Money does grow on trees

 
By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

My initiation into environmental advocacy began in the mid-1980s. My colleague Anil Agarwal was involved in a fight against the Karnataka government's proposal to give forest land to Harihar Polyfibres -- the Birla-owned pulp mill based in the state -- to grow its raw material. The matter was in the Supreme Court and we had to put together information to convince, first our lawyer and then the judges, on why environmental groups were fighting against an "eminently" sensible and green proposal to afforest land.

The problem, we explained after careful research, was that this forest land being given to the paper industry for its captive plantation was the mother of all subsidies. This industry had in the past been given vast areas of forests at a throw away price. With interest in forest conservation growing, this strategy had to be reworked. Industry wanted the easy way out. It wanted government to grant it forest land for afforestation. But we believed that this grant of cheap land would destroy the possibility of asking industry to source its wood from farmers. So, we were not against the paper industry getting wood for its raw material but we were against it getting forest land to grow that wood. But company lawyers -- the best -- argued that the land being given was "wasteland". Acres and acres of it lying waste across the country. So how could we oppose their client's 'green' efforts?

We explained ourselves to the court. We showed how this land was not unused. It was degraded because of intense human and animal pressure, which suppressed natural regeneration. And if this was the case, what would happen to those 'illegal' but 'customary' users of this state-owned common land, once the land became 'private' plantation property? Where would they go to graze their cattle or collect their firewood? Was it not more important to involve these very people in regenerating forests, so that livelihoods could be protected and land -- all the acres lying waste -- could be afforested?

Government accepted this view. The national forest policy of 1988 incorporated our proposition and asked industry to go to farmers to grow trees. But industry kept the fire burning. Every new minister was sold this magic pill: give degraded forest land to industry, which will use its immense financial and managerial prowess to afforest India. Each time this proposition was raised, it was opposed. But it is one of those ideas that continues to simmer.

But why am I writing this now? Because some things have come a full circle. This fight began with Harihar Polyfibres and now, some 20 years later, it may well end with Harihar Polyfibres. Then, it was the symbol of everything wrong with the Indian paper and pulp industry. Now, this same company has been rewarded by the Centre for Science and Environment's Green Rating Project for its initiatives in sustainable raw material sourcing. Harihar today gets over 90 per cent of its wood from 18,000-odd farmers it has encouraged to grow trees over 28,000 ha of land. It has shown that the Indian paper industry can find a viable, economical and self-sustaining source for its raw material by working with local communities.

This message needs to be heard. Clearly. There is no denying industry will remain a voracious user of wood. The question is of strategy: can we turn this threat into an opportunity, so that growing trees becomes an enterprise for rural households -- rich and poor? The potential is out there. Even now, the bulk of the industry's raw material is wood and bamboo, most of which comes from government forests. But the pattern is changing, courtesy Harihar and other innovative companies. The space for wood sourced directly from farmers is increasing in the marketplace. Farm-grown wood has even begun fighting an unfair competition with the forest department, whose cheaper wood distorts the market.

The pattern is changing also because some paper companies are showing enormous ingenuity in building up this sustainable supply chain. They are working with farmers, investing in dramatically improving the yields of wood, so that instead of the 6-10 tonnes per ha that the forest department would cut, farmers can reap up to 200 tonnes of wood from each ha of their land. Even on unirrigated lands, yields go up to 50-70 tonnes and the farmers find that money does really grow on trees. The key, these companies find, is that sustainability of their supply lies in sustaining the farmer's interest.

Trees take time to grow. If the price fluctuates or news of a crash spreads, farmers will speedily switch to whatever gets them a return on their investment. They are quick learners. They are survivors. So, the onus is on industry. In the late 1980s, as wood grown by farmers reached the markets, it was industry that had forced the market to crash. It successfully arm twisted government into supplying cheap wood from its forests. It also persuaded government, using the 'green' argument, to allow pulp imports to be brought under the open general license category. This literally made it cheaper to import pulp from Canada than to buy wood grown by farmers in Punjab or Haryana. Farmers literally plucked out saplings and threw them away.

The question, I repeat, is about strategy. So far, we know only two ways of working the environment. We either use it for extractive purposes, in which we rape our resources. Or we throw a protective ring around it, to stop the environment from degrading. But we have never really learnt how to use the environment for productive purposes, in a sustainable manner. Maybe the paper industry will teach all of us how.

-- Sunita Narain

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