From forestry to productive forestry

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

imageMy position on the need to re-position forests in development (see ‘Rethink growth with forest capital’, Down To Earth, May 16-31) has brought me a huge response.

On the one hand are those who argue that functions of forests already include conservation vital to life; they need to be valued and protected. The unsaid (and often stressed) corollary is that any discussion on the need to improve productivity of forests through the involvement of people needs to be shunned. The stretched and simplistic positioning of this view is that forests and people cannot go together. One writer has even argued passionately that the government should think of taking over—buying out—large areas of forests from people and then protecting them for future generations. On the other hand, are those who argue for further engagement of people with forests.

The discussion on this matter is deeply polarised. The two sides are at war, and in this war both forests and wildlife are the losers. But all is not lost. My point that standing forests need to be valued and that people need to engage in the business of productive forestry, has also brought some hesitant voices of support. We need innovative experiments in policy. Let me stress again: the stalemate in the forest policy is not tenable.

Each passing day, the constituency for the protection of forests is shrinking. This is when the forestlands in India are under a big threat—not necessarily from the people living in forests but from developers who want the land, minerals, water and other resources. Over time, the infrastructure imperative will take away forests, which have become the only “free” and “available” resource in the time of scarcity. The demand to open up forests will grow.

Forestland is being lost bit by bit and all the talk about compensatory afforestation is just that—talk, not trees on the ground. This way we will be left with pockmarked wildlife reserves that animals and people will compete for. It is to avoid this future that we need forests to be central to development as we reinvent it. It is in this context that we must discuss the potential of forests, both the intangible benefits of ecological security and tangible economic returns. This discussion is taboo in the forest-conservation circles, where the country has moved from extraction to protection, without clarity about how the land will be utilised for production.

But let us also be clear that India (or for that matter any country) cannot afford to set aside 22 per cent of its land, and not use it for development. This is a message that environmentalists fighting against forest destruction are rightly reluctant to give. But it is time we changed this.

Take a look at the economic survey of the country to see how forests have disappeared from national accounts. There are estimates of what forests generate for the economy but no valuation of the standing forests and their role in water and soil protection, and certainly no valuation of the minor forest produce, which provides livelihood to the poor. There is no assessment of the role of forests as providers of grazing land, which in turn provides for animal care and dairying. Instead, you will see that the contribution of this sector—defined as agriculture, forestry and fishing—has sharply declined each year. Its annual growth rate in 2005-06 was 5.2 per cent. By 2009-10 its growth rate turned negative. Its place has been taken by the mining and quarrying sector, which registered a growth rate of 8.7 per cent in 2009-10 against 1.3 per cent in 2005-06. In fact, forests have been blacked out in the economic assessment of the country.

The forest survey report, which tells us that the forest cover in the country is stable and increasing, has another valuable hidden fact: the stock of forests has decreased between 2005 and 2009. Clearly, something is amiss, if we consider the enormous potential of growing wood and non-timber products and their impact on livelihoods and economies of states. We import more and more of forest produce, from pulp to timber. It is for this reason that revenues from forests are declining in state budgets, which creates pressure for their diversion to more productive uses.

The way ahead involves three steps. One, we need to urgently value the economic potential of forests and to incorporate this into national accounts. But this valuation must go beyond carbon storage and other obvious benefits. It must take into account the million ways in which forests provide livelihood support to people. Two, as I have discussed earlier, we need steps to pay for standing forests. This money must go to communities bearing the burden of conservation. The economic value of keeping forests as forests for watersheds and biodiversity has to be paid to the custodians. It will build local economies and local support for forest protection.

Three, most importantly, we have to increase the productivity of the remaining forestland. But we know that the business of cutting and planting trees that survive cannot be successful without people who live in the forest. The question is whether we are willing to see the writing on the wall. As yet, I have no certainty about the answer.

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  • Dear Editor While we all have

    Dear Editor

    While we all have a stake in the forests and cannot allow them to be destroyed, any further claim upon the forests by non forest dwellers is an act of hegemony.

    It is a rebuttable presumption that all non-forest dwellers support some form of exploitation of forests. We must also be presumed to support the view that ultimately (in some developmental utopian future) dwelling in forests must cease, and all people must become "modern" in their thinking and their living.

    It seems to me that such hegemonic thinking must inevitably lead to the destruction of forests. The European/ western example is neither inspiration, nor precedent. Most European forests are in a bad shape ecologically. And, India does not have the luxury of exporting its surplus population elsewhere, or the privilege of importing raw materials at throwaway prices for hundreds of years. So, Indian forests will not survive unless we come up with some radical solutions.

    I think the only "solution" is to take the stand that the forests, and the wealth that can be generated from them by putting them to "productive use", must vest in forest dwellers. Non forest dwellers should only have the right to intervene when it appears that a particular practice or action is likely to lead to destruction/ degradation of the forest/s. Denial of profits may help ensure that the non forest dweller interventions will be honest.

    This may sound utopian/impractical but is no more so than any other scheme (including the current regime) touted in the name of the forests, or the ecology/ environment. The modalities can be worked out, given sufficient support.

    This approach will probably require a declaration that forest dwellers are a distinct class of people, invested with autonomy akin to that granted to Muslims, christians or, even Hindus, with respect to their "personal" laws. In other words, no interference.

    Of course, what I propose will not happen. The disagreement over forests will remain intractable. Ideological differences apart, the profits are too great to be foregone. Besides, speaking attritively, it is reasonable for a modernist-capitalist-environmentalist to assume that they cannot lose the war to acquire the forests and evict the forest dwellers.

    Yours sincerely

    Ashok Agrwaal

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • In more than half a century

    In more than half a century since independence, look how even the dwindling forest cover in India has helped sustain the much talked about economic growth - it is unfair to separate agriculture, forestry & fishing from mining & quarrying just for the sake of argument - any sensible person will attribute the benefits to forests. Further to this, there is no successful community led forest management example yet and forest departments find it a struggle to protect forests where they are not themselves conniving with exploiters/encroachers/poachers in the name of development. In a country that is listed as one of the most corrupt in the world, what chance does any meaningful reasonable transparent system have of ever being implemented? The bigger questions are - how much more productive? What is the face of the community? Yes, evaluation is a must and will certainly help but only to an extent. We need to develop our inner selves to create a strong social fabric that can perceive collective good above vested interest. So far, neither our formal education has been able to build a positive national character nor are there enough traditional value systems in practice. It is chaos all the way. In a battle of economy versus ecology - economy will always rule!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • the forests are the vital

    the forests are the vital base every thing else.their main products are water and biodiversity conservation.Any thing to improve the productivity of these two basic products is welcome.unfortunately the colonial masters and those in power n the last 65 years since independence have destroyed and are continuing to destroy forests as they wrongly believe the timber, pulpwood etc are the important products. the entire fuel, fodder, timber, pulpwood required has to be met from over 78% land outside forests.Some states like tamilnadu have attempted it in a limited way with very impressive results. good luck

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Mrs Narain, I support

    Dear Mrs Narain,

    I support many of your points. Yet, I have a few things to mention. We do not have 20 per cent land area under forest cover any more as might have been shown by the satelite imagery. The private orchards, tea, rubber, cashew-nut and coffee plantations all appear like forests to the eyes of the satellite camera.

    You have also raised the issue of paying compensation to the communities, for allowing the forests to remain. I feel this will be a totally counterproductive step; the forest is required for the communities for ensuring water and air; should they also be provided cash? This will be impracticable, which village will be paid and which left; to what geographical area you will cover? and from where all the money will come to be paid?

    Dr. Sarma

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Dear madam, The views

    Dear madam,

    The views in the previous and present articles carry my full support. The issue is rightly productive forests and the hype of preservation and sanctum sanctorum theory does not hold good. Community stake is critical and its integration perhaps can be taken as number one strategic necessity in forest management.

    However, what would be needed would be to integrate these within a constitutional, socially and economically feasible way. The indications so far have been about the perception of "Community" as something different from what exists constitutionally.

    Thus, is community a gram sabha, which is represented by panchayat? In that case one needs to work for modifying 73rd amendment. One also needs to see if the capacity of such institutions matches the task? Performance of the listed 29 tasks is a matter of evaluation. So is their institutional back up!

    Is it a congregation of people with stake on forests as presumed in JFM theory, where individual physical participation based quid pro quo is feasible - only functional refinement may be desirable.

    or is it something beyond that as presumed by several intellectuals for whom constitutional governments are a bunch of unnecessary people.This is something which is a de novo theory and may be a new consitution needs to be writen about that.

    This needs to be clearly made out before any discussion on it is thought of.

    Similarly 'payment' can very well be represented by 'earmarking' cost of benefits of forests (e.g. non tax forest revenue?) in the scheme of financal devolution to the locl self governments for 'community' use than individual use. Payment can not be something like unorganised distribution to individuals. It is of first importance that the models are defined for this purpose, which display the custody by the custodian also. Is a separate Finance Commission , or a special Term of Reference for state Finance Commissions for this purpose could be a way of accounting?

    As productivity and profile issues are involved, minimum scientific back up is warranted.Community systems should be provided this back up as a constitutional necessity.

    JFM regimes have failed to account the barters it has affected so far and therefore is called an inefficient model. However, I think organising it in rational way will be a better option.

    Bottom line is, Community in the scheme of governance and constitution is to be defined. A debate on this should preceed any debate on the "Payment" part.

    Khanduri, Thiruvananthapuram

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • I liked most part of the

    I liked most part of the editorial by Ms Sunita Narain who is invariably has a very balanced views on forests and, it's management.there can not be any difference of opinion that the forests should be valued scientifically for their contribution to ecological services. Despite the fact that foresters although well conversant about the scope and technique have not used this in adequately articulating their case for proportional budget allocation. In addition the livelihood part has also more or less remained as a subject for researchers. To remind to all those concerned with the subject that there is about 40 million people directly dependent upon non-timber forest products. According to research, upto 1990 the contribution to HH income was Rs 1,000 which now goes beyond Rs 3,000 and this is the cash income. If one considers the consumptive use it may be safe to assume Rs 5,000/ HH. The total recorded contribution by this small used portion of biodiversity will thus be very huge. The other most important point for consideration is the current productivity of forest and the aspect of increasing productivity. Despite best growing conditions in many parts of India we are impoting timber and timber products worth about 10 billion US $. This is going to increase to 15 billion US $ by 2020. In stead of keeping the low productive forest (mostly on account of degradation) we need to shun our bias against involving private partners, although hesitant but I mean patriotic corporate. Every one is not going to take away the forest land for real estate development. I have great regards for my professional colleagues about their capabilities of greening but in the past two decades they have had very dismal performance in raising productive forest. The flagship JFM programme is now gradually dying because of our unjustified bias against the capabilities of communities. We have been too much bogged down in promoting our own cadre but we are hesitant and even callous partnering NGOs and communities. There is a need to involve others, particularly the communities and private players in greening efforts. The private-corporates should be subjected to very rigorous conditionalities so that there is no fear often expressed by Civil society. If they can create wealth because of their management skill why cant they use the same for greening movement. Their efforts may be monitored by those who have reservations. I am sure it will not be difficult to find good organizations among them already spending huge amount on CSR (e.g. SDTT). I am sure there are many such. The greening India mission should not be exclusively done by foresters. Let them perform and compete with private organizations and communities.
    I fully endorse the views of Ms Narain about the state of forests. When the dense forest is shown to be declining how can one understand that the forests cover is a stable? Where are those patches where forest are improving? Unfortunately the FSI people are not reconciled hearing unpleasant comments but one day they should introspect as there are others who have same love to forests and appreciate the importance of their efforts.
    Trees outside forests are valuable resource to meet the demand of India. Although this is well recognized by foresters both at GOI and in States during academic discussions. However in practice, there has been very little done to encourage the tree planting outside forest. In fact there has been disincentive rather than any facilitation. One should hope that one day the Indian Forest Service will encourage tree planting, facilitate its felling and transport & partner with communities and others to save forests.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • valuing the benefits of

    valuing the benefits of forests in more comprehensive manner and involving local communities with good incentives to conserve their forests- its a much pragmatic and just solution. Almost fully agree with the contents of this article. The system called Payment for Eco Services(PES) followed in Costa Rica should be tried.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • If man can reach moon, why

    If man can reach moon, why can not we decide a mechanism to pay the forest dweller for his conservation work. I think its not difficult if we have the will

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • This year 2011 is being

    This year 2011 is being celebrated as World Forestry Year. Having seen the reported activities from some important states it has been more or less like annual ritual to celebrate world forestry days. Last quarter of twentieth century witnessed a number of innovations/ experimentations in forestry (corporate forestry, social forestry, National Forest Policy, FCA JFM, SFM, Forest Certification). There has been no such flagship programmes in the 21st century. The CAMPA promised availability of funds for greening but the progress and success are suspected. Now there is a talk of INR 46,000 Crores for greening. The Minister wants this to NGOs and foresters want to use themselves. Can anyone guarantee that it will lead to creating productive forest over a million ha or so.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Ms Sunita Narain, I

    Dear Ms Sunita Narain,

    I agree with your view that sustainable management of forests is necessary for enhancing livelihood opportunities and poverty eradication of forest dependent people.There is ample scope for increasing value addition in forest sector by involving and motivating forest dwellers in forest management, creating marketing and other ecological infrastructures, and experimenting with payment for forest ecosystem services. Even when preservation is necessary because of reasons such as existence values, incommensurable values, inter-generational genetic pool etc there is preservation cost.At least part of the preservation cost can be met via revenue generation from higher productivity, value addition and new sources of revenue.


    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • I like this debate over our

    I like this debate over our forest policy, that classically typify the predicament of young forest service officers, ordained to implement the policy. And itÔÇÖs also true that the debate is struck in polarity of arguments, many a times extreme, which often leads us nowhere.
    Arguably, the ecosystem services of air, water and bio-diversity are essential products, more often than not; the forests are not actually being managed for either. This is also probably due to distortions in our programs and plans that have emerged over time and resultant lack of clarity on the goals of management at the grass-roots.
    To me, the PAs are to be totally protected and managed for bio-diversity values and we must think of bringing more than one-fourth of our forest areas under PA network, rationalize them over landscapes to serve as good conservation units. At the same time, there are vast tracts of our low conservation value and degraded forests that need to be managed for sustainable production and flow of even the tangible benefits to the society, including the wood and energy.
    Lets strengthen the forest departments and have a transparent and supportive system in place, where the service can actually put scientific know-how into practice and also able to involve multi-stakeholders in this massive task. Certainly policy can do this balancing act. I am not sure though, whether are treading towards this end. These are my personal views. Thanks for this lively debate Sunitaji.
    Warm Regards

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Excellent debate is going on

    Excellent debate is going on this issue. The use of land as forests is the least productive in economic sense as the the states which are having more forests, they are having the more poorest people also. I suggest a model of CSR under which polluting industries should pay the money to a common pool from which states should be paid according to their performance in protecting and improving their forest & tree cover which is reflected in bi-annual State of Forests Report published by FSI. Forests areas should be clearly demarcated for productive and protective functions. Their performance should be evaluated according to the functions allotted to them. The production of wood should be encouraged under agro/farm forestry which will definitely increase the income of farmers and reduce the dependence on import of wood.Forests should be mainly conserved for protective functions. But protective forests should be suitably compensated by the Government of India and Corporate sector.Secondly quantifieable forests services should be reflected in the GDP of the country.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply