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India’s new forest policy draft draws criticism for emphasis on industrial timber

There are only around 100 Bengal tigers still living in the Sundarbans, down from around 440 in 2004. Photo taken in India by Morgan Erickson-Davis.

  • The Draft National Forest Policy 2018 is now open for public comments, and will replace the older 1988 policy once it comes into force.
  • Critics are apprehensive about how the draft policy deals with community participation and industrial forestry.
  • The current draft is bereft of knowledge-driven solutions, some experts say.

The Indian government has initiated the process of revamping its national forest policy, but the new draft has critics on edge.

The current National Forest Policy 1988 (NFP-1988) was announced 30 years ago. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has now published the Draft National Forest Policy 2018 (DNFP-2018), open for public comments until April 14.

The new draft policy’s overall goal is to “safeguard the ecological and livelihood security of people, of the present and future generations, based on sustainable management of the forests for the flow of ecosystem services.”

The draft policy also aims to maintain at least one-third of India’s total land area under forest and tree cover. In the hills and mountainous regions, the policy’s goal is to maintain two-thirds of the area under forest and tree cover to both “prevent soil erosion and land degradation and also to ensure the stability of the fragile ecosystems.”

The draft policy lists multiple other objectives, including the maintenance of environmental stability and conservation of biodiversity; reversal of the degradation of forests; improvement of the livelihoods of people through the sustainable use of ecosystem services; and meeting India’s greening goals under its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). Further, it talks about maintaining soil quality; safeguarding forestlands; managing protected areas and other wildlife-rich areas; protecting watersheds; and increasing tree cover outside forests.

Forests in the mountains provide ecosystem services and climate resilience to those living in the plains. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier / Mongabay.

The draft also mentions integrating climate change mitigation and adaptation through REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries); implementing green accounting; managing green spaces in urban environments; and establishing a credible monitoring and evaluation framework. These are concepts that evolved into international and national environmental discussions in recent years.

With such a broad range of objectives, the DNFP-2018 should have been welcome to all stakeholders in India’s forests. Instead, the draft policy is currently being heatedly debated, largely because of the document’s focus on increasing productivity from forests.

Focus on forest productivity

For existing forests, the draft policy suggests increasing productivity through increased protection. For forest plantations, the draft proposes increasing productivity “through scientific and technological interventions so as to encourage usage of more timber so that the dependency on other carbon footprint wood substitutes is reduced.” Additionally, there would be intensification of “afforestation with suitable species.”

Addressing how productivity can be increased in forest plantations, the draft policy states that “public-private participation models will be developed for undertaking afforestation and reforestation activities in degraded forest areas and forest areas available with Forest Development Corporations and outside forests.”

Mission mode is suggested for urban greening. “Promotion of trees outside forests & urban greens will be taken up on a mission mode for attaining the national goal of bringing one third of the area under forests & trees cover and also for achieving the INDC targets of the country,” reads the DNFP-2018.

The draft policy also talks about community forest management. “There is a need to further strengthen this participatory approach, for which a National Community Forest Management (CFM) Mission will be launched,” the draft notes. The mission will work through village-level gram sabhas (a general assembly of all adult members of a village) to ensure community forestry. Some experts, however, are unhappy with how the draft tackles community participation.

Back to square one on community participation

“On the issue of community participation, the DNFP-2018 has moved backwards rather than building on the progress made from the time of the NFP-1988, followed by the joint forest management (JFM) process and the Forests Rights Act of 2006 (FRA-2006),” said Sharachchandra Lele, distinguished fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE).

The new draft forest policy may not be beneficial for members of forest-dependent communities, such as this Malayali tribesman from Kolli Hills in Tamil Nadu. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier / Mongabay.

“The fact that there are communities that either live in the forests or are heavily dependent on it for their resources is not mentioned,” Lele said. “The FRA-2006 is mentioned only in the context of harmonisation with other laws through the proposed CFM. This negates all the work that has gone before for giving rights to the forest-dwelling and forest-dependent communities.”

Lele noted that the national forest policy of 1988 mentioned people’s participation in forest management. As a follow-up, the JFM program, which was initiated in the 1990s, started by involving people in the management of degraded forests and peripheries. Later, communities were allowed to participate in forest management of not-so-degraded forests under governmental control.

It is the FRA-2006 that legislatively mandated that forest-dwelling communities have rights to manage their forests, even while not closing the regulatory role of the forest departments in various states of the country. “The FRA-2006 is really more forward-looking when compared to the idea of participatory forest management related to degraded forests,” Lele said.

He said the new draft policy also undoes the hierarchy of importance over forest use that the NFP-1988 created. “The NFP-1988 said that though forests are important for multiple uses, the maintenance of ecological balance is of the highest priority. Economic benefit should be subservient to it,” he said.

There is much livelihood support from forests for the poor communities living close by. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier / Mongabay.

B.J. Krishnan, senior environmental lawyer and a member of the Western Ghats Ecology Experts Panel (WGEEP, also known as the Madhav Gadgil Committee), echoed Lele’s comments. “The NFP-1988 states that the first charge on forest produce would be for the protection of the livelihoods of tribals and forest communities. It is this approach of the 1988 policy that led to the evolution of the FRA-2006,” he said.

“About 22% of land area in the country is under forest cover, though the quality and nature of the forest health varies,” Krishnan said. “In a country of 1.25 billion people two-thirds scratch the earth to make a living. If 22% of the land is not accessible to them, where will they go? How can participation take place without access? There is a total mismatch.”

Not enough wood

It is India’s increasing dependency on imported wood that drove the support for industrial forestry in the DNFP-2018. Growing timber within the country is expected to kill two birds with one stone: meet industrial needs and also sequester carbon to meet India’s INDC commitments on mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.

In its INDC, India has committed to create an additional carbon sink of 2.5 billion to 3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030. During their growth phase, trees draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequester it in their biomass.

The third spillover impact, as mentioned in the policy draft, is that wood can replace other materials, which are manufactured from fossil fuel sources.

“It is welcome that in the DNFP-2018 the focus is on giving attention to the forestry in the sense of commercial forestry and economic angle by realising the need for meeting domestic demand for wood,” said T.R. Manoharan, senior adviser at the Forest Stewardship Council – India (FSC-India).

“We do not have enough wood and our industries are starving,” he said. “They don’t get enough raw material and our ports are now finding it difficult to handle the kind of quantity that we are required to import. We are a net importer of forest produce. So realising this need there is a thrust on production forestry in the DNFP-2018. It can also create value addition to the ‘Make in India’ campaign.”

Earlier forestry initiatives have converted many natural forests, like this one in the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve, into teak plantations. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier / Mongabay.

Boost for forest certification

Manoharan said he was also happy that the DNFP-2018 gives policy support to forest certification. “I am happy to see forest certification incorporated into the draft policy,” he told Mongabay-India. “However, I would have liked the wording to be a little different. Certification not only brings market access and financial returns but also brings benefit to the people. Certification is a way to use economic agency to reward responsible forest management.”

He said he believed the DFNP-2018 can give policy support to the movement to increase certification in the country. “At FSC-India, we are involved in a process of developing a National Forest Stewardship Standard. The draft is ready and it will be shared in the public domain. There will be a series of consultations and field-testing. We expect the standard to be ready by the end of this year.”

According to Manoharan, 5,215 square kilometers (2,013 square miles) of forests are currently certified in the country. In the next three years the aim is to raise certified forest cover to 30,000 square kilometers (11,583 square miles). Similarly, 411 companies in the Indian value chain currently have Chain of Custody (COC) certification, and the aim is to raise it to 600 in the coming four years. “This policy platform is a boost to achieve greater spread of certification in the country,” Manoharan said.

Why not farm forestry?

Even while critics accept the need for wood in the country, it is the model prescribed for generating forestry resources that is causing the debate. “I am worried about the privatisation business that could undo the rights given to tribals under the FRA-2006 and the gains made on forest community rights over the past 30 years,” said environmental historian Ramachandra Guha.

“Some time ago I was in Gadchiroli in Maharashtra where the first forest rights project has taken off very well with rights over bamboo bringing them economic benefits to the forest community. I hope the loopholes in the draft are plugged in the final policy document, and public lands are not handed over to private companies for industrial forestry,” he said.

Guha asked why industrial houses cannot deal directly with farmers to grow timber trees on their lands. “There are so many good examples from agriculture. This is how cotton, tobacco and sugarcane are farmed and why can’t it be done with farm forestry?” he said.

One industry source said farmers in the Western Ghats region are apprehensive of planting timber trees on their lands because they are scared their farms will then be classified as ecologically fragile lands. Once that happens, the farmers fear they would need to conserve their land and would find it difficult to develop and manage it.

The shola-grassland ecosystem of the Western Ghats provides water to the peninsula. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier / Mongabay.

Lack of knowledge-driven solutions

Praveen Bhargav of Wildlife First, a conservation advocacy group, said he was disappointed that the DNFP-2018 “is bereft of knowledge-driven solutions that have the potential to balance the competing needs of conservation and development.” This is despite the advancement of scientific knowledge since 1988 and overwhelming data on the threats that forests face.

“Shockingly, the most important challenge of forest fragmentation, which is scientifically established as the most serious threat to biodiversity is not even mentioned,” he said. “Consequently, the critical solution of consolidation of fragmented habitats, and prescriptions on preventing fragmentation of the remaining large blocks is completely missing. Thus, a huge opportunity of a paradigm shift from the failed compensatory afforestation regime to a science-based landscape or ecosystem conservation regime is being lost.”

An elephant camouflaged within trees. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier / Mongabay.

Flashback to the 1990s

While the DNFP-2018 is stirring up controversy because of its focus on industrial forestry, it is not without precedent. Successive governments have made attempts to rewrite the NFP-1988. In 1995, for instance, then-environment minister Kamal Nath initiated a two-pronged process to restrict the use of forests by forest-based communities and lease degraded forestlands to forest-based industries. “Degraded” was defined as forests with less than 40 percent canopy cover.

Following this, a committee was constituted in 1997 to find ways to augment the availability of wood. Again, the demand for leasing degraded forestlands to industry re-emerged before the A.K. Mukherjee Committee. At the same time, another committee was constituted to suggest rewriting the NFP-1988.

Activists fear India’s new draft forest policy may undo some of the policy gains of the past 30 years. Photo by Morgan Erickson-Davis / Mongabay.

While support for industrial forestry pops up every few years and there is a real need for generating timber within the country, experts agree it is best done by benefitting all stakeholders. Forests, they argue, are not just stands of timber waiting to be felled, but home to wildlife and forest-dwelling communities. The ecosystem services from forests, both financially tangible and otherwise, provide sustainability to the national economy and resilience to climate change.

“Unless human economy is integrated into conservation, it will not work,” said Krshnan, the environmental lawyer. “You cannot make enemies and expect conservation to succeed.”


This story was first published on April 9, 2018, by Mongabay-India.

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