An unsustainable plan

Recently, when I returned from a journey to the deciduous forests of Shivamogga and Chikkamagaluru districts, I found no time left for musings over plants. The Draft Forest Policy 2018, a seemingly short document released by the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change (MoEF&CC), was waiting on the table to be read and commented upon. It couldn’t be done in a hurry. I had to understand the intentions of a proposed national policy, which soon will become the framework for conserving forests and natural resources in the country.

But having encountered many serious issues concerning forests and forest-dwellers, it pained me to see that several of them were not even reflected upon in such a major governance tool.

Yes, the vast wilderness of the Western Ghats is not as calm as it looks from the outside. Poor tribal and traditional forest dwellers, who struggle to get even a few acres in the villages, make their habitats inside the forests.

But that does not stop acres and acres of natural forest being burnt in summer and encroached upon by powerful elites. The streams and rivulets that feed many perennial rivers of the peninsula are already dried up due to degradation of catchment area, supplemented with consecutive draughts.

Elephants, panthers and other animals wander out of the forests and into the nearby villages in search of water and food. Moreover, wildfires during summer are common in western Karnataka. The villagers in and around forests, who have their own solutions for many such problems, often fail to understand whether the forest department wants their support in the conservation of forests. The draft forest policy has ignored these issues.

A new policy is needed indeed. In this regard, the current Forest Policy (1988) needs a thorough revisit. This policy, adopted 30 years ago, tried to ensure environmental stability and ecological integrity that sustains all life forms, including human. It had rightly deviated from the lure of focusing only on reaping economic benefits, as envisaged in the previous policies of 1894 and 1952. But even that well-intended policy failed to deliver most of its objectives over the years, mainly due to lack of political will at the top. It is, therefore, reasonable to expect more from a new policy proposed at this juncture, to cross the barriers and tackle current challenges. 

The new draft policy seeks to roll out many programmes to ensure forest protection and mitigate the affects of climate change. Although, issues like declining green cover and human-animal conflict have been touched upon, more emphasis has been given to agro-forestry, farm forestry and trees outside forests.

The need for designing a more rational mode has been expressed in the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management & Planning Authority (CAMPA). It has also stressed on committing to the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) programme for meeting global expectations in tackling climate change. But apart from all such wishful thinking, the draft fails to convince anyone that these goals are achievable, as it lacks clear strategies with prudent funding process and transparent mechanisms of implementation.

A further cause of concern is that it has many serious gaps. The draft, for instance, does not have a clue to design effective and time-bound strategies for implementing the Forest Rights Act (2006). Much needed interventions to conserve the Western Ghats, recommended by both the Gadgil and Kasturirangan committees have been let down by both state and Union governments.

At least, this draft should have tried to formulate a long-term conservation mechanism for this global biodiversity hotspot that ensures water security to entire south India. Meaning, the WG may continue to suffer from mining, encroachment and forest diversion. More than two decades have passed since the Supreme Court nudged the government to protect forests, the green cover in the revenue lands. Even that has not found any new way forward!

Big let-down

Besides, the most disturbing aspect of this draft policy is its very intention to allow the private sector to intrude into the forests, rather than strengthening local people’s participation. Public-Private Participation (PPP) may have worked better in areas of development like transport in the country. But, private players have always let down when it comes to forest and natural resource management.

The vast tracts of land available with forest corporations, which were leased to different industrial houses in the last three decades, have been hugely degraded by growing commercially useful timber species like acacia, eucalyptus and teak in an unsustainable manner.

Lakhs of hectares of common land in western Karnataka, for instance, have been made barren by polyfibre, paper, and pulpwood industries. The ecology of the region and livelihood security of forest-dependent local communities have both been lost by commercial forestry in many parts of the country. That promoting production forestry is off-course, is a worthy idea. But that should be achieved by taking the local communities on board. The Gramasabha in Panchayat must be made a partner in forestry functions.

The Joint Forest Management (JFM) committees that are present in many parts of the country can act as executive agencies with their considerable expertise. The rural degraded land can thus be made green by growing ecologically suitable and locally useful plant species. Villagers may get grass for fodder, green leaves for manure or bamboo for household use with such an approach. Mere launching of a National Community Forest Management (CFM) Mission, as envisaged in the draft, without the participation of locals, maybe one more channel of wasting public money.  

The draft forest policy seems very hurriedly thought out. Deeper public discourse is certainly needed to make this policy work for the sustainability of forest regions, their natural resources and equitable sharing of benefits that flow from the forests.

(The writer is Director, Centre for Conservation Biology & Sustainable Development (CCBSD), Inchara)

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An unsustainable plan

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