Timber plantations on forest land in India?

The Union government has drafted a new National Forest Policy that will allow the corporate sector to grow, harvest and sell trees on government-owned forest lands. So far, this was explicitly banned under the existing National Forest Policy, which was laid down in 1988.

Illegally cut trees, seized by the forest department, await auction.

If the new draft National Forest Policy is approved, it will permit the government to amend environment laws and allow industry to take over patches of forest lands. The Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change had put the new draft National Forest Policy up for public comments till April 14.

The National Forest Policy governs the formulation of all laws and schemes related to forestry, including forest protection, management and the use of forests – such as for production of wood and by forest dwellers.

Several industries that use timber and forest produce as raw materials – including the paper and pulp and wood-board industry – have demanded for decades that India’s forest policy allow government forest lands to be opened to industry, which they term a “reform”.

The first such proposal was mooted in 1998 and then in 2008. But each time, the proposals were shot down by the government of the time.

More than 30 lakh tribals and other forest dwellers in India are either directly or indirectly dependent on forest lands for their livelihood. Successive governments have, therefore, chosen not to let industry take over green patches to protect the rights and interests of these citizens.

New provisions

The draft forest policy of 2018 argues that new challenges have emerged in the forestry sector since 1988, when the existing policy was drafted. It stresses that there is a need to revise the forest policy in the context of “low quality and low productivity of our natural forests, impacts of climate change, human-wildlife conflict, intensifying water crisis... and the continuously declining investments in the sector.”

The draft policy adds provisions to increase the carbon sink of forests – to increase their ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – to promote plantations in the catchment areas of water bodies, to prevent forest fires and promote greenery in urban areas.

One key change proposed in the draft policy holds the potential to open up natural forests for private plantations. It reads: “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.”

‘Degraded forests’ are green lands that have less than 40% tree canopy density, according to the government’s definition. According to the latest Forest Survey of India report, India has more than 34 million hectares – or more than 40% of its total green cover – of degraded forests. This includes natural and government-controlled forests as well as private plantations.

In contrast, the 1988 policy banned private plantations in all natural forests, irrespective of their density. It reads: “Natural forests serve as a gene pool resource and help to maintain ecological balance. Such forests will not, therefore, be made available to industries for undertaking plantation and for any other activities.”

The policy allowed traditional forest dwellers to use forest resources for sustenance. For forest-based industries, it prescribed that raw material should be extracted from captive plantations.

Growing economy

With a growing economy, India’s consumption of wood has been increasing. Currently, the country uses close to 69 million cubic metres of wood annually, according to a 2017 report by the Delhi-based non-profit, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).

 

Of this, about 68% wood is sourced from private plantations and agro-forestry farms outside forests. Less than 5% of the wood is sourced from natural forests while the remainder comes from imports.

Specific orders of the Supreme Court, government decisions and low productivity of forests over the last two decades has led to a decrease in the sourcing of timber from India’s natural forests, and an increase in imports. According to the CSE report, timber imports have been growing at an annual rate of 9.3% since 2011.

The CSE report, however, showed that trees outside forests, and agro-forestry, if promoted, can meet India’s demand for timber to a large extent. Agro-forestry is a land use management system in which trees are grown by farmers alongside crops.

Instead of handing over forests to the industry, the government could work on promoting agro-forestry, says Mr. Ajay Kumar Saxena, programme manager (forestry) at the CSE. “That has the potential of significantly increasing the income of 20 million farmers.” – Courtesy: scroll.in

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