Seeing land for trees

By Sunita Narain
Published: Monday 15 April 2002

We need to give the devil his due. Finance minister, Yashwant Sinha, has drawn flak from almost all sides for his nightmare budget 2002. But there was one item, which missed most eyes, which said that the budget would provide deduction for afforestation projects on degraded non-forest land.

The crucial word is "non". Without this, Sinha would have given in to the pressures of the industry lobby, which wants forestland for captive plantations. Instead, Sinha has done what he is best at: formulate a "feel good" policy which means nothing.

Industry does not want non-forest lands, simply because there is little available. The two states of Gujarat and Rajasthan account for over half the non-forest wasteland in the country. It would like access to state forests -- currently prohibited under the forest policy -- to grow high value captive plantations. Industry claims that only it can provide investment and technical expertise, to grow trees.

The problem is not with the demand for raw material. The problem is with the demand for forestland -- the last remaining commons on which millions of poor depend for their subsistence. It is important to recognise that in our country the very term wasteland is a misnomer. We have good sunlight, soil and rainfall and if land is left unused, it will grow vegetation. The land becomes waste, only because it is intensively used by people and their animals. Therefore, the challenge is to plant trees -- unless the strategy is to put a guard with a gun to protect all plantations -- in a manner that involves the current users of the land. Albeit, illegal users, because these lands are government property.

But the problem is not intractable. For this forest industry, best known for its myopic view, must change. Till the 1970s industry was given forest leases at throw away prices. Ecologist Madhav Gadgil has documented the cut, destroy and move approach of the industry, which meant that the circle of deforestation grew. Then in the 1980s, social forestry projects began and farmers started growing wood. Bureaucrat N C Saxena estimates that some 10 billion trees were planted in farm forests between 1980 and 1988 -- roughly 5 million hectares of forests.

But industry was only interested in beating down prices. Every trick was used -- from distorting market by procuring wood from forest department to delayed procurement. In addition, import tariffs were reduced and it became cheaper to buy pulp from Canada, than to buy wood from farmers in Punjab. By 1990, the wood price declined by over 60 per cent over the mid-1980s and farmers plucked out saplings in desperation. A wood source had been destroyed.

By 2002 pulp paper industry sources only a quarter of its raw material from farmers, and roughly half from government forestlands. A growing proportion -- roughly 10 per cent -- is from imported pulp. Estimates are that by 2005, wood requirements for pulp, paper and newsprint would be 28 million cubic metres. While productivity on forestlands is low, yield from plantations is higher. Even with lower yields we would need less than 3.5 million ha of land under forests to meet the needs of industry.

On the other hand, we have over 150 million ha of private lands and over 1.5 million ha of degraded forestland being regenerated by rural communities under the Joint Forest Management scheme. Therefore, wood markets could be created to the advantage of both -- industry and rural communities. It always amazes me that we import wood from a tiny country like New Zealand when we have such a large land area and such huge advantages of climate and soil so that we can grow and cut wood and bamboo in less than 10 years. Temperate countries take over 25 years for any growing cycle. We should be growing wood for the world.

The problem is partly economic and partly political. When government sells wood from its lands, it has no opportunity cost for the land. But when farmers sell they need their value of land and labour to be paid. They have competing demands on the same land and sowing decisions have to be carefully valued. We need to find supportive incentives -- loans and buy back arrangements -- for farmers and rural communities to build wood markets.

But this will never happen if industry keeps pressing for the mother of all subsidies -- cheap forestland for captive plantations, which would destroy the farmer's market.

Therefore, once again, let me thank Yashwant Sinha for his small but vital contribution to the environment. Today the definition of 'ecofriendly paper' is one that uses no wood. That is a ridiculous. We believe "Ecofriendly" paper is one that is made out of renewable resource like wood and bamboo, which is grown by rural communities who have an economic interest in planting and cutting and then planting again. That is a sustainable green future.

-- Sunita Narain

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