New Delhi: India’s environment ministry has blamed Maoist rebels and shifting cultivation practised in the country’s north-east for a drop in forest cover.
Forests and trees covered slightly less than one-fourth of the country’s geographical area, a decline of 0.03 percentage point from the previous assessment in 2009, according to the biennial forest report. The decline also reveals that the government has failed make any progress on its oft-repeated promise to bring one-third of the country under trees.
“There’s been significant loss in one district in Andhra Pradesh—Khammam,” environment secretary T. Chatterjee said. “That’s partly due to encroachment by Naxalites, which makes measurement and access difficult as well as harvesting of plantations that take time to harvest.”
The India State of Forest Report 2011, released on Tuesday, said forests and trees covered 78.29 million hectares (ha), about 23.81% of the country’s area, and nearly 800 sq. km less than the 78.37 million ha published in the 2009 report. To be sure, the government said forest cover declined by 367 sq. km and the discrepancy was due to an update in measurement techniques applied in the 2009 survey.
Apart from Andhra Pradesh, which posted a 281 sq. km decline from the 2009 data, other states that saw a drop in forest cover were the north-eastern states of Manipur, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram, which government officials attributed to “the prevailing practice of shifting cultivation in the region”.
Timber smuggling may have also contributed to the decline in forests in Andhra. “Naxalites are into timber smuggling and Andhra is relatively peaceful, and therefore, it’s possible to make visits and ascertain the actual loss,” said a government official involved in operations against Maoist rebels.
Other states, which have inaccessible areas because of Maoist violence, may have a similar or higher forest loss, he said.
According to the survey, Madhya Pradesh had the largest forest cover in the country at 77,700 sq. km, followed by Arunachal Pradesh at 67,410 sq. km. In terms of the percentage of forest cover in relation to total geographical area, Mizoram ranked No. 1 with 90.68%, followed by Lakshadweep at 84.56%.
Forest officials estimate forest cover every two years through a combination of satellite imaging and physical visits to 60 random districts across the country, to tally results from satellite imaging.
Between the forest reports of 2003 and 2007, there was a nearly 10 million ha jump in forest and tree cover that saw it rise from 20.55% to 23.84% of the country’s geographical area.
For the first time ever, forest officials also estimated the area under bamboo plantsand the carbon trapped within the forests. They estimated these at 13.96 million ha and 6,663 million tonnes, respectively.
Also See | India’s eroding forest cover (PDF)
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