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Oct 16, 2015

Privatising Forests: A Bad Idea

Savvy Saumya   /   Savvy Soumya Misra

Nearly 275 million (27.5 crore) poor people, especially Adivasis depend on forest resources for subsistence and livelihood.

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@OxfamIndia explains why forests in the country should not be privatised. Read here. http://bit.ly/1LROgKK

If private players ‘manage’ forests in India, where would the Adivasis go? Read more. http://bit.ly/1LROgKK

There has not been a dull moment on the Indian forest scenario in the past one year. The interest in forests is not new. Both industry and government have laid claim on forestland and what lies within it for decades and tried to oust the traditional forest dwellers. It’s just that in the last year, the din has grown louder and more persistent.

First, the BJP-led government tried to dilute the Forest Rights Act (FRA), and then Prime Minister Narendra Modi demanded the speedy implementation of the Act and distribution of land titles.

Then, there were cases where some state governments tried all possible tricks, both within and outside the ambit of the Act, to appease the Centre.

Forest rights activists managed to get a few decisions reversed/stayed. This was made possible by the fact that the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MOTA) took heed of the concerns raised by the activists. This included the Odisha state government’s decision to hand over the Community Forest Resources Right to Van Suraksha Samiti, and another decision to include police officers in the District Level Committees (DLC) and Sub Division Level Committees (SDLC).

Both the decisions were in violation of FRA and were finally reversed on 19 September 2015.

Things were tumultuous enough when a letter from the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) surfaced. In the August 11, 2015 letter, the Ministry had thrown down another gauntlet into the ring. Citing lack of sufficient resources and capacity to efficiently manage the forests, the NDA government proposed to allow private companies to manage upto 40 per cent of the country’s forests.

The states were asked to identify the ‘degraded’ forests to lease out to private players for plantation and timber production. Instructions were given to the states to get back with comments on the proposed guidelines but the Ministry has been secretive about it.

The country has around 69 million (6.90 crore or 690 lakh) hectares of forest cover, out of which, about 40 per cent is categorised as open forests or scrubs —together called ‘degraded forests’—which have less than 40 per cent canopy cover.

‘Managing’ implies that the private sector would carry out afforestation and extract timber. The MoEFCC had presented a teaser to the letter in its Independence Day speech. The minister, Prakash Javadekar, spoke of ‘more plantations and more afforestation’.

He announced funds to the tune of $15 billion (about hundred thousand crore), over the next four years, for ‘real afforestation’ of the country. Concerns were raised regarding ‘real afforestation’ which many strongly believed was sugar coating land grabbing and monoculture.

Forest rights activists have opposed this move. An open letter to the Prime Minister, signed by Oxfam India as well, urges the government to withdraw the guidelines as they are illegal, non-constitutional and in violation of the country’s international obligations on part of Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and United Nations Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

The All India Forum for Forest Movements (AIFFM) was quoted in the REDD Monitor (September 24, 2015) that ‘improving and restoring forest landscapes’ in reality will involve establishing industrial tree plantations. The pulp and paper industry is going to benefit from this heavily as they have been lobbying for the degraded forests for decades.

A former director of the Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal, was quoted in the Hindustan Times (September 12, 2015) saying that “Even the most degraded natural forest has over 100-150 species of trees per hectare. For their end product, the industry would hardly plant one or two species.”

According to reports, the guidelines, if implemented, will first be in forests with less than 10 per cent canopy cover and ‘based on the experience gained’ could be extended to forests with up to 40 per cent cover.

So why do we need the industry to manage our forests? The Ministry explains that India is on a growth trajectory and becoming affluent so there is going to be a rise in the demand for timber and other forest produce. It needs to go into private hands because, at the moment, there is unsustainable exploitation of forest resources through firewood collection.

The blame has been conveniently pinned on the 300 million (30 crore) poorest households who are, directly or indirectly, dependent on forests for sustenance and livelihood deriving food, fruit, fuel wood, and non-timber forest produce.

The Ministry has completely ignored the industries’ rampant diversion of forestland and their total disregard for ecological and social concerns.

Internationally, there have been instances where the privatisation of forests has been a complete failure. In 1940, Mexico granted concessions to private companies for exploitation of forest resources. Forestland, including huge tracts of pine forests, was given away to paper mills. These mills rampantly felled trees and destroyed the forest. Many logged forests remain degraded till date.

The forest diversion proposals recommended by the Forest Advisory Committee has shown that an average of 135 hectares of forest is already being diverted every day for development projects.These guidelines will ensure that the industry further gets the forest on a silver platter — 85 to 90 per cent of the forest will now be in the control of the industry while the Adivasis and other traditional forest dwelling communities will only have access to 10-15 per cent of the forest.

The government has thrown in a ‘grass-and-fodder’ bone to the forest dwellers. The forest dwellers are allowed access to grass and fodder on 100 per cent of the land. But they will have access to Minor Forest Produce (MFP) and Non Timber Forest Produce (NTFP) only from the 10-15 per cent land earmarked for the forest dwellers.

This is bound to hurt the forest dwellers. Nearly 275 million (27.5 crore) poor people, especially Adivasis depend on forest resources for subsistence and livelihood. Studies show that NTFP that include a variety of fruits, medicinal plants and bamboo contribute anything between 10 to 70 per cent of the total income of households and majority of forest dwellers depended on forests for 25 to 50 per cent of their food requirement.

Dr. NC Saxena, a member of the erstwhile Planning Commission, in a paper titled ‘Tenurial Issues in Forestry in India’ , argued against handing over degraded forests, which is crucial for the forest dwellers, to private companies.

The report quotes: Such lands may have a low tree density, but satisfy the fuel wood, fodder and livelihood needs of about 100 million people. In fact, these lands are degraded because they suffer from extreme biotic pressure, and require neither capital investment, nor higher technology, but protection and recuperation, which can be done only by working with the people, where industry has neither expertise nor patience.

His paper cites the West Bengal experience that shows that about 2000 peoples’ forest protection committees have regenerated more than 300,000 hectares of sal forests at little extra investment, simply by protection on the promise of sharing wood and non-wood products with them.

Oxfam India’s own experience in Odisha, working with Regional Centre for Development and Cooperation (RCDC), shows that the village forest protection committee in Kalahandi have effectively managed the Kumkot Churapahad.

The forest dwellers have inventoried the forest, made fire lines to prevent forest fires, organised thengapali (a traditional practice of voluntary guarding), and streamlined the collection of MFPs and NTFPs from the forest. They have managed to increase their income, increase the biodiversity of the forest, bring back the wildlife and revive a dried up stream.

There are several instances where the communities have managed to conserve and manage their forests. And these haven’t required funds, the lack of which the government is using as an excuse to divert forestland to private players.

In fact, they have generated funds for the forest dwelling communities. For once, the government needs to look at the forest dwellers and learn a few lessons rather than being blindly led by the industry.

Written by: Savvy Soumya Misra, Research Coordinator, Oxfam India

Photo credit: Srikanth Kolari

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