Goa’s private forests, a last defence against global warming

The government needs to work on incentives for people to hold on to private forests rather than sell them

By Reboni Saha
Published: Tuesday 27 August 2019
Goa’s private forests, a last defence against global warming. Photo: Getty Images

With the end of the monsoon came a delightful explosion of butterflies. “Someone must have forgotten to weed their garden,” observed a naturalist. Actually, the neighboring forest undergrowth was not set on fire last summer, allowing much of the wild ground cover to return and nourish biodiversity. This wild unruly growth protected in summer by tree canopies is what rejuvenates life and preserves the water table.

As a people, we have imbibed the early colonial distaste for tropical wilderness, cementing driveways to be neat, sweeping every leaf away for burning instead of leaving it to decompose, and cutting down local ‘junglee’ trees for beautification.

In the microcosm of Goa, official permissions continue to clear large swathes of land, architects continue to design buildings that obliterate natural features, and our politicians squander away green areas through myopic policies.

Ecotourism promotion and ad hoc change of land use under the Investment Promotion Board are but a few of these. So lazy is the policymaking that only those with private profit incentive get priority while real issues are left to languish.

Goa is in a unique position where private forest ownership amounts to a substantial percentage of land cover, unlike other states in India. Loosely called ‘orchard’ in the techno-legal documents of the Town and Country Planning Department, these are still due to be demarcated by the Forest Department, and shrink everyday as land-use status gets changed without reference to a larger picture.

There is a distinct triad of criteria that need to be fulfilled before an area is identified as forest, related to canopy cover, species and area contiguity. Unless this is verified, an area cannot be officially identified as forest.

In a theatre of the absurd, some villagers have been urging others to fell trees in their forested plots in response to false rumors of ‘losing lands’ once identified. What is lost is the fact that those who keep their lands as forests will be at an advantage tomorrow as water tables dry up in denuded areas and rich forest land becomes sought after for water and food security.

If global warming was fashion-speak till recently, it’s making itself felt with extreme weather conditions now. The only hope is to come to the defense of existing forests as carbon sinks, and for water security.

In the 1990s the Supreme Court responded to a petition, which sought to protect the fast-disappearing natural cover of India. The ensuing order was for all states to identify their forest cover, with the underlying logic to quantify and manage the same through suitable policy.

Constant fear-mongering and real estate interests created pushback, and has made it so that even 20 years later the job is not complete.

Goals ahead

More than 146 countries have submitted what post-2020 climate actions or intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) they pledge to undertake after the United Nations Conference of the Parties since Paris (COP21).

India has made sustainable promises of enhancing forest and tree cover to create an additional carbon sink of 2.5-3 billion tonne carbon dioxide equivalent as one of the key highlights of the INDCs. Clearly there is going to be a profit motive in keeping forested land as it is, and the advantages will make themselves felt very soon.

Rather than trying to de-notify the Western Ghats as a global hotspot and, as in some misguided cases in Goa, to cut trees for ease of real estate development, it would be wise to push for compensatory regulations, using India’s commitment at COP21 as a basis. Forests must be treated as important bio-infrastructure.

Goa is a unique state, where settlements sit cheek by jowl with large forested patches, acting as water and carbon sinks that serve both people and wildlife. This landscape offers opportunities for infrastructure tax collection on urban housing next to identified forests.

Just as a window seat on an aircraft comes at a premium, living quarters near a forest should pay more for the benefit of green views, accessible walking areas, water security and fresh air.

The moment private forests are identified and demarcated, it becomes easier for effective compensatory policies to be realised, and private forest owners can get their due from a documented system of givers and takers.

It is an urgent need that people hold on to their forested lands with such incentives rather than sell them. Such policies have worked with heritage zones in cities, with the concept of TDR (transfer of development rights).

Individually too, each one can make a difference by continuing the discussion with an extended peer circle on the topic of protection of local landscape as a method of sustainability.

One can promote sensitive architects that retain terrain and trees as part of their architecture, or choose homes from developers that respect and keep natural features on site.

Goa will be better off remembered as a beacon for sustainable living rather than as a place where its people decimated the environment.

(Reboni Saha heads the industrial design section at Mozaic and is the general secretary of Goa Bachao Abhiyan)

(Views expressed are the author's own and don't necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth)

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