Current General Studies Magazine: "Growing forests in the air" October 2015

Current General Studies Magazine (October 2015)

General Studies - III "Geography Based Article" (Growing forests in the air)

In its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDCs), announced last month ahead of the 12th Climate Conference of Parties (COP) in Paris, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) made a commitment to create an additional forest cover to hold 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 by 2030 (pg 29). This is to be achieved through existing programmes and schemes such as the National Afforestation Programme (NAP), Joint Forest Management (JFM), the Green India Mission (GIM) and compensatory afforestation (CA).

Within a week of releasing the INDCs and voluntarily committing to create additional forest ‘sinks’, Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar is reported to have lamented that the survival rate of trees planted under various afforestation programmes in the country is only 10-20 per cent, calling into question the very schemes expected to deliver these contributions. The Minister’s concern is valid one with enough data to show that growing and maintaining forests has proven difficult for India’s forest bureaucracy.It is not surprising, therefore, that the commitments are in abstract units rather than in acreage or number of trees planted. Fixing such concrete targets for afforestation would also open up uncomfortable questions for the government such as the availability of land for greening. The INDCs related to increasing forest cover are to be achieved through sustainable forest management, afforestation and regulating forest diversion for non-forest activities such as mining and dams. There are two key reality-checks, which trump these claims.

The first is the history of afforestation programmes and their indifferent outcomes. India has had numerous centrally sponsored plantation programmes as the NAP or international grants for social forestry and joint forest management — large-scale projects, implemented by the State Forest Departments. The INDCs propose to rely on this “plantation drive” mechanism without a review of its earlier outcomes.Several reports, even from the government, have questioned its efficacy. The Thirty-Sixth Report of the Lok Sabha Secretariat Committee on Estimates (Fifteenth Lok Sabha) on ‘National Afforestation Programme’ in February 2014 observed that the outcome of the NAP, launched in 2002, had been negative. Though a total of Rs. 3044 crore had been spent since the launch of the programme with a target area of 1.94 million ha, at the end of 2011, the total area under forest cover had declined by 367 sq km.

The second relates to the selective projection of a future for India’s forests in the INDC document, isolated from the other sectoral growth targets such as those under ‘clean’ energy through nuclear, ‘clean’ coal and hydro power projects. While growth in these sectors may be considered crucial for an aspirational economy, the commitments to expand these sectors do not acknowledge their footprint on forest areas. Almost all such energy projects would require the diversion of forest land under the Forest (Conservation) Act. Though this has been a legal requirement since 1980, forest diversion is not accounted for in the growth projections made by other sectors.

The current rate of forest diversion to other uses like coal mining, power generation, construction of roads or ports is approximately 35,000 ha annually. According to the EIA Resource and Response Centre (ERC), the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) in it’s meeting on September 30 this year, had project proposals that sought the diversion of 3414.84 ha of forest land. Of these projects, over 44 per cent were related to mining. Even forests within protected areas such as national parks and wildlife sanctuaries have not been spared from diversion for mining and energy projects and related infrastructure.

Trade off mechanisms such as identification of No-Go or inviolate areas for coal mining have not helped forests either. What began as a negotiation between the coal and environment ministries in 2009 to keep almost 50 per cent of identified coal blocks out of mining projects, has ended up with almost nothing. Today, only 7.86 per cent of 12,006 of forests, mapped by the Forest Survey of India under 993 coal blocks, will remain off limits for mining.

The government’s thinking on afforestation reaches illogical levels when it suggests that the participation of the private sector will green degraded forests.The suggestion comes even though the private sector has only shown a propensity for deforestation and a scientifically trained bureaucracy has not been able to achieve national forestry targets.

Communities ignored

Many forests are also home to adivasi and other marginalised communities. They depend on these resources and have been criminalised for this. Viewing these regions merely as carbon stocks or sinks ignores their complex history. Turning zealous about afforestation in the past has not only led to social conflicts but a forest bias has exterminated other ecosystems equally critical for human beings and biodiversity, such as deserts and grasslands.

Even if the massive targeted plantation drive that the Ministry envisages is successful at the cost of forest dwelling communities and diverse landscapes, there is no guarantee that these areas will not be diverted for non-forest use if the latter seems more beneficial in monetary terms. India’s intended contribution on forests to mitigate climate change ignores the rich history of landscape management practices and is uninformed of the impact of the growing energy sector on forests. Without both these, India’s INDCs will not create any forests with roots on the ground.

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