What the Wall Street Journal Can’t See in India’s Forests

(published in Kafila on Feb 17, 2012)
‘If we cut the entire forest down, where will we live?’- Muria adivasi, Warangal, Andhra Pradesh 

I don’t even know how to begin addressing a story as blindly biased in its premise as this one in the Wall Street Journal, which draws an obtuse line between loss of forest cover and land usage by adivasis, when it is land grab by industrialization that is endangering all we have left.

So I’m going to do this paragraph by paragraph.

India’s forest cover decreased by 367 square kilometers between 2007 and 2009, and it was primarily tribal and hilly regions that were to blame.

The tribal and hilly regions are the last vestiges of India’s forests.  How can you blame entire regions, without casting any aspersions on institutions or practices responsible?

The report showed some areas of progress. Among the 15 states that increased their forest cover in the period are Orissa and Rajasthan. In Punjab, the nation’s grain bowl, enhanced plantation activities and an increase in agro-forestry practices contributed to the highest gain in forest cover with 100 square kilometers.

Between the years of 2008 to 2011, Orissa’s Forest Department granted clearance for diversion of 3239.81 hectares of forest land to mining companies (source: Forest Department Records). Between 1980 and 2011, 46,256.29 hectares of forest were diverted for non-forest purposes, while 60% of all claims for recognition of people’s forest rights were rejected. For the POSCO project alone, 800,000 trees and 1300 hectares of forest will give way to what is hailed by the business papers as India’s largest Foreign Direct Investment. 74% of the total area to be occupied by the steel plant is forest land and 60,000 trees have already been cut as of last year.

As for the plantation activities in the state of Punjab, which has only 6 percent of its area under forest, five times less than the pristine national goal of 33%, around 1.5 lakh trees were axed for a six-lane national highway. According to environmental policy, compensatory afforestation must be done for twice the number of trees, and yet the state’s forest department hasn’t even planted one-fourth of that number, when it should have finished by 2009. 

The blame, in this case, has been placed on Compensatory Afforestation Planning and Management Authority (CAMPA) and the mismanagement of funds under it.

CAMPA is mechanism to collect and disburse funds from project authorities whenever there is diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes. It is based on the fundamentally flawed assumption that money can compensate biodiversity, and the funds, once procured, can be adequately made to work hard for the environment, despite overwhelming proof indicating otherwise. As this story in the Deccan Chronicle indicates, between 1997-98 and 2006-07, a total of 8,915 hectares of forest land was diverted for 96 projects in Madhya Pradesh. From this, Rs 38 crores was made available by user agencies, of which only Rs 2.61 crores ended up being used for afforestation. In India, 11,000 crores available under CAMPA lies stagnant, as projects and clearances issued multiply.

The reason why there’s possibly so little afforestation carried out, as certain not-so-bashful state governments admit, is this: there’s no more land left. Most of it has been sold or promised in the thousands of Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) signed between government and private entities each year- to set up mines, industries, thermal power plants, Special Economic Zones that skip through the loops, ports and big dams, all valiantly opposed by indigenous communities who fear the destruction of their environment.

None of these projects find any mention in the story as even possible causes of deforestation. No space, similarly, has been given to the lapses in the land acquisition and environment clearance processes, which have been sped up exponentially since the liberalisation of the Indian economy in the early 90’s.

While it can’t get any clearer that the reporter has written this from the comfort of her desk, what makes it worse is that no attempt has been made to understand the traditional practices and knowledge systems of India’s forest-dwelling communities. Instead, there has been selective use of  quotes from governmental sources (anyone notice that none of the environmentalists or tribal welfare activists are named?) and pictures that portray tribals as responsible for large-scale deforestation, when they are anything but.

Most adivasis have a spiritual connect with the land they belong to, and look upon the forest as their mother- the source of life and livelihood. Each tribe has extensive religious and social norms that prohibit the exploitation of natural resources and the idea of separation and compensation are repugnant to their existence. Deforestation in India first began on a large scale with the arrival of the British and their need for timber, culminating in the repressive Indian Forests Act that had little to do with conservation, but was responsible for making adivasis encroachers on their own land, subject to evictions and brutal exploitation to this day.

The irony is that while those who have been conservationists long before the word was invented are perceived as intruders, Forest Department officials strike deals with private enterprise and allow illegal mining and felling to go on on a rampant scale inside India’s “protected forests”.

 Instead, Mr. Kumar said, new regulations that protect forest-dwellers’ rights may have encouraged more tribal populations to occupy forested areas between 2007 and 2009 and contributed to de-forestation.

The Forest Rights Act of 2006, portrayed seen with such suspicion in the story, is a measure to undo the historical injustices committed against adivasis and to recognise them as the rightful owners of the forestland that they have lived on and protected for generations. It is not, as erroneously pointed out, a means to “occupy” forests, but to provide people with a means to oppose illegal acquisition of their forests by government and private interests. Which is perhaps why the government officials in your story don’t sound overtly enthusiastic about its implementation.

Most of the north-eastern Indian states, which have hilly terrain and are inhabited by many tribal groups, showed significant reduction in forest cover. These are areas where shifting cultivation, a practice where plots of fertile land are cultivated and then abandoned, is commonly practiced. The communities clear additional land as they move from one area to the next.

As for podu or shifting cultivation, it is a traditional system of farming well-rooted in the principles of crop rotation; while one plot is cultivated over seasons, another is allowed to regenerate. The sheer bio-diversity and yield of indigenous crops grown in this sensitive system of farming is spectacular, and compared to plantation and extensive cultivation practised in Punjab and Haryana, agriculture in tribal areas thrives alongside the forests that nourish it.

But most importantly, it is ridiculous to bring up the impact of shifting cultivation in the north-east, when 7.8 million trees will be cut as part of the forest clearance process for a single dam, the 1,500MW Tipaimukh hydroelectric project in Manipur, with the diversion of a total of 24,329 hectares of forest land.

The Dibang Valley Project in Arunachal Pradesh will submerge what their own EIA describes as “some of the last large contiguous tracts of tropical, subtropical and temperate forests in the country.” It is also home to the Idu Mishmi tribe, numbering only 9500, who are at threat from 17 different large hydel projects on the river. The Prime Minister gave sanctity to the project before the environment clearance was even given. Interestingly, in the North-East, the implementation of the Forest Rights Act hasn’t even started.

The state that really jumps out in the report is the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, which lost a whopping 281 square kilometers of forest cover, contributing 76.5% of the net decline in forest cover nationally.

Ah, my beloved home state, where 256,000 hectares of forest have been encroached upon as of March, 2011 (source: MoEF). How green are its 300 industrial parks, its 113 shiny SEZs and thermal power plants happily munching away at its coastline. What a benevolent government that dubs wetland ecosystems as waste lands, while it acts as a front agency for mining companies with bauxite on their minds.

But no, did we hear you say that “Maoist militants that are active across several Indian states – are responsible for the felling of trees and heavy deforestation?” Is it militants, then, who are coercing the government of Andhra Pradesh to submerge 4000 hectares of virgin, deciduous forest at a single go for the Polavaram dam, Mr. Chatterjee? And yet, here we have the Director General of the Forest Survey of India, blissfully unaware of one of the biggest diversions of forest in the state’s history (and the largest evictor of people in India’s history for a single project), as he tells us “even the drastic reduction in the Khammam district of Andhra Pradesh is not permanent.” In 2009, the government of Andhra Pradesh told the Ministry of Environment and Forests that there were no land rights to be settled in the project affected areas, whereas in Khammam alone, 4,000 claims are pending at the sub-division level and 205 villages will be submerged if the project goes through.

While the increase in eucalyptus plantations is, in part, responsible for deforestation in Andhra Pradesh, it’s important to understand who’s doing the planting and why, for which we have to rewind to the Kyoto Protocol, where the idea of Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) was conceived. CDM, put simply, allows countries like mine to trade credits for offsetting the polluting activities of free markets like yours by pretty afforestation drives. Except that as soon as you broadly dub an ecosystem a carbon sink, you make it seem replaceable. In India’s case (which has cornered up to 33% of the total CDM projects worldwide), when native forests give way to mines and dams, compensatory afforestation is done with exotic cash-crops such as eucalyptus, which can either be sold as carbon credits and/or at an extremely high profit that is seldom shared with the forest communities that do the hard work.

This de/afforestation, contrary to what the article conveys, is carried out by a) a nexus of the funding agencies such as the World Bank in collaboration with private entities, and b) the forest department itself. Worst of all? In Andhra Pradesh, the eucalyptus plantations are being raised with CAMPA funds after clear- felling 4,900 hectares of existing forest area. No wonder the Eastern Ghats are seen as such a lucrative venue for CDM-based agro-forestry initiatives; with the extent of permissions being given to exploit its mineral wealth and natural resources, there is plenty of lost forest cover and juked statistics to make up for.

And so, understand this before you colour victims as perpetrators, and perpetrators as the saviours of India’s forests:
it is not indigenous communities that are razing India’s canopy to the ground. It is because the Indian government refuses to recognise/continues to violate customary rights and every progressive law in the book to favour an economic policy that puts profit over people and their environment.