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Draft forest policy promotes controversial industrial tree plantations

Nihar Gokhale | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:49 IST

India's draft national forest policy emphasises promotion of industrial-scale tree plantations in India - an idea that has been controversial in many developing countries for causing water depletion, soil degradation and fostering conflicts.

Agro-forestry, farm forestry and "forest industry interface" are some of the sections of the policy, that describe planting commercial forests in non-forest areas.

"There is a need to stimulate growth in the forest based industry sector... Forest based industries have already established captive plantations in partnership with the farmers. This partnership needs to be further expanded to ensure an assured supply of raw material to the industries with mutually beneficial arrangements," the policy says.

Wood is good

The policy wants to "double forest cover outside forests", which can help reduce India's wood imports. The policy says that wood is an environment friendly substitute for other materials (presumably metals and plastics), which have a higher carbon footprint. It even wants to have an education campaign on the theme "wood is good".

However, the international experience with such plantations has been to the contrary, with increasing instances of conflicts with locals, declining water availability, deteriorating soil quality and contamination from excessive pesticide use.

Industrial tree plantations are most prominently found in countries like Brazil, Indonesia and Malaysia, where these were established since the 1970s to satisfy the global demand for wood, palm oil and paper.

Risks associated with industrial plantation

Palm tree plantations in Indonesia were said to be responsible for the massive forest fires in the region in 2015.

As India's forest policy draft also mentions, these forest plantations are outside the designated "forest areas". Elsewhere in the world, this has led to land-grabbing in villages, typically from farmers.

"The social and environmental justice conflicts that result from the negative impacts of plantations are mainly about land access and tenure, but also other social, economic, environmental and cultural impacts. Human rights violations are common in many countries," says a 2012 report on plantations by the Environment Justice, Organization, Liabilites and Trade (EJOLT), a research collective documenting environment conflicts worldwide. The report also mentions that women are the most affected in such conflicts.

Similar testimonies are also given by the World Rainforest Movement (WRM). The WRM found that because of the prominent use of heavy machinery in managing such forests, the total jobs created were much lesser than the agricultural activities that took place on the land earlier.

The draft Forest Policy does not mention any of these risks or set up any systems to manage them.

Even the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, back in a 2000 study, said that while industrial plantations can play an important role of substituting wood from natural forests, it has to be done carefully.

"Without adequate planning and without appropriate management, forest plantations may be grown in the wrong sites, with the wrong species/provenances, by the wrong growers, for the wrong reasons... In [some] instances, changes in soil and water status have caused problems for local communities. Land use conflicts can occur between forest plantation development and other sectors, particularly the agricultural sector," the report stated.

India's draft policy - which is up for public inputs till 30 June - is slated to be in force for two to three decades after it is implemented. It seeks to replace the 1988 policy which is currently in force.

The policy has been prepared by the environment ministry's Indian Institute of Forest Management, with inputs from states gathered in a 2015 panel headed by the Director General of Forests.

Here are the other highlights of the policy:

1. National Board of Forestry: Set up the National Board of Forestry, and state boards of forestry on the lines of the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) and SBWLs. Although the wildlife boards are headed by the Prime Minister (or chief minister for states) and derive statutory powers from the Wildlife Protection Act to grant wildlife clearances to projects, the Forestry boards seem to only be policy-making bodies.

2. Ignores forest rights: Although a 2015 Note for reviewing the old forest policy, issued by the environment ministry, acknowledges that the Forest Rights Act was passed by the parliament, the draft policy does not mention this act anywhere. On the contrary, it wants a Community Forest Management Mission, a "parallel arrangement" to the Act. Community management preceded the Act, which accorded stronger powers to both individual forest dwellers and their communities over the use of their forest areas.

3. Green tax: The policy proposes imposing a green tax to promote "ecologically responsible behaviour" and increasing financial support to forestry. A parliamentary committee had, in a recent report, said that the funding to the ministry does not have enough money to effectively discharge its functions.

First published: 22 June 2016, 4:58 IST
Nihar Gokhale @nihargokhale

Nihar is a reporter with Catch, writing about the environment, water, and other public policy matters. He wrote about stock markets for a business daily before pursuing an interdisciplinary Master's degree in environmental and ecological economics. He likes listening to classical, folk and jazz music and dreams of learning to play the saxophone.