Of forests and wealth

By Sunita Narain
Published: Wednesday 31 July 2002

The Supreme Court has suggested that the forested states, which lose revenue because of the ban on felling of trees should be compensated for keeping their forests intact. Protection of the biological hotspots should be the responsibility of the country, says the court, and therefore, if the state protects its forest endowment, the forest deficient states must contribute to its exchequer. Amicus curiae -- friend of the court, Harish Salve, has suggested that the government should impose a cess of five per cent on imported wood and wood products as well as wood pulp so that this can be distributed to forest rich states, like Madhya Pradesh and the Northeastern states. This will provide an economic incentive for other states to increase their forest cover.

The court is hearing an involved and extremely contentious case on the protection of forests. It started with a complaint on a postcard to the court from an unknown Kerala environmentalists, T N Godavarman Thirumalpad, and has snowballed into a case on forest protection in just about every part of the country. The court has imposed an interim ban on felling of forests in the Northeast. It has come down heavily on felling -- legal and illegal -- and ordered the closure of saw mills operating inside forests. But forest-dependent states are hurt. Arunachal Pradesh, for instance, has lost over 84 per cent of its state revenues. These states say unemployment is growing. People are angry against the ban on forests. Forests are hated.

If the government takes note of the court's suggestion, it could establish an important principle. The focus, till date, has been to stop deforestation. But it is time we found innovative mechanisms to make forests pay. We have to recognise the economic value of the forests we want to protect. As yet, the only benefit people have is from the cut wood -- but as the ownership rights are not clear nor the wood market developed, they get a pittance. Tribals in Bastar own a large number of trees. But these trees acquire a value only when they are cut. In order to stop deforestation, the government has rules that say no trees can be felled without official permission. This system has given rise to a class of brokers who seek official permission on behalf of the tribal, who has demands of cash. But in the process, these agents often cut more trees than required with little going to the tribal. Leaving both the tribal and forest poorer over time. Now, if we could devise a method to pay the tribals for their standing trees, not cut trees, we could have a forest conservation policy that works.

We need desperately to get out of our fossilised and outdated principles of forest management in the country. The forest policy is old and simple. We have a national goal to forest 33 per cent of the country's land area. We have roughly 22 per cent under forest department control. And roughly 10-12 per cent under forest cover. It is the job of the forest department to manage these lands and to grow trees. But its track record has been absymal. The pressure of the poor, combined with the greed of the rich is raping and pillaging our forests. Poor people are not responsible for forest destruction, as is the commonly held belief. Wood sold to industry at throw-away prices and illicit felling is the key reason.

But, we must also recognise that forests, once cut in India, are difficult to regenerate. Our forests are habitats of people and their animals. Grazing pressure is enormous which suppresses natural growth. So, once cut, gone forever, is the motto of the Indian forest service.

In this situation, we need to find ways ahead, which are off the beaten path. Forest policy must accept that we need to value nature and to reward local communities, which depend on this natural asset. We need also to differentiate between forests, which need to be protected at all costs -- pristine forests, biological hotspots -- and forests, which need to be cut and then regenerated.

The first task is to define these areas, which need protection and then value and pay for their services. The ecosystem services of forests are well understood -- from biodiversity, protection of watershed and others. Today, keeping forests intact is a drain on the state exchequer. This must change. Purists, I am sure, find this idea of valuing plants and animals and paying for their services abhorrent.

But, I will remind them, someone is paying for these services today. It is invariably the poor. And they pay for it with their lives. Take sanctuaries and national parks -- the biological hotspots, being protected for future generations and for the recreational needs of this generation. Local communities living in these areas have been displaced. They lose their only source of livelihood. What do they get in return? Why should these local communities not get a share of the protection money?

This is my only difference with the Supreme Court. I would strongly argue that the money for compensation should be paid, not to state governments, but to local communities living in and around the forests. Costa Rica has done this. It puts a value to the various services the forests provide. So, hydroelectricity companies agree to pay landowners to keep their trees, so that water flow in rivers can be regulated. The government puts a value on the biological resources of the land and pays landowners annually to conserve. Now, it is adding to it a new value of carbon sequestration -- forest growth serves as an important means to capture and store atmospheric carbon dioxide in vegetation and soils. It then works out an annual agreement with landowners, the trees are counted and the money is disbursed. We cannot adopt this model completely. But we can certainly learn from it.

-- Sunita Narain

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