India's forests are under threat

A new forest policy in India denies rights to forest-dwelling communities and could usher in more deforestation.

by &
    Sangeeta Das, 6, collects dried leaves that her mother will use as cooking fuel from a forest area in Gauhati, India, on  April 22, 2018 [AP]
    Sangeeta Das, 6, collects dried leaves that her mother will use as cooking fuel from a forest area in Gauhati, India, on April 22, 2018 [AP]

    According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, we are losing 130,000 square km of forest cover every day.

    Another study by the Center for Global Development shows that if the loss of vegetation continues unabated at this rate, forests covering an area nearly the size of India will be destroyed by 2050. 

    This rapid loss of natural forest across the world is increasingly concerning.

    Forest goods and services, once thought to be abundant, are now a scarce resource. This affects not only half the world's land-based species of plants and animals, but also more than a billion people that are dependent on forests for livelihood.

    The situation in India is no different. India has been trying to achieve its target of keeping 33 percent of its geographical area under forest cover for decades, but the 2017 State of Forest report shows that it is still struggling to get above 22 percent.

    India has seen rapid deforestation in recent years, primarily due to its focus on economic development. According to government data, 14,000sq km of forests were cleared to accommodate 23,716 industrial projects across India over the last 30 years.

    While market-friendly reforms have succeeded in pulling millions of Indians out of poverty, economists say a significant proportion of the population is not reaping the benefits of economic growth.

    Nearly 275 million poor people in India (more than a fifth of the population), especially tribal communities, depend on forests for subsistence and livelihoods. Almost 50 percent of the food requirements of forest dwellers are provided by forests.

    Many of these communities already suffer from limited access to health and educational services and benefit little from the government's economic development programmes. Destroying forests has devastating consequences for them.

    The draft National Forest Policy 2018, as envisaged by the Indian government, has the potential to do exactly that. 

    Denying community rights on forests

    From the colonial era to post-independence years, the forest policies of India were primarily focused on commercial forestry and exclusionary conservation. This approach changed only with the National Forest Policy (NFP) of 1988, which acknowledged for the first time the role forest-dwelling communities should play in sustainable forest management. Rather than focusing on economic benefits forests could provide, the NFP 1988 built a strong case for ecological security and conservation of biodiversity through a participatory model.

    Since then, India enacted several important pieces of legislation to recognise the tribal population's right to self-determination and to guarantee tenurial rights to forest-dwelling communities, such as Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act of 1996 and Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (the Forest Rights)Act of 2006.

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    While it was expected that India will continue to implement forward-looking policies to strengthen the framework of community forestry and secure ecological security, the Indian government has now drafted a new policy aimed at revamping the NFP 1988. It turns this principle on its head and proposes to open up the forest to the private sector and promote production forestry. 

    In the garb of ecosystem security, climate change and environmental degradation, the draft is extremely regressive. The current draft policy appears to be a non-negotiated agreement that does not have the potential to benefit all of the many stakeholders, particularly, the forest dwellers and tribal communities who are directly dependent on forests for food, fodder and livelihood.

    Barring an extremely meek mention of community forest resources management, this draft policy not just ignores the existence of over 200 million people who live near a forest and are dependent upon it, it simply turns a blind eye to the huge role they play in forest management.

    In fact, these peoples' rights have been bundled up into a proposed mission called National Community Forest Management Mission, which does not lay out any framework for the division of conservation and management roles and responsibilities between communities and authorities.

    This seems a little misdirected and poorly planned, as even 10 years after the enactment of the 2006 Forest Rights Act, fewer than three percent of community forest rights have been recognised in India. In contrast, in Papua New Guinea, about 95 percent of forests are under community control while in Mexico, China, Bolivia and Brazil, these numbers are 70, 55, 35 and 13 percent, respectively.

    Risks of deforestation and conflict

    The new draft policy proposes a Public-Private Partnership model and promotes production forestry to meet the market's growing demand for timber. Examples from Latin America, South Asia and Africa point to the conflicts that occur when communities have no rights over resources which are diverted to private corporations.

    In fact, various government studies, including the one by the erstwhile Planning Commission, clearly indicates that granting forest rights to tribal communities have potential to reduce conflicts as it ensures tenurial security and vests decision-making power over resources in the hands of forest dwellers.

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    The draft policy does not address harmonising the different laws pertaining to forests. To enhance quality and productivity of natural forests, the first step is to conserve them, find ways to reduce the diversion of forest land and to ensure environmental safeguards. The government's own records show that the largest threat to both forests and people is land diversion for mining and other infrastructural development projects; over 14,000sq km of forests have already been diverted.

    The crux of the problem lies in the fact that the government has already signed the UN's Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) programme and enacted Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act 2013 (CAF), which is geared towards aggressive commercial plantation and tapping carbon markets.

    The draft policy touches upon climate change, but only at a conceptual level. If the concern is about the contribution of forests to climate change mitigation and increasing their capacity to adapt to changing climatic variabilities, the strategies proposed in the later part of the document will support neither.

    Increased number of ecologically unviable species will destroy the forest ecology and the ecosystem services that it renders. In order to enhance the forests' mitigation capacities, impetus should have been given to tree species with greater carbon sequestration potential to increase the carbon stock in forests instead of promoting species with a low carbon footprint to lock carbon.

    A forest policy should be a broad vision taking into account the varied political, socioeconomic, and ecological contexts of the country. We cannot return to the colonial-era commercial forestry that will stoke potential conflict through corporate forest grabs. Aligning the needs of the most vulnerable communities, including the tribal peoples, should be the priority. Any exclusionary measure will simply reverse the process, which began in 1988.

    We had only made a modest beginning and there is a long way to go.

    The views expressed in this article are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance.


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