Tribal Districts Show Heavy Forest Degradation

Nikita Mehta

India’s forest cover decreased by 367 square kilometers between 2007 and 2009, and it was primarily tribal and hilly regions that were to blame, according to the biennial forest survey released last week by the Ministry of Environment and Forest.

The report showed some areas of progress. Among the 15 states that increased their forest cover in the period are Orissa and Rajasthan. In Punjab, the nation’s grain bowl, enhanced plantation activities and an increase in agro-forestry practices contributed to the highest gain in forest cover with 100 square kilometers.

But those gains were outdone by large-scale de-forestation elsewhere. The state that really jumps out in the report is the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, which lost a whopping 281 square kilometers of forest cover, contributing 76.5% of the net decline in forest cover nationally.

The report attributes the drastic loss of forest cover in states such as Andhra Pradesh to harvesting of Eucalyptus trees in forests and felling of trees in encroached areas. After releasing the report, Secretary of Environment and Forests T. Chatterjee said Naxals – left-wing, Maoist militants that are active across several Indian states – are responsible for the felling of trees and heavy deforestation, according to local news reports.

But the forest report itself didn’t specifically single out Naxals. And another top environment ministry official contradicted Mr. Chatterjee, saying Naxals didn’t play a major role in deforestation.

European Pressphoto Agency
A Jhum field being prepared by setting the forest land on fire for Jhum cultivation, near the northeastern Indian city of Gauhati, Assam.

“Most of the Naxals from Andhra Pradesh had moved to Chhatisgarh before the period assessed in the report,” said P.J. Dilip Kumar, Director General of Forests in the Ministry of Environment and Forests.  Instead, Mr. Kumar said, new regulations that protect forest-dwellers’ rights may have encouraged more tribal populations to occupy forested areas between 2007 and 2009 and contributed to de-forestation.

The Forest Rights Act of 2006 primarily protects the rights of forest-dwelling communities to occupy land in forests for habitation or cultivation. Many environmentalists have argued that the law facilitates deforestation, while tribal rights activists have argued that it provides necessary protection to traditional forest dwellers.

Mr. Kumar attributed 80% of the deforestation to occupation of land near forests and irrigational plantation, while industries and other factors were responsible for 20% of the reduced forest cover.

Tribal districts showed a 679 square kilometer loss in forest cover. Most of the north-eastern Indian states, which have hilly terrain and are inhabited by many tribal groups, showed significant reduction in forest cover. These are areas where shifting cultivation, a practice where plots of fertile land are cultivated and then abandoned, is commonly practiced. The communities clear additional land as they move from one area to the next.

While this year’s forest report paints a dire picture, things could yet improve, authorities say.

“The loss in forest cover due to shifting cultivation or even the drastic reduction in the Khammam district of Andhra Pradesh is not permanent,” said A.K. Wahl, Director General of Forest Survey of India. He said some damaged forest areas can recuperate before the next assessment two years from now.