India's forests have shrunk by 367 square km over the last two years, and the government is blaming the single biggest loss of tree cover on naxalites in Andhra Pradesh.
The State recorded the highest decline in forest cover since 2009, amounting to 281 square km, according to the biennial India State of Forest 2011 report released by the Forest Survey of India on Tuesday. The naxal-hit district of Khammam accounts for a whopping 182 square km of that loss.
“The Naxals have chopped down hundreds of acres in Khammam and its neighbouring districts,” claimed T. Chatterjee, Secretary to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. Warangal and West Godavari districts, which flank Khammam on either side, also saw net losses of 23 square km each. Mr. Chatterjee initially claimed that the felling of trees by naxals happened over a three day period, but later clarified that the deforestation occurred over six or seven months. He said the wood had later been auctioned by the naxals.
However, the FSI report officially claims that the primary cause for loss of forest cover in Andhra Pradesh is the harvesting of eucalyptus plantations. Incidentally, the FSI report does not distinguish between man-made plantations and natural forests which have far higher biodiversity value. Forests cover 78 million hectares in India.
Andhra Pradesh leads the list of 12 States whose forest cover has fallen by 867 square km since 2009. Punjab heads the list of 15 states which have seen a net growth of 500 square km in forest cover.