Sowing the seeds of a disaster

AT THE CROSSROADS: “We are at a critical moment in India’s fight to achieve ecological security while ensuring progress.” Picture shows poplar plantations on the outskirts of Delhi. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat   | Photo Credit: MEETA AHLAWAT

While vigorously pursuing a slew of reforms to ease forest clearances, the Prime Minister and his Environment Minister have repeatedly averred that development will not be pursued at the cost of India’s remaining forests. Welcome as these statements are, there is cause for apprehension in the form of the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill, 2015 (CAF Bill), which was introduced in the Lok Sabha on May 8, 2015.

‘Compensatory Afforestation’ is a convenient Indian concept that has been in place since 1980. Whenever development projects seek land inside a Reserved Forest or a Protected Area (PA), such as a sanctuary or a national park, certain levies are imposed on the project proponent. This money is to be utilised to plant trees elsewhere, ostensibly to compensate for the loss of forest.

Over the last 10 years, a staggering corpus of Rs.35,000 crore has accrued from such levies in a fund called Compensatory Afforestation Management Planning Authority (CAMPA). The Central government now wants to release 90 per cent of this money to States for carrying out afforestation projects. On the face of it, this might seem like a progressive step. But given that the Bill is anchored on a flawed and unscientific premise, it is only likely to provide a ‘fig leaf’ for covering up the increasing diversion of forests in the name of development.

Threat of fragmentation

When ill-planned development projects are thrust into the heart of PAs, the result is fragmentation, that is, the breaking up of large forest blocks into smaller and more vulnerable patches. Peer-reviewed scientific research has clearly established that fragmentation is one of the most serious threats to long-term biodiversity conservation, causing several devastating impacts; among other things, it disrupts landscape connectivity, affecting dispersal of animals, and creates new edges that expose forests to exploitation and severe degradation. Sadly, instead of addressing this critical issue, successive governments have been pursuing the flawed idea of trying to ‘compensate’ for forest loss and fragmentation by raising artificial plantations elsewhere.

Here is just one example of how the compensatory afforestation approach ends up not just being a ‘greenwash’, but an ecological disaster as well. From 1980 to 2005, the Kudremukh Iron Ore Company Limited (KIOCL) strip-mined hill slopes clothed in virgin rainforests in the heart of Karnataka’s Kudremukh National Park. Besides the horrendous damage to the fragile ecosystem, over 150 million tonnes of tailings — the waste mud left over after extraction of low grade ore — were dumped into a pristine, 100-metre-deep, forested valley. To ‘compensate’ for this loss of natural habitat, KIOCL went on a massive compensatory afforestation spree, planting millions of trees. The problem with this was twofold: the trees were non-native species with zero biodiversity value; and they were planted on adjoining areas of natural grassland, which are an extremely important component of the Bhadra River’s watershed. Thus, apart from the forested hill slopes and the valley that were destroyed by mining activities, a third natural habitat, in the form of ecologically important grasslands, was destroyed through mindless tree planting. To add insult to injury, governments and project proponents alike proclaim such travesties as achievements towards a ‘Green India’.

The CAF Bill 2015, if approved in its current form, would end up repeating such colossal mistakes all over the country. In order to provide real benefits, the Bill must be modified to allow a major percentage of CAMPA funds to be utilised for consolidating the remaining large blocks of natural old-growth forests.

Poor results

Despite the investment of more than Rs. 4,600 crore during the last three decades, from international aid agencies such as the World Bank, U.S. Agency for International Development, The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, Overseas Development Institute and others, there is ample evidence of the extremely poor results of past afforestation efforts. In Karnataka, where more than Rs. 1,500 crore have been spent on afforestation projects over the past 30 years, data from the Forest Survey of India shows that dense and moderately dense forest cover in the State went down by 2,898 sq km between 1997 and 2011. In Maharashtra, a recent official evaluation of ten-year old plantations (2004-2014) in all 11 forest circles has shown that 74 per cent of them have failed while 13 per cent are partially successful and only 13 per cent successful.

Under the 12th Plan, an allocation of Rs. 2,500 crore was made for the National Afforestation Programme, but with little to show on the ground. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology and Environment and Forests in 2015 has recorded that despite massive budgetary provisions, 40 per cent of forests in the country are still degraded. Currently, Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) has committed Rs. 15,000 crore for 22 forestry projects in 13 States. Ignoring all this, the Ministry of Environment is pushing forward with a poorly conceived CAF Bill that will only trigger massive corruption in the forestry sector, without providing any ecological benefits to the country.

There is further justification for a review of the CAF Bill. CAMPA is India’s sovereign fund, and is thus the only one available for consolidation of large forest blocks. None of the international aid agencies funding afforestation projects allows for this ecologically vital activity.

Other than investments to consolidate large Reserved Forest blocks, PAs, and the creation of wildlife corridors, the other important activity that needs to be funded through CAMPA is natural restoration or regeneration of degraded forests. The approach must be to first identify degraded forest areas with existent root stock, and invest only on appropriate protection measures such as trenching, fencing and fire prevention. The degraded forests will then recover through a natural process at a very nominal cost to the exchequer. Funding for artificial plantations should only be considered in extremely degraded areas with no existing root stock.

We are at a critical moment in India’s fight to achieve ecological security while ensuring economic and social progress. If recast on the basis of sound science, the CAF Bill 2015 will form the basis of a far-sighted and genuinely beneficial strategy to protect India’s forests. However, given the way it is crafted presently, it will allow Rs. 35,000 crore to be squandered away on corruption-ridden ‘afforestation’ projects involving digging pits, buying polythene bags for raising saplings, and planting trees that can never become forests.

(Praveen Bhargav has served on the National Board for Wildlife, and the 2008 CAF Bill sub-committee. Shekar Dattatri has served on the National Board for Wildlife, and is currently on the State Board for Wildlife, Tamil Nadu)

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Printable version | Oct 15, 2021 3:04:32 PM |

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