India’s plan to commercialize forests will impact bio diversity, tribals

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Men from India's Erikala tribe unload bamboo from the Nalamalla forest, at their hamlet at Lingala Mandal in Mahbubnagar district in Andhra Pradesh. The Erikala tribals earn their livelihood mainly by making bamboo products. Photo: AFP

India’s new Draft National Forest Policy proposes to open up forest land to private players with an unprecedented focus on “productivity,” a policy that is going to impact both natural forests and forest dwellers.

The Ministry of Forest, Environment and Climate Change has issued a new draft of National Forest Policy to replace the existing policy, which dates back to 1988. The previous policy focused on environmental stability; the Draft Policy aims to maximize production. Environmental scientists say the Draft Policy, promoted as modernity, is actually regressing to colonial-era notions of forests as wood resources.

The Draft Policy is open for public comments till today.

The main goal remains to increase India’s forest cover to 33% of total geographical land; current forest cover is 21.54%, a rise from 19.47% in 1989, as per the India’s State of Forest Reports (ISFR). But it also focuses on increasing the productivity of forests, and plans to achieve both objectives through Private-Public Partnerships (PPP).

“The policy is devoted to promote privatisation of forests through PPP mode and plantation by private companies in the forest areas and giving forest officials more power – as if forest dwellers’ rights don’t exist,” said Gopinath Majhi, the convener of Campaign for Survival and Dignity (CSD) in the state of Odisha. CSD was a leading actor in the movement for Forest Rights Act of 2006 (FRA).

The FRA was the first law to “recognize and vest the forest rights and occupation in forest land in forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers” making them custodians and caretakers of forest resources.

Environmentalists fear the Draft Policy will let corporation plant and harvest trees in public forests for the purpose of selling timber while undermining the landmark FRA.

The current Narendra Modi-led government has a bad record in this area. It issued a guideline to states in 2015 to open up as much as 40% of “degraded” forest land for afforestation and extracting timber by private players, the Hindustan Times reported.

Those guidelines run contrary to the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980, which disallows private participation in forest management, and the 1988 National Forest Policy, which bans private plantation in natural forests.

Forestry industry vs forest dwellers

Anti-voices are speaking up. A civil society statement argues that the policy “cannot simultaneously meet the needs of the forest communities and that of the industry.”

“Production forestry is about monoculture commercial plantations and doesn’t bode well for the forest, forest dwellers, and wildlife,” says Kavitha Kuruganti, convener of Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture.

Monoculture plantations, with single species of plants, have ecological issues and lack biodiversity, says environmental scientist Arvind Badrinarayanan. “Disease vulnerability dramatically increases there, no matter what species of plant it is. They lack genetic variations, unlike polyculture farms, which are able to sustain the diversity of soil bacteria, the life of good insects, etc.”

The Draft Policy wants to increase productivity “scientific management of forest plantations of commercially important species.”

The tendency of production forestry thus far has been to cut down natural trees and plant fast-growing timber species, such as teak and eucalyptus, because of their profitability, says environmental scientist Sharachchandra Lele, a distinguished fellow at the Centre for Environment & Development, ATREE.

“In the Western Ghats, where there are evergreen forests, they have cleared out patches and replaced them with teak and eucalyptus,” he said. “The eucalyptus plantations failed there because it’s a high-rainfall area. This species also affects ground-water.”

Moreover, locals are likely to be denied access to commercial plantations, said Lele.

Tribal left out

The Draft Policy excludes consultation with tribals and forest dwellers, who are directly dependent on forests for their livelihood, food and other resources. Tribal people constitute 8.6% (2011 census) of India’s total population, occupying 215 tribal districts in 27 states, as per ISFR. It also ignores the FRA, 2006 that gives centrality to forest dwellers and their local village bodies (gram sabhas) in forest management.

“[The Draft] does not recognize or uphold the Forest Rights Act,” said Kuruganti. ”Forests and tribals have a symbiotic relationship that is alive only if such forests are in their control, and if such forests have natural diversity.”

The Draft Policy suggests PPP activities in more than one-third of total forest land in India.  Most of this land comes under “Community Forest Resource area of a village duly recognized under FRA”, says CSD and notes that the leasing of such land to the corporate sector will lead to land-grabbing and eviction of tribals.

There are already several instances of illegal diversion of forest land for industrial and development purposes, and of mismanagement of the compensatory funds.

A new model for forest management

The proposed policy, instead of empowering traditional forest dwellers, proposes a joint forest management (JFM) model involving both the Forest Department and the locals. These models of “participatory forest management” are invalid after enactment of FRA, say a group of lawyers and forest rights activists. They also worry that this might bring back the infamous Forest Department regime from which the FRA liberated the tribals.

The inefficiency of the JFM system has already been laid bare by government’s own reports. A government report of 2013 shows JFM committees in Odisha were inefficient in creating healthy plantations owing to lower involvement of local communities. The report states, “by engaging them (locals) for security and treating (them) as paid laborers, the spirit of beneficiary ownership could not be developed”.

“You have to see who has the power in the committee. The representative of the Forest Department in the committee is the secretary of the body. He is probably more literate than the villagers, holds the account books, and dictates all terms and conditions. Villagers don’t have too many choices,” Lele told Asia Times.

Even so, experts are positive about some aspects of the Draft Policy – notably, its plans for eco-tourism, compensatory afforestation funds to buy wildlife corridors, climate change as a guiding element, and the use of technology used to minimize damage to forests while quarrying or mining.

The Environment Ministry was not available for comments.

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