying catchment areas for watershed management.
  • For advancing afforestation, regeneration of forest ecosystem, wildlife protection and infrastructure development, CAMPA Act of 2015, requires third party monitoring mechanisms to be put in place, for which Forest Survey of India and National Informatics Centre are creating an app that uses High Resolution Satellite Imagery (HRSI).
  • Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India has requested State Governments to prepare a geo-referenced database of maps to support the Forest Rights Act and make them available to forest dwellers claiming CFR rights, so that genuine claimants are not left out. Further detailed suggestions on the use of GIS based technology, particularly regarding CFR rights, have been made.
  • National Natural Resource Management System (NNRMS) under MoEFCC works towards mapping of land status through a combination of remote sensing technology and the conventional data tracking system to assist in policies for management and development of natural resources. Desertification and Land Degradation Atlas of India (2016) is the latest available atlas of land resources through this exercise.


In the data driven economies of today, where technologies, like Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data Analytics, and Robotics are enabling real-time analysis, Geospatial or Location information is the backbone of the Digital Age providing the critical ‘where’ component and is thus driving better decision making, improved results and resource efficiencies. Geospatial technology in conjugation with trending technologies can serve as an effective tool for better forest management. India has taken considerable steps in monitoring and preserving forest land using geospatial technology, yet there is a long way to go. Limited funding, lack of skill in technology integration and adoption are some of the roadblocks to optimal utilization of geospatial technology in the forestry sector that needs to be addressed through innovative public-private-partnership initiatives.