Missing the wood for the trees

Published: Sunday 15 January 1995

The informed environmentalist will find it difficult to agree with the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) decision to ban the use of wood in its buildings and -- defying all ecological logic -- substitute mineral products for it. The implicit assumptions in this decision are that the use of wood is environmentally unfriendly; and that wood used for housing is a major cause for deforestation and a ban makes better environmental sense. This, to say the least, is appalling and a painful demonstration of the government agencies' hillarious grasp of environmental issues.

The ministry of urban development and the CPWD has overlooked the basic logic that it is better to use wood, which is a renewable product, compared to steel and aluminium, which cannot be regenerated.

But this is just one of the problems. The government also seems to be unaware of the relative ecological cost differences between wood -- which requires little processing before use -- and the "wood substitutes," which have to go through an extremely polluting and energy intensive refining process. Even at the users' end, to mould a steel plate is far more energy intensive than moulding wood.

Also, how true is it that expanding housing excercise is predominantly responsible for depletion of forests? Even conceding this arguement, what is there to explain the lack of official initiative to ensure alternative sources of wood for housing? After all, forest is a vital resource and has to be used.

The central factor behind their depletion is that the rate of exploitation has outstripped the rate of regeneration. The growth of strong interests in exploiting forests and a simultaneous marginalisation of those who traditionally ensured that the exploitation was sustainable has led to this pass. The people who traditionally depended on forests also took care of them, ensuring a very disciplined harvesting of timber.

Today these people often find it difficult to enter the forests. The new masters, the forest officials, have no stake in maintaining healthy forests, while the less scrupulous among them actually benefit by degrading them. This, and not merely the use of timber, has degraded Indian forests.

And amazingly, at a time when a strong international opinion is building against mining (because of its polluting effects), the CPWD has made an indirect statement to promote it.

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