Ecosystems approach vital

New Forest Policy

By Dhurjati Mukherjee

Forests have assumed critical value in recent times across the globe due to ever-increasing pollution and climate change. The earth’s largest ecosystem is the forest and there is no alternative but to defend it. Importantly, in India the forest cover happens to be the second largest land use, next to agriculture. It is assessed at around 67-68 million hectares, which constitutes 20.64% of the country’s geographical area, ranging from the Himalayan Temperate to dry zone forests.
In such a situation, the recently announced draft National Forest Policy 2018, that seeks to replace the country’s 30-year old policy, outlined the need to tackle fresh challenges of climate change, human-wildlife conflict, intensifying water crisis, pollution etc. but focussed only on enhancing tree cover and wood production rather than on preserving forest ecosystems.
However, the policy has come in for criticism from the nature conservation community. Sections of the draft have left many experts befuddled. For example, how does one “enrich” natural ecosystems teeming with wildlife? Why create forest cover on semi-arid and desert ecosystems? Or “enhance nature’s ecosystem services through new technological advancements?” Or contradicting statements like “however the low quality and low productivity of our natural forests…issues of serious concern,” viz natural forests which are rich repositories of biodiversity in the country.
Independent experts have rightly expressed concern that the Policy fails to address current threats to diverse forest ecosystems. It sets a goal of maintaining a minimum of one-third of India’s land area under forest or tree cover– outlined in post independence forest policy of 1952 — underscores the need to protect natural forests, proposes strategies to increase forest productivity and recommend steps to increase the area under plantation. Thus, productivity has been the focus and not comprehensive forest management.
Meanwhile, the CPM has demanded the withdrawal of the Policy, saying it is a blueprint to commercialise and privatise forests, promote plantations, eliminate tribals and traditional forest dwellers in ownership and control of non-timber forest produce. In a note to Union Environment Ministry, the party pointed that the Policy threatens to change the character of natural forests to plantation forests and undermines ecological and social services such as water recharge, erosion checking, fuels and fodder that forests provide.
While the Forest Rights Act allows forest dwellers a say in forest-related decision, the note of the party further stated, the draft policy “snatches away” the rights of gram sabhas (village panchayats) for management of forests and instead hands it over to proposed centrally controlled entities. This subordination to a government and forest department controlled body, either at the Centre or in State capitals, is another example of centralisation of powers and excluding local communities.
The dilution of gram sabha powers has been evident and this is about to happen in case of forests as well. Though political leaders give sermons about the need for decentralisation and involvement of the people and the community in decision-making process, this is unfortunately not the reality.
The Policy, however, reiterated the ‘Nationally Determined Targets under the Paris Agreement’, where India promised to rapidly increase its forest cover so that an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent is created by the year 2030. However, the strategy to be adopted in this regard has not been clearly outlined.
As is well known, trees and forests help by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and converting it during photosynthesis to carbon, which they store in the form of wood and vegetation, a process referred to as “carbon sequestration”. Trees are generally about 20% carbon by weight.
The overall biomass of forests also acts as a carbon sink with the organic matter in forest soils — such as the humus produced by the decomposition of dead plants. The trees and soils of the world’s forests storing more than a quarter of the world’s carbon emissions and India having over 100 million hectares of wasteland and degraded forests, mitigation through the forest sector and afforestation seems like an attractive solution.
However, using forests as carbon sinks has been a contentious issue. Fear is that it legitimises the continued destruction of old-growth and pristine forests which are rich ecosystem and have an established biodiversity base that naturally maintains the environment. Creating new forest areas would require the creation of entire ecosystems, which may not seem possible in most countries, including India.
The concept of Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) was first discussed in COP 11. India proposed the concept of ‘compensated conservation’ which is intended to compensate the countries for maintaining and increasing their forests as carbon pools.
At present it is necessary to evolve a strategy that primarily helps the people who are forest dwellers as forests are not just about flora and fauna. In India, they meet the demands of around 950 million people and around 450 million cattle with nearly 200,000 of India’s villages located in or near forests. Out of the 15,000 species of plants 3,000 species provide non-timber forest produce (NTFP) like fruits, nuts, edible flowers, medicines. These communities, dependent on forest resources for their sustenance, are very much likely to be at the receiving end of the anticipated adverse effects of climate change.
With the Clean Development Mechanism and voluntary carbon offsets, payments for environmental services schemes and increasing prices for commodities such as agro-fuels, palm oil or soya, there is little reason for optimism. Moreover, as demand for land increases, people are being pushed off their existing territories to make way for infrastructure projects, parks etc. In such a situation the present policy’s call for public-private participation has rightly been criticised by environmentalists and some political parties.
Saving our forests is vital for the country at a time when climate change has been affecting a large section of the population. It is doubtful whether the realisation of protecting our forests and turning them as reserves of our ecosystem is understood by the bureaucrats and politicians in the country, who are in charge of framing policies, which most often tend to be anti-people.
It is difficult to agree with the Policy’s observation that “there has been an increase in forest and tree cover and reduction in the diversion of forest land… despite…increasing population, industrialisation and rapid economic growth.” Deep forests have remained more or less the same while diversion has been on the increase. In 2013, an RTI application filed by environmental lawyers, Ritwich Dutta and Rahul Choudhary revealed that the country, on an average, loses 135 hectares of natural forest land per day to development schemes. As of 2017, the government passed about 10,000 approvals related to forest diversions.
Finally, while support for industrial forestry within the country cannot be doubted, it is best done by benefitting all stakeholders. A forest is after all not a mere stand of over-mature timber but a home to forest-dwelling communities as also wildlife. The ecosystem services from forests, both financially tangible and otherwise, provide sustainability to the national economy and resilience to climate change.
Thus, what is required is actually an ecosystems approach with focus on climate justice and the rights and role of local communities. It should also address biodiversity and poverty effectively and challenge the underlying causes of deforestation directly, resolving governance, poverty and land tenure issues.—INFA