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Behind the forest cover

Feb 09, 2012

In its latest report, the Indian government has attributed the declining forest cover in India to forest clearance by Maoist guerrillas. The statistics, however, say the contrary.

India’s recorded net loss of 367 sq km of forests between 2009 and 2011, as reported in the recently-released ‘The India State of Forest Report’ needs to be seen in the light of what Indian Prime Minister said recently. As per the present assessment, the forest and tree cover of the country is 78.29 million ha, which is 23.81 % of the geographical area of the country.

While delivering his inaugural speech at the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit, Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, announced that the country’s forest cover had increased by nearly 5% between 1997 and 2007, “with a small decrease since then.” He hoped there would be further accretion with the implementation of the Green India Mission which aims to increase the forest and tree cover by 5 million hectares and improve forest cover on another 5 million hectares. “Eventually these forests will act as a sink that could absorb 50-60 million tons of carbon dioxide annually. This would offset about 6% of India's annual emissions,’ Dr Singh had said.

Now we learn, the slight decrease since 2007 is in excess 367 sq km of forest area (because this shrink is just what was observed between 2009 and 2011).

Left hand drive

Environment ministry officials attributed the loss to the illegal clearing of forests mainly to the left-wing extremists, or Maoists as they are known, engaged in a bitter guerrilla warfare oriented conflict with the government. The Maoists use the forests as their hide-out and one would like to believe that they would like the forest cover to increase for their own strategic reasons.

"Chhattisgarh shows a net loss of four sq km and Jharkhand boasts of a net gain of 83 sq km of forest cover"

Strangely, 182 sq km of forests have disappeared from just one district in Khammam district, in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh in a space of just six months. Coincidently, Khammam also recorded 56% loss of forests in the previous edition of the report covering the period between 2007 and 2009.

(Besides ascribing the loss of forests to the activities of the Maoist guerrillas, the paper pulp industry has also been blamed for harvesting old eucalyptus plantations in Khammam. The mining industry boom has also been mentioned in the report for its encroaching on forest cover. Besides, there is also the case of the construction business that not only eyes forest land for construction, but also ravages huge swathes of forest land for its needs. For instance, the Aravali range outside India’s capital city, New Delhi, has been mined for supplying raw material for the construction industry. For years, this sector has been controlled by a well-backed mafia.)

Blaming the loss of forest on the activities of the Maoists also sounds odd in the light of the forest cover records of two other states, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand (the Maoists are much more active here than in Andhra Pradesh) where they are very actively engaged with the government in daily gunfire exchange. Chhattisgarh shows a net loss of four sq km and Jharkhand boasts of a net gain of 83 sq km of forest cover.

Global concern

As the International Year of the Forests wrapped up at the end of 2011, the worldwide community continued to struggle to halt deforestation and the related loss of biodiversity. Billions of dollars in foreign aid were pumped in to tackle the problem and tightening regulations in developing countries across the world. Yet, deforestation continues to pervade the many valuable swathes of remaining valuable rain and tropical forests.

Costa Rica, remains one notable exception to the trend with its forested area almost doubling over the 20 years since the Rio-de-Janeiro earth summit, beginning with its government implementing national policies on forest conservation.

As per the survey, the forest and tree cover of the country is 78.29 million hectares or 23.81%, as opposed to 33% of the geographical area under forest cover.

Published by the Forest Survey of India (FSI), ‘The India State of Forest Report 2011’ is the twelfth report in the series recognised as the authoritative assessment of the country’s forest resources. It is based on interpretation of satellite data recorded during October 2008-March 2009.

Observing 2011 as the International Year of Forests themed on ‘Forests for People’, the UN declared that 7 billion people worldwide have their physical, economic and spiritual health tied to the health of the forests.

India has the largest number of poor in the world and it is estimated that 300 million people in India depend on the forest for at least part of their livelihoods. These people constitute the most marginalised groups in the country.

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