How green is the green credit programme?

It aims to boost forest cover by rewarding tree planting, but plans tailored to local ecology and socioeconomic realities are crucial for true impact.

Published : Feb 24, 2024 11:22 IST - 7 MINS READ

Have mass tree-planting programmes offered benefits to local communities?

Have mass tree-planting programmes offered benefits to local communities? | Photo Credit: RAVIPRASAD KAMILA

Kendur village, in Pune district, lies in the rain shadow of the Western Ghats. Here, the annual rainfall is less than 600 mm, whereas just 60 km west, the Western Ghats receive well over double that amount. The low hills, outcrops of the Ghats, are typical of the savanna grasslands of the Deccan Plateau. The vegetation is sparse, trees are short, and the grasslands lose much of their post-monsoon lushness by the end of November. Animal husbandry is an important part of livelihoods in such dry tracts, where water shortage and monsoon failures make agriculture a precarious gamble.

The villagers face frequent droughts, and severe water and fodder shortages, especially in the scorching summer months. Taking things into their own hands, the gram panchayat decided to plant trees to improve water availability. “Earlier, there used to be trees on the hills, but they were cut for fuelwood. We used our own funds to initiate a tree plantation programme to provide food for livestock and enhance groundwater,” says Suryanakt Thite, the sarpanch of Kendur village.

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But does planting trees in semi-arid landscapes really improve the water situation? After all, don’t trees need water to survive as well? More importantly, do such mass tree-planting exercises, an idea that powers India’s recently launched Green Credits Initiative, offer sustainable benefits to the local communities?

Rationale behind GCP

The Green Credit Program (GCP), announced on October 13, 2023, is described as an innovative market-based mechanism aimed at incentivising voluntary environmental actions across diverse sectors involving individuals, communities, private sector industries, and companies. Prime Minister Modi discussed it during his visit to the COP28 climate summit in Dubai last December.

Despite the seemingly positive rationale of incentivising voluntary action for sustainable environmental practices through a payment system or tradable green credits, such mass tree-plantation programmes warrant a more critical examination of their modus operandi and outcome. This is particularly important when considering factors such as instances of high mortality rates of plantations, sub-optimal use of financial resources, and unclear benefits to local communities.

Saplings being planted in Coimbatore

Saplings being planted in Coimbatore | Photo Credit: Siva Saravanan S.

Such environmental markets have emerged as a strategic and innovative approach to address the pressing concerns arising from the climate and biodiversity loss crises. This is apparent with the global market for carbon credits witnessing an upward trend, and expectations of it touching $250 billion by 2030. Environmental markets, in their promise of providing financial as well as environmental returns, provide a roadmap to transition towards sustainable development. This is especially appealing to developing countries.

The GCP aims to generate tradable green credits for activities such as increasing forest cover, water management, and sustainable agriculture through a series of programmes for which the government has issued guidelines. However, knowledge asymmetries and mismatched expectations of stakeholders may cause bottlenecks in its implementation, leading to ineffective outcomes. The guidelines have generated both concerns as well as criticism from environmental experts, researchers, and conservationists.

To begin with, the payments, or green credits, do not indicate the objective of the tree-planting activities and, therefore, it is not clear what the measurable outcome is for which the credit is generated. For instance, if the objective is biodiversity conservation or ecological restoration, the outcome should be the extent of native biota preserved or restored. If, however, the objective is carbon sequestration, the outcome should be the amount of additional carbon sequestered. If the goal is forest resource-based livelihood enhancement, then the outcome should be an increase in its production.

Large-scale tree planting, for instance, does not guarantee the desired outcomes. Such mechanisms can be evolved through wider consultation with stakeholders and experts. However, it will require a strong monitoring and evaluation mechanism where the outcomes and success indicators are clearly defined. Historical experience tells us that high monitoring and evaluation costs have been the bane of all market-based forest carbon sequestration schemes, and these costs need to be factored into the GCP at the very beginning for effective implementation.

Local context and ecology

The draft rules also outline species lists based on rainfall zones. Although this is a good starting point, it also needs to consider other crucial factors such as soil quality, water availability, and topographical features. For instance, tree species well-suited for planting in valleys may not thrive on hill slopes or hilltops, and vice versa. The Bonn Challenge adopts the ‘Forest and Landscape Restoration’ approach, emphasising that restoration extends beyond mere tree planting. The principles of this approach underscore the significance of considering local context and ecology, recognising the multifaceted nature of restoration efforts.

Another key issue is that the guidelines propose a standardised recommendation of 100-1,000 trees per hectare. This is unreasonably high for the subhumid, semi-arid, and arid regions of India, necessitating a reconsideration. Research indicates that in semi-arid areas, a moderate tree density of less than 100 per hectare yields optimal benefits for water recharge. These areas are usually targeted for large-scale tree planting due to their naturally open character, and may face further ecological degradation due to an unnecessarily high density of planting.

Western Ghats in Chikkamagaluru district in Karnataka.

Western Ghats in Chikkamagaluru district in Karnataka. | Photo Credit: RAVIPRASAD KAMILA

Going forward, we need an ecologically sensitive approach that accounts for India’s diverse bio-geographic zones. There is an opportunity to cultivate a dynamic, more extensive, and non-prescriptive list of tree species, drawing insights from local knowledge documented in People’s Biodiversity Registers. This approach aims to enhance ecological suitability and provide users with a broader range of choices. The list could incorporate ‘no-go rules’, particularly excluding exotic or non-native species. Implementing these measures will contribute to sustainable tree planting by aligning with water conservation, energy efficiency, and effective management and monitoring practices.

Regeneration and rewilding

Social considerations reflected through entry barriers and power imbalances also need focus. For example, lower-income households (such as forest-dwelling and pastoral communities) have a greater dependence on forests and other natural ecosystems, for pasture, fuelwood and food. The rules must also account for tenurial arrangements and socio-economic dependence on the lands that may be used for plantation activities to avoid disruption of livelihoods. As the market-based mechanism introduces a significant shift in the management of land, the government must promote awareness and capacity of local communities and institutions and ensure their informed and equal participation in the GCP.

A socio-ecologically sensitive approach implies moving away from a strong ‘tree-centric’ framework, and allows for ecological restoration activities that involve assisted natural regeneration and rewilding activities. The suitability of land for plantations should be defined as per agroecological and biogeographic zones. It should explicitly mention the measures that need to be taken to make land suitable (such as soil restoration) and must safeguard against the removal of existing natural vegetation. It should also ensure that natural ecosystems such as savanna grasslands, marshes, scrub forests, deserts, rocky outcrops and glades, which are currently misclassified and viewed as non-productive/marginal systems, are not harmed.

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The availability of water for creating high-density plantations in semi-arid areas is a crucial limiting factor. Therefore, tree density should match natural water availability or rainfall, and site selection not be dependent on additional irrigation facilities. These are the challenges that the villagers of Kendur, and many others in India’s vast arid and semi-arid tracts will face if they have to benefit from such schemes.

The vision therefore is to create a system that becomes a beacon for sustainable practices within the complex fabric of India’s environmental landscape. By addressing concerns related to outcome-based models, ecosystem preservation, location sensitivity, tree densities, and socio-economic considerations, this critique seeks to foster a more robust and inclusive framework. In doing so, it aspires to propel the envisioned green credit initiative towards a holistic and effective instrument for environmental conservation and sustainable development in India.

Anuja Malhotra and Abi T. Vanak are with Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bengaluru.

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