How to plant trees for development

There is no economic value seen in forests, but there is value seen in the development project for which forestland is required

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Monday 17 August 2015

Today, in India, forest protection happens against all odds. There is no economic value seen in forests, but there is value seen in the development project for which forestland is required. Clearly, this is not the way to go. We need a value to be paid for standing forests; it needs to be shared with people who inhabit these lands; we need to grow trees in ways which bring money to the poor; and we need to learn how to protect, regenerate and grow trees, all at the same time.

The last time India seriously tried planting trees was in the late 1980s. The then prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, had declared that he wanted to make tree plantation a peoples’ movement. The Wasteland Development Board was set up and social forestry was the buzzword. But soon it was realised that planting trees was more than just digging pits—it was about institutional mechanisms that would give people rights over trees and a stake in management. It was at this time that Anil Agarwal and I co-authored a report on greening India called Towards Green Villages. In this we showed how every effort to plant trees would be defeated unless people got benefits from these forestlands. It is important to understand that India has the highest density of livestock and no wall can keep out people’s goats.

imageAll this built an understanding of the need to involve people in afforestation. We argued that village communities should be given rights over government forestland so that they could plant trees and reap benefits. There was huge opposition to this idea. Many foresters and conservationists feared that this would destroy forests; people would take over these lands or fail to manage the business of planting trees.

A compromise was worked out: a scheme called Joint Forest Management. Under this trees would be planted on forestland; people would plant and protect the forest and voluntarily keep their animals out. In return they would get usufruct rights over grass and a share of the timber revenue. The forest department kept control through village committees formed under the scheme.

There were many problems with this approach but the final insult came when the trees were ready for harvest. In villages where people provided years of free labour to guard and grow trees, the payment turned out to be minuscule. Why? The forest department adopted a highly deceptive and ingenious method of calculating the revenue that would accrue to the people. It deducted all the expenses of the department and then calculated the net revenue. The 20-25 per cent of the sale proceeds promised to people turned out to be a pittance. In this way people lost trust, the country lost the opportunity to get a real partnership in planting trees.

As a result, the country has swung from one extreme position to another, from the pre-1980s, when the focus was on extraction, to now, the post-2010 period, when we do not want to cut any tree because we fear it will destroy forests. This fear drives forest policy, which denies people rights to ownership or real partnership in growing trees and building local economies. We now import our wood. Forest productivity is nobody’s business.

Currently, the Supreme Court’s strict directives on forest conservation, not management, guide forest policy. There is a ban on cutting trees in forest areas without a working plan; the plans are either not made or do not focus on production. Then there is a ban on saw mills around forest areas which provides an excuse for not building economies out of forests. The ultimate protection is that all tracts of land with trees get classified as forests. This allows the forest department to take over these areas, even if it cannot take care of the land under its charge.

What really hurts is planting a tree is now bound up in so much red tape that it is not worth the effort. Every state has its own rules to cut, transport or market trees—even if grown on private land—because of which people prefer not to grow trees at all.

We have ended up successfully disconnecting environmental management with development. Today, the poorest people of India live in its richest forested areas. We need to move beyond conservation to sustainable management of this resource. But we can do this only if we can grow trees, cut them and then plant them again. This, in turn, requires partnerships with people. This is what we need to discuss and work on. Environment must become India’s development agenda again. This is imperative.

Forest (Conservation) Amendment Rules, 2014

Letter to Additional Chief Secretary (Forests) on Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Act 2006 from Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Maharashtra State

Recognition of community rights under Forest Rights Act in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh: challenges and way forward

Judgement of the Supreme Court of India regarding the true scope of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 and the meaning of the word "forest" used therein, 12/12/1996

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  • Dear Sunita I fear your 'tree

    Dear Sunita

    I fear your 'tree planting' article will only further confuse an already complicated issue.

    It seems that you have fallen into the timber industry and FAO jargon trap of lumping all tree assemblages together under the umbrella-term "forest".

    In order to avoid confusing your readers, there are two distinct entities that need to be recognised and separated accordingly - Real forests, or 'natural forests', and artificially established industrial tree plantations, usually of invasive non-indigenous species.

    The word "afforestation" is also misleading as its generally accepted 'official' meaning is actually to establish single-species alien tree plantations, as opposed to the planting of a mixture of local tree species with the objective of replicating the original forests that grow or previously grew in a region.

    I have always admired your ability to analyse environmental issues, but must now question your simplistic interpretation of plantation politics.

    Please accept this criticism as an attempt to help guide you towards making a more accurate assessment of how genuine forests are being impacted, and how fake forests (tree plantations) are impacting; in terms of ecosystems and rural communities in India.

    Wally Menne
    Tel: +27 (0) 82 4442083
    Skype: wally.menne

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply
  • I have seen exotics, such as

    I have seen exotics, such as pinus and eucalyptus, used in tree planting projects. I am told that this is because they are unpalatable to the indigenous wildlife and thus have a better survival rate. However, replanting forests with species such as pinus and eucalyptus result in reduction of animals,plants dependent on affected pollinators etc. Have solutions been devised?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply
  • Very well summed up; we have

    Very well summed up; we have indeed succeeded in fully disconnecting the idea of forest conservation with that of Development. Apart from broken promises of sharing the booty first under Social Forestry and then under JFM, it is critical to understand why the forest departments are unable to form "partnerships" with people? The devil, as they say is in the details.

    The 'face' of the forest departments that actually interacts with people on a regular basis and does most of the work is the forest guard. Above that everybody is a 'supervisor', all supervising what the forest guard does. It also happens that the forest guard who is at the bottom of the forest hierarchy, also belongs to the most neglected, mismanaged and ill trained cadre in the department. Recruitment of forest guards in all states is in huge arrears and is done sporadically, making it even more difficult to put guards through the little training that they get in a proper manner. When these guards are 'let loose' on the people they do not have the training and the skills to deal with villagers and forest dwellers. What compounds forest 'management' further is that there is no feedback system that tells decision makers (top down types) about what the people think. And the gap between job requirements and departmental capacity continues to grow, further threatening the future of forests and the hope of them actually benefiting the people within and outside the forests.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply
  • Yes, we must act

    Yes, we must act simultaneously for 'flowing tributaries of Ganga'. In river Chambal, which supports the 570-km long biodiversity-rich National Chambal Gharial Sanctuary, indications are very clear from studies on ecological associates of Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) that depleting water level and water flow in upper reaches of the river is changing the profile of faunal interrelationships. The gangetic dolphin (Platanista gangetica) and mugger crocodile (Crocodylus palustris) have already shown the trend. The endangered gharial is at the receiving end. The future of Chambal detrmines flow and character of Yamuna and hence, at least in part, the profile of the Ganges.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Wally, I am really

    Dear Wally,

    I am really grateful that you took the trouble to post your position on my article on how to plant trees and I appreciate what you are saying. But you must also understand that in India we have a really particular concern that needs to differentiate between natural forests which need to be protected and I agree with you on that position but we also need a much more concerted effort to plant trees because we have needs of livelihoods of poor people that need to be met. So I agree with your comments to some extent but I hope you will appreciate where I am coming from.

    Once again thank you for taking the trouble to post your opinion and I look forward to staying in touch.

    With my very best wishes,

    Yours cordially,
    Sunita Narain

    Posted by: Sunita Narain | 4 years ago | Reply
  • In the context of South Kivu

    In the context of South Kivu we found that the community is conviced about the income they can product through reforestation and other benefits related to the fight against climate change.
    But there is a Big challenge to ensure the population of the possession of benefits from the reforestation built on either state concessions or not.
    Hence it is always imperative to support the community also in the process of securing land in particular through the acquisition of land certificat or the Protocol management signed with the political-administrative and customary authorities.
    Currently trees took the place of banana in the role he played to support households that arise unexpectedly. Every family feels safe when its holds an own afforestation.
    We realized also the big necessity to educate the community on the choice of species to be planted according to the market need.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply
  • I fully agree with the author

    I fully agree with the author that participation of local community in forest management should help in regeneration of forest in vast area.Perhaps community ownership of the land should be pre-requisite for this type of project.It is an ecological service and adequate compensation should be given for their continuous service to regenerate a forest. Along with it regeneration of grassland in barren areas by water harvesting should also be taken up.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Sunita ji, We have

    Dear Sunita ji,

    We have enough of experiments on our forest,yet the outcome a big Zero except some sporadic success stories .While Livelihood of our indigenous people,the poor people,the tribals have been the focal point of all such plans and experiments but in reality no lessons learnt and the FOREST BABUS continue to enjoy the real fruits of life in the best possible manner,whose livelihood improves with each new plans and projects whether funded by govt plans,non plans,CAMPA, foreign funds,JICA,SIDA etc etc.
    Time has come for out of box thinking on this important issue and lessons from Indonesia, Malayasia,Vietnam,needs to be analysed and developed in our own context on the line of sustainable forest management,at least some portion of Forest can be earmarked to see how it works??

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply
  • But ma'am the supreme court

    But ma'am the supreme court has defined forest in the year 1996, irrespective of ownership. Has the supreme court erred in it's judgement?
    People are afraid of planting trees in their land, at the end of the day when they have to harvest the trees, the forest laws become applicable. Moreover the definition of forest covers even lands where there may be no trees. Is this definition sustainable?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply