It’s time India turned forests into assets

It’s time India turned forests into assets
MEXICO AND India are worlds apart, both in terms of geography and forest governance. While Mexico has earned socially, economically and environmentally by promoting community forestry, India continues to follow the colonial forest regime that has alienated communities from their land and resources.

At present, the Indian government recognises community rights over their forests under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006, and empowers the gram sabha (village council) to protect and manage them. But the law remains poorly implemented as forest departments continue to resist ceding control over forests. The Forest Survey of India’s (FSI’s) report in 1999 shows that 31 million ha of forests lay within revenue villages. “This should be the minimum area over which community forest rights need to be recognised,” says forest rights activist Madhu Sarin, who was part of the drafting process of FRA. But the government has so far recognised rights over only 2.5 million ha. Worse, this hardly includes community forests.

This makes India a laggard; other countries have made far greater progress in forest governance reforms. In Papua New Guinea, about 95 per cent of forests are under community control while in Mexico, China, Bolivia and Brazil, about 70, 55, 35 and 13 per cent forests, respectively, are owned by communities. A study by Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), a global network of non-profits, shows that forestland designated for and owned by communities has increased from 11.3 to 15.5 per cent worldwide between 2002 and 2013. “More countries are realising that lack of tenure security is a hurdle to economic growth in rural areas,” says Claire Biason, networking support manager of RRI.
While India needs to implement FRA in earnest to secure tenure rights for its forest dwelling communities, this may not be enough to turn its 76 million ha of standing forests into assets.

Consider this. Under FRA, the government allows communities to harvest and trade non-timber forest produce. Yet more than 200 million people, including tribals, who depend on forest produce for a living remain neglected and impoverished. An estimate by India’s Union Ministry of Panchayati Raj shows that communities in India can earn Rs 4,000 crore (about US $667 million) a year from non-timber forest produce alone. But most of the produce is traded by corporations owned by forest departments and the revenue goes to the government coffers.

Besides, FRA does not provide communities explicit rights over timber, the most lucrative forest resource. “One of the key reasons Mexican communities could organise themselves and wrest control over forests from the government was the potential profit from timber trading,” says David Barton Bray, professor at Florida International University. But the Indian government’s only initiative to share timber profit with communities so far has been the Joint Forest Management programme, which was introduced in 1990 to defuse movements by forest dwellers, demanding recognition to their traditional forest rights. The communities, however, abandoned the programme within a few years as they did not receive any benefit. The programme now remains only on paper and the forest department uses it to subvert FRA.

“There is a stalemate in the forest policy in terms of understanding the economic benefits of standing forests,” says Madhu Verma, coordinator, Centre for Ecological Services Management at the Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal. “We do not realise what we will lose by losing a forest. This is because hardly anything except for timber and NTFPs are currently traded in the market,” she says. There is no mechanism to recognise and trade the whole bundle of ecological services from forests such as watershed protection, generation of water, prevention of soil erosion, gene pool development and landscape value (for eco-tourism). This will help people to earn while protecting or conserving the forests, she adds.

A study by World Resources Institute in 14 forest-rich countries shows that deforestation in community forests is much less than in those outside community control.

The government is not benefitting from the vast stretches of standing forests either. Of the 76 million ha of forests, the Indian forest department manages 17 million ha for timber production, as per the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). This is double the area under commercial forestry in Mexico, yet its produces only 2.5 million cubic metres (cum) of timber a year—one-third of timber produced by Mexico, according to the 2010 report by the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE), Dehradun. This is meagre to meet India’s soaring timber demand, which is expected to increase from 74 million cum in 2005 to 153 million cum in 2020, according to a report supported by the erstwhile Planning Commission. At present, most of the country’s demand is met by private plantations that produce 44.3 million cum a year, and through imports. India imported 6 million cum of timber, worth Rs 7,688 crore, in 2010.

Forest departments take a high moral ground of prioritising conservation over production and cite it as reason for low productivity of Indian forests. But this does not sound convincing. An analysis of FSI data by Down To Earth suggests that India might have lost 9.4 million ha of government-managed forests between 1999 and 2013. The loss has been masked by the 12.7 million ha increase in green cover outside government-managed forests during the period.

The other arguments put forth by the forest departments are low productivity of Indian forests and a Supreme Court ban on felling trees without a working management plan. “Most of our forests have long gestation period, and face anthropogenic pressures such as grazing and fuel wood collection. All this affects productivity,” says an official with the FSI. Going by FSI’s estimates, the annual productivity of Indian forests is 0.7 cum per ha compared to the world average of 2.1 cum per ha. Even at this rate, the area set aside for commercial forestry should produce over 11 million cum of timber. But this is not the case. Though the Supreme Court ban came in 1996, the forest department is yet to prepare working plans for the 17 million ha set aside for commercial forestry. Clearly, something is wrong with the way forests are being managed in India. “The forest departments have neither been able to increase the productivity of forests nor check deforestation,” says an analyst who works with a forest certification agency.

Latin lessons
Two decades ago, forest governance in Mexico was in an equally chaotic state. The first important step that the government took to promote community forestry was to devolve its forest management authority and responsibilities to communities. It did not stop there. It introduced reforms in forestry governance. It disbanded old agencies and created new ones to support and facilitate community forestry and ensured that management skills are not restricted to government foresters.

Such reforms are urgently needed in India, says C R Bijoy of Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a network of organisations working on forest rights. By shifting forest governance authority to gram sabha, FRA aims at democratising the system. But forest and other departments cannot understand its spirit without significant capacity building. “The forest and the tribal affairs departments should go through institutional reforms keeping FRA at the centre of policies,” Bijoy suggests.

Sarin says India should also look beyond the idea that only forest department is capable of managing forests. “Other departments need to pitch in to support community forestry.”

An empowered community is responsible for the success of any type of community forestry. There have been several instances in India where communities have tried to trade in forest produce such as bamboo and tendu but failed due to lack of government support and marketing linkages. “This failure is then used as an argument to not allow them to manage forests,” says Subodh Kulkarni of Jnan Probodhini, non-profit that works for community rights in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district.

The Mexican government had realised this at the outset. “So the new agencies first focussed on building the organisational capacity of communities,” says Bray. When villages got community forestry rights, politicisation, corruption and disputes were rife within and among communities. It monitored general assembly meetings and imposed strict conditions to ensure proper functioning of grassroots institutions before granting them government aid,” says Bray.

The context of forest governance is changing, says Arvind Khare, executive director of RRI. “Forest-governing agencies seem to be losing their economic influence and political constituency. This is because in most developing (and quite a few developed) countries, the fate of forests is intricately linked with communities. This is a major reason for insurgencies in countries like India.” The real test for forestry now is to regain this constituency. DOWN TO EARTH
Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava

Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava

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