For sustainable solutions

Print edition : April 08, 2005

The new policy initiatives of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests aim at improving the forest cover in such a way as to benefit all the stakeholders - the forest departments, local communities and investors.

THE world over sustainable forest management has become a buzz word, thanks to the increasing pressure on forest resources from a growing population and to the decreasing forest cover. India is no exception and this is reflected in the series of initiatives taken under the National Forest Policy of 1988 and those proposed in the latest Draft National Environment Policy for conservation and regeneration of forests.

Sustainability is no longer an option but an imperative to ensure a better world and forests play a crucial role in sustaining both the environment and the economy by providing numerous goods and services for the people and maintaining the life support systems. Their contribution to the gross domestic product (GDP) is estimated at 2.37 per cent and the economic value of the ecosystem services of forests is vast, which is difficult to quantify. But most decisions on land-use do not take into account these values to the extent necessary. It is not realised that the forests' environmental values offer direct financial benefits to the community.

Under colonial rule, forests were deemed to belong to the state and forest departments were set up to manage them. For centuries, tribal populations had enjoyed traditional community rights over forests and this acted as an incentive for them to protect the forests from encroachers and use them in a sustainable manner. But the forest laws during the British rule took away these rights. As a result, access to the forests became open, leading to gradual degradation and a perennial conflict between the tribal population and forest departments.

Soon after Independence, the Government of India came out with a policy to manage forests, which continued to be under government control. The principal objective of that policy was to generate revenue. Hence it allowed contractors to cut down trees for timber on the condition that they would plant fast-growing timber species as a compensatory measure. But in practice trees were felled without compensatory planting. At the same time, pressure on forest resources increased with the ever-growing demand for fuel-wood, fodder and timber. The measures to protect forests were not adequate and there was diversion of forest areas to non-forest uses without ensuring compensatory afforestation and environmental safeguards. Forest fires and encroachment added to the problems.

It was in this context that in the late 1980s the government felt the need to review its 1952 policy and evolve a new strategy for forest conservation. The result was the National Forest Policy of 1988, which inter alia sought to maintain environmental stability, conserve the remaining natural forests with their vast variety of flora and fauna, check soil erosion and denudation in the catchment areas of rivers, lakes and reservoirs to mitigate floods and droughts, and increase the productivity of forests to meet essential national needs. The policy also aimed at increasing substantially the forest and tree cover through massive afforestation and social forestry programmes, especially on all denuded, degraded and unproductive lands, to meet the rural and tribal populations' requirements of fuel-wood, fodder, minor forest produce and small timber.

This policy marked a radical shift in priority in favour of conservation in order to ensure environmental stability and ecological balance including atmospheric equilibrium, which had been disturbed by the depletion of forests. It was felt that the objective of deriving the direct economic benefit must be subordinated to this principal aim. The reasons for this are not far to seek. Forests help recharge mountain aquifers that sustain the water flows in rivers. They also conserve the soil and thereby prevent floods and drought. They provide the habitat for wildlife and the ecological conditions for natural evolution and maintenance of genetic diversity of flora and fauna. In addition, they are the traditional homes of the tribal population, which depend on forests for its livelihood.

Besides spelling out the objectives, the policy enunciated measures to achieve them. No forest conservation programme could succeed without the support and cooperation of the people. Therefore, the policy envisaged the involvement of educational institutions, right from the primary stage, in instilling in the people a direct interest in developing and conserving forests. It also envisaged active participation of the local communities in forest management. Participatory management had existed for several years in different forms and these efforts were institutionalised with the launch of the Joint Forest Management (JFM) programme in June 1990.

The programme sought to encourage partnerships between local people and forest departments to manage forest areas jointly and provide state-approved access for the local communities to nearby forest areas, besides encouraging them to protect forests from free grazing and other illegal activities by outsiders. It also assured the local people of a certain proportion of the harvests from the forests protected by them. The JFM programme was viewed as a panacea for all the maladies affecting the forests. Notwithstanding the conflicting interests among different stakeholders, the State governments implemented it vigorously.

According to the Annual Report of the Ministry of Environment & Forests for 2003-04, the JFM programme has been adopted in 27 States, covering an area of 17.3 million hectares and involving 8 million families. It has brought about a welcome change in the relationships between local communities and forest officials, besides improving the condition of forests, reducing encroachments and increasing the income of the local people. The target is to cover all the 1,70,000 villages on the fringes of forests during the Tenth Plan period.

THE Tenth Plan document indicates the steps to be adopted for the effective implementation of the JFM programme. It advocates entrusting suitable forest patches to well-defined user groups with a transparent Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that defines the roles and responsibilities of the JFM committees and the Forest Department. Security of tenure and access to benefits from the resources must be assured to the people and legal backup should be provided to the JFM committees. The Village Protection Committees should have linkages with industries for selling JFM produce. Sustainable silviculture practices should be followed in the management of forests under the JFM programme.

At the same time the government has been encouraging private sector initiatives in the forestry sector. The emphasis on social forestry has led to the planting of trees on wastelands, degraded forests, private forests, private marginal lands and agricultural farms. Over six million ha is estimated to have been covered by tree planted by private players. Non-forest private sources account for 50 per cent of the total wood supply in the country. According to Planning Commission sources, apart from its contribution to wood supply the private sector has demonstrated its ability to enhance the productivity of forests.

The Planning Commission is of the view that forest product requirements of industries should be met from plantations on community land, degraded forests and private farmlands. This would help reduce the import of these products. It is pointed out that a forest management strategy should take into account the community's forest produce needs so that over-exploitation of resources can be prevented. Creation of forest resources would help reduce pressure on natural forests and reverse the negative impact of deforestation. It is noted that the performance of forest plantations at present is poor in terms of survival, growth and yield. The mean annual increment of forest plantations varies from 2 cubic metres a hectare for valuable timber species to 5-8 cubic metres a hectare for eucalyptus and other fast-growing species. This is far below the levels in other countries.

THE initiatives and programmes launched under the National Forest Policy of 1988 have led to a slight increase in forest cover. The area under forests was 6,75,000 sq m in 2001, representing 20.55 per cent of the total geographical area of the country. The goal of the National Forest Policy was to achieve 33 per cent coverage. The Tenth Plan document indicated that this would be achieved in two phases, that is, 25 per cent coverage by the end of the Tenth Plan and 33 per cent by the end of the Eleventh Plan period.

Achievement of this goal is by no means an easy task as could be seen from the areas of concern highlighted in the Tenth Plan Approach Paper prepared by the Planning Commission. The lack of awareness about the multiple roles and benefits of forests, lack of linkage between forest management and the livelihood security of the people, the low level of technology, a weak planning capability, overemphasis on government involvement and control, the low level of people's participation, the inadequate involvement of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) involvement and the lack of inter-sector coordination have been identified as the areas of concern.

The Planning Commission has, therefore, called for more focussed interventions to address issues relating to the opportunities, empowerment and livelihood security of the poor people who depend on forests. It has advocated the adoption of a broader livelihood approach, covering the people's productive capacity, institutional and legal structures, market access and tenure. It wants focus on improving governance, especially correcting the major distortions in incentives and markets which reduce the value of forest resource. It also encourages the development of efficient markets and private sector participation in this sector.

THOUGH the 1988 policy provided a comprehensive basis for forest conservation, the Ministry of Environment and Forests has proposed in its recently released draft National Environment Policy new initiatives based on the experience gained so far. One of the proposals is to give legal recognition to the traditional rights of forest-dwelling tribes. This would remedy a serious historical injustice, secure their livelihoods, reduce the possibilities of conflict with the forest departments and provide long-term incentives to the tribal population to conserve forests. Observers of the forest sector hail this but feel that this calls for a change in the mindset of the Indian foresters. It is pointed out that it would be better to encourage participative management of protected forests on the lines of the JFM programme, than bringing more forest areas under the protected area network.

It is also proposed to formulate an innovative strategy for increasing the forest cover through the afforestation of degraded forest areas and wastelands and promotion of tree cover on private or revenue land. An ambitious National Afforestation Programme (NAP) was launched under the aegis of the National Afforestation and Eco-development Board (NAEB) set up in 1992. This is being implemented through Forest Development Agencies, which are federations of Joint Forest Management Committees at the village level. This arrangement would provide an organic link between the forest departments and local communities. More than 50 projects have been sanctioned under the NAP.

The strategy for increasing forest cover also envisages implementation of multi-stakeholder partnerships, involving the forest departments, local communities and investors with clearly defined obligations and entitlements.

The restrictions on cultivation of forest species outside notified forests would be rationalised to enable farmers to undertake social and farm forestry where their returns are more favourable than cropping. Public investments would be focussed on enhancing the density of natural forests, mangrove conservation and universalisation of the JFM programme. An appropriate methodology would be worked out for reckoning and restoring the environmental values of forests, which are unavoidably diverted to other uses.

A thorough review of the current policies and their impact is being made by the National Forest Commission, which was set up two years ago. Its report would indicate the extent to which the National Forest Policy of 1988 has achieved its objectives and the measures required to bridge the gap in achieving the goals.

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