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India needs to proactively include indigenous communities and forest dwellers in its efforts to restore and expand forest cover to sequester carbon, and not exclude them from forestry management

A group of tribal voluntary forest guards in Thengapalli forest in Odisha (Photo by Ranjan K Panda)

In India, a new wave of admiration about our traditional knowledge has emerged in public discourse, but it is not reflected in the ways the State wants to manage our forests. Politicians, bureaucrats and intellectuals are holding forth on importance of indigenous knowledge and practices. For instance, the Indian government has been championing the cause of Yoga in the international arena, and has successfully put it on the global map by pushing for an International Yoga Day. Similarly, traditional medicines including Ayurveda have become a buzzword among policymakers.

In this rush to promote India’s traditional knowledge and practices, policymakers have seemingly forgotten another longstanding, rich tradition of India. Indians, especially the indigenous communities living in and around forests, have been living with and protecting India’s biodiversity-rich forests for thousands of years, with a vast repository of lived and traditional knowledge about forest ecosystems.

Most importantly, many of them have demonstrated scientific methods of conservation much before modern forest science emerged. Thousands of villages across India have been protecting natural forests for decades. For example, over 10,000 communities in Odisha have been protecting state-owned forests, often through voluntary labour, and have a deep understanding and commitment to conservation. The vast number of scared groves across the country remains a living testimony to the traditional conservation ethics of Indian tribal communities and forest dwellers.

Neglected tradition

Unfortunately, the centralised forest governance system imposed by the British colonial administration and continued by the post-independence Indian State has not only forgotten to recognise these traditions and practices, but has also been trying its best to destroy these systems to commercialise forests. More unfortunately, this is being done at a time when the entire world, including the scientific community, have started to realise that natural forest conservation holds one of the most important keys to our fight against the deadliest challenge of our time — climate change.

“Natural Climate Solutions (NCS) can provide over one-third of the cost-effective climate mitigation needed between now and 2030 to stabilise warming to below 2 degrees Celsius. Alongside aggressive fossil fuel emissions reductions, NCS offer a powerful set of options for nations to deliver on the Paris Climate Agreement while improving soil productivity, cleaning our air and water, and maintaining biodiversity,” argue a team of scientists and researchers led by B.W. Griscom.

To fulfil the Paris Agreement Goals, as reflected in the country’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), India has set ambitious mitigation strategies. These strategies include increasing the forest and tree cover by five million hectares and improving the quality of forest cover in another five million hectares of forest land.

A meeting of a local community to discuss forestry issues (Photo by Ranjan K Panda)

It is estimated that this would create an additional carbon sink of two to three billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) by 2030. It is assumed that this target is cumulative and would represent an average annual carbon sink of 167–200 million tonnes CO2e (MtCO2e) over the period 2016-20. Over half of this target could be achieved by the Green India Mission, which is expected to enhance annual carbon sequestration by about 100 MtCO2e.

India has also been part of the Bonn Challenge, a global effort to bring 150 million hectares of deforested and degraded land into restoration by 2020 and was later scaled up to aim for a total of 350 million hectares by 2030. The Government of India made a Bonn Challenge pledge to restore 13 million hectares of degraded land by 2020 and an additional eight million hectares by 2030.

Ambitious goals

India’s NDCs and Bonn Challenge goals are ambitious. Some of the organisations monitoring country actions towards meeting the Paris Climate Goals rate India’s policy pathways positively. The Climate Action Tracker (CAT), an independent database, in its latest update on April 30 provides positive ratings to India. It maps the country’s probability of attaining its NDC targets in the yellow category that is compatible with a rise of two degrees Celsius from pre-industrial times. The analysis shows that India can achieve its NDC target under the current climate change and environmental policies.

The CAT analysis highlighted that the plan to add to India’s stored carbon must reach high targets within the existing frameworks of the National Green Mission and the draft Forest Policy 2018. It stated that the draft National Forest Policy would better support India’s targets.

However, an analysis of the proposed rules and regulations in the draft policy shows that it would critically jeopardise the chances of meeting India’s targets.

The Government of India on March 14 circulated the new draft Forest Policy for comments. If it is adopted, the policy will replace an earlier one promulgated in 1988. The 1988 policy signified a historic shift in India’s forest governance, as it recognised the primacy of ecological value of forests, and acknowledged the first claim of tribal and other forest dwelling communities over forests. The landmark Forest Rights Act (FRA) followed in 2006, which recognised legal rights of tribals and forest dwellers over forests.

Policy regression

The new draft policy reverses the gains of the 1988 policy and the Forest Rights Act and proposes regressive practices of forest governance based on the needs of the government and private sectors. Although the draft shows intent to combat climate change, and aims at promoting mitigation and adaptation efforts, they are not supported adequately as it overturns the focus of the previous policy and vests almost absolute power on the forest bureaucracy by eliminating the role of local, indigenous and tribal communities from the management and conservation of forests.

The draft policy has been criticised by conservationists, ecologists, tribals and community representatives. The main criticisms include the use of the climate change threat to recentralise power to forest bureaucracy at the cost of communities; deliberate subversion of the landmark Forest Rights Act; and facilitation of the land and forest grabbing, historically owned and managed by tribals and other forest dwellers, by private companies for industrial plantations.

The strategies of bureaucracy-led, large-scale afforestation and forest restoration with involvement of private sector would likely fail, lead to conflicts and waste of scarce financial resources. The immense opportunity for climate change mitigation and adaptation through a rights-based forest protection and restoration movement provided by the Forest Rights Act has been ignored in this draft Forest Policy.

That’s the reason Climate Scorecard, a US-based civil society coalition that monitors and ranks the climate action of leading Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emitting countries, has rated India’s draft Forest Policy at the lowest in a 4-level ranking system. The ranking, which assessed the draft, took into consideration the views and comments from Indian ecologists and forestry experts such as Madhav Gadgil, Ramchandra Guha, Sharad Lele and serving foresters.

Compensatory afforestation

About a month before the draft Forest Policy was circulated, another proposed policy decision was opened for public comments. On February 16, India’s environment ministry released the draft Compensatory Afforestation Fund (CAF) Rules, 2018. These rules aim at undoing the FRA and plan to vest almost absolute power in the Forest Department. According to CAF Rules, the Forest Department would decide how USD 8 billion from the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) Fund would be utilised.

Local communities often know how to best manage their forests (Photo by Ranjan K Panda)

The CAF Rules don’t respect the rights granted to nearly 200 million indigenous people and forest dwellers by FRA and will likely promote monoculture plantations, displacing forest dwellers. Extensive documentation has been done that shows dozens of conflicts where communities have been displaced by such plantations. Ignoring indigenous and local communities, who have been the best managers of India’s natural forest resources and have helped preserve majority of its high biodiversity forests is likely to lead to the failure of CAMPA. The Indian government therefore, needs to revise the draft rules and incorporate the suggestions given by indigenous and forest-based communities, environmentalists and activists.

Cancelling informed consent

The draft also does away with the provision of free, prior and informed consent, more commonly known as FPIC, of the village councils of forest communities before starting compensatory afforestation projects. This in turn would create significant risk of dispossession and displacement of some of the most vulnerable forest communities in the world.

India’s forestry targets have already been criticised by local and tribal communities as well as civil society for being overly focused on commercial monoculture and for ignoring community rights over forests. These latest initiatives by the Indian government that would dilute forest rights of communities raises fresh doubts over India’s commitment to a socially just and sustainable pathway to achieve its Paris Climate Agreement goals.

If we love our indigenous cultures and practices, then we must not ignore the role of indigenous communities in protecting our vital natural forests that are rich in biodiversity.

In recent research that analysed contribution of local communities’ contribution to climate change mitigation by looking at carbon storage in collective lands, it was established that communities that claim and own their collective lands have so far sequestered at least 54,546 million tonnes of carbon equivalent — roughly four times the world’s annual emissions. The study, carried out by Rights and Resources Initiative, Woods Hole Research Centre and World Resources Institute, calls for recognition of the world’s indigenous and local communities in climate stabilisation and carbon sequestration.

The Indian government must consider these issues and experiences seriously before going ahead with finalisation of the draft Forest Policy and CAF rules. If we need to go back to our tradition on anything at all, then this is it. We need to recognise the traditional forest conservation practices, ensure rights of the indigenous communities over these forests and facilitate their role in meeting our climate goals. Ignoring the communities’ rights over forests and ignoring the real forest science, which confirms that natural biodiversity-rich forests mitigate climate impacts the best, would be disastrous.


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