Privatising Forests

Recent guidelines sent by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) to state governments and UTs, confirm that Government of India has finally made up its mind about allowing 'forest concessions' to private sector companies in a big way in what it perceives as state-owned forests. As per new guidelines 4 per cent of 'identified' degraded forests could be given away on lease to private companies for raising plantations, and as the Minister Prakash Javadekar has said, to bring back forests where there were no forests. The same minister has earlier this year remarked that 'diversion of forests' is a negative phrase, it should be replaced with 'reforestation', because aren't the agencies who use forest lands for activities such as mining, dam-building and tourism paying for compensatory afforestation, in other words, raising new forests?

The pattern is simple. The present Government of India, is intent on neo-liberalising the environment. Going by experiences from across the world that means destroying it altogether, or changing and maiming it solely in the interest of corporates. Environment and business, environment and investment, environment and development must go together, people are told daily.

Because state always knows best, what the law says does not matter. The idea of handing over so-called degraded forests to corporations violates not one but several statutes such as Forest Rights Act and PESA, and also Indian Forest Act and Forest Conservation Act. The first two stipulate that communities and community institutions such as Gram Sabha will determine the future use of forests and forest land. The next two, taken together, have no provision for privately owned or leased 'state' forests. The MoEF guidelines mention safeguards for forest rights, and protecting tribal interests. In the same breath, they allow no space for community intervention in the entire process, and limit community use of future leased out forests to only 10-15 percent of the total leased area. Finally, and most importantly, plantations are not forests: irrespective of species being planted, a plantation cannot replace or in any way replicate the biodiversity, even a so-called degraded natural forest support, and the sustenance they provide to local communities.

The Government cannot change laws at will. Its executive powers do not extend to amending them or changing them in such a way that the constitutional and legal essence of such laws are altered. Yet the present government keeps on doing precisely this.

The Modi Government has also recently announced an unbelievable 15 billion US$ package for new plantations, which, it was said, the government already had. On top of that, the government needs yet more money for plantations? What is the game that is being played, really?

In truth the ambitious and now corporatised plantation programme of the present government will be used to greenwash its emphasis on coal mining, and continuing with coal as the primary source of electricity generation, in international climate negotiations. The proposed private plantations can also be used in the dubious game of domestic carbon trading.

In reality, the plantations will disempower and dispossess people, not only through land grab, but also by promoting more new mining throughout Indian forests.

They are doing all this at a time when a UN agency calls for greater investment in smallholder farmer organisations to save forests.

When small-scale farmers and producers of forest products band together, they can help rural economies grow, and they constitute a critical but often unrecognised line of defence against global problems such as deforestation and climate change.

With dozens of case studies from around the world, a pair of reports released at the recent World Forestry Congress in Durban, South Africa, seeks to show that the world's 1.3 billion small-scale agriculturalists and foresters, including indigenous groups, tribals and local communities, are economically and ecologically influential. The reports recommend investment in them as part of the solution to rural poverty, loss of forest, and rising carbon levels in atmosphere.

Private investment is increasingly seen as a development solution for countries beset with poverty. As a result, focus has been on investment in large-scale plantation agriculture, sidelining the massive small-scale private sector. But smallholder agriculture and forestry compare favourably with big plantations in terms of the environmental and economic benefits they provide.

Vol. 48, No. 19, Nov 15 - 21, 2015