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Missing the forest for the trees? A perspective on the draft forest policy

Ramesh Venkataraman writes: A common theme running through the policy document is increasing tree and canopy cover in all areas with low tree cover at present. While prima facie this seems to be a laudable objective that is aligned with climate change mitigation goals, this raises a number of questions from ecological and sustainability perspectives.

Ramesh Venkataraman

The Draft National Forest Policy 2018 recently released by the Ministry of Environment and Forests and Climate Change (MOEF&CC) has attracted widespread attention of the conservation community in the country.  At a macro level the stated aims of the policy appear balanced and include expansion of forest cover to a third of the nation’s land area, conservation of biodiversity and wildlife, improvement of water security, optimization of ecosystem services and sustainability.

However, a common theme running through the entire policy document is increasing tree and canopy cover in all areas with low tree cover at present. While prima facie this seems to be a laudable objective that is aligned with climate change mitigation goals, this raises a number of questions from ecological and sustainability perspectives.

India is one of the most biodiverse nations in the world. We have multiple forest types in our country ranging from high altitude alpine forests to mangroves to rain forests, amongst others. Many of our forest ecosystems like deserts, grasslands, scrub and dry deciduous forests are characterized by low to moderate tree and canopy cover. These forests are ecologically aligned with the soil and moisture conditions available locally. They have evolved over a long period of time and often represent primary forests with high biodiversity. These forests have high structural diversity of vegetation which is essential for diversity of faunal species, and trees form just one element of this structural diversity.

A number of unique species of fauna are present in these forests, many of them endemic, facilitated by the ecological niches that these habitats provide them and they in turn are adapted to. The objective of expanding tree cover in such areas will severely threaten these unique ecosystems that have evolved over ages, and the flora and fauna found in them. This in turn could lead to significant species extinction. This is a major potential fallout of prioritizing climate change over biodiversity that all nations need to be cautious about, notwithstanding the global pressures and urgency to combat climate change.

There is also an emerging perception that forests with low tree cover are not of much value or not productive. This in turn appears to be influencing administrative decisions like permitting projects and schemes in such areas more liberally than in other forest areas. Empirical evidence from around the world indicates clearly that forests rich in biodiversity are significantly more effective in providing ecosystem services than others.

A biodiverse forest has a complex structure consisting of multiple layers of vegetation and not just trees. Bottom and middle-storey vegetation like grasses and shrubs play a key role in water harvesting and preventing soil erosion and landslides. Different plant species help fixing different nutrients in the soil. Multiple microorganisms also enrich the soil. This forms the rich silt that flows down our rivers and forest streams and get deposited in agricultural fields, benefitting millions of farmers. These are but some examples of the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem services. Each forest ecosystem is valuable in a unique way and altering the structure of these forests could have serious long-term consequences for the sustainability of ecosystem services.

A positive aspect of the policy is the emphasis on restoring degraded forests, which is a more urgent need compared to increasing forest cover. A large proportion of our forests are degraded to various degrees due to a combination of anthropogenic factors and biotic factors like spread of invasive alien plant species. Quite a few of our Protected Areas like National Parks have a widespread problem of invasive plants like Lantana camara. As a result, these are physically protected but ecologically threatened.

Equally importantly, degradation is a key contributory factor for the increase in human-wildlife conflicts in recent years, as paucity of food and water inside forests drives animals towards nearby villages. It is possible to reduce such conflicts by restoring the health of our forests. Habitats overtaken by invasive species like Lantana camara also have a higher incidence of forest fires.

Ecological restoration is a scientific and rigorous discipline of conservation that places a high emphasis on ensuring ecological integrity. The objective is to restore a degraded ecosystem to its natural trajectory by rebuilding its ecological resilience. The practices are based on the principle of least possible intervention, with assisted natural regeneration being the most preferred methodology. As the name implies, this involves creating the right environment in a forest for plants to come up naturally, as opposed to planting tree saplings. It goes without saying that ecological restoration aims to bring a forest back to as close to its original state as possible. Hence a degraded grassland is aimed to be restored to a grassland, and not into an area with high tree cover.

Ecological restoration, as compared to increasing tree cover, could well be the corner stone of the policy as far as improving forest health is concerned. It meets the multiple objectives of improving biodiversity, combating climate change and strengthening ecosystem service delivery admirably well. It is a discipline of conservation that has seen significant advancements around the world over the last few decades, with a number of international standards being published. A number of innovative and well-researched methods have been adopted in regions like South America and Australia with good results. The forest policy would indeed be strengthened by adopting the core principles of ecological restoration as one of its guiding posts.

The writer is a Certified Ecological Restoration Practitioner and has been recently elected as Regional Representative for Asia on the Board of the Society for Ecological Restoration. View profile

A blow from an axe: Ramachandra Guha on India’s new forest policy
Ramachandra Guha, The Telegraph
Both social equity and environmental sustainability are critical to our republic’s future. The present government seems bent on reversing the modest gains of the past three decades by making the corporate sector, once more, the key beneficiary of State forest policies. This is the inescapable conclusion one reaches after reading the ‘Draft Forest Policy, 2018’.

Civil Society Response to Draft National Forest Policy 2018
Kisan Swaraj
Through the existing Forest Policy of 1988 and FRA 2006, has the required correct perspectives towards forest management by providing ownership and management to adivasis and other traditional forest dwellers, and in that sense, prioritized its forest policy thrust in a win-win approach for forests/wildlife and adivasis/traditional forest dwellers. State-managed forestry and revenue maximization by industry have already been relegated to a backseat and rightly so. In such a context, it is unclear why we need a new revised policy at all and why the forest department cannot work through the local institutions that FRA operates through.

Anti-forest, anti-forest dweller
Chitrangada Choudhury, The Hindu
Since the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill was floated, forest rights advocates report that over 2,500 gram sabhas across India have opposed it. But resource rights movements by Adivasi and forest-dwelling communities are marginal in our public discourse, except during momentous events like the recent Nashik-Mumbai march. The government’s ongoing policies do not address such demands for justice and dignity. Instead, they prepare the ground for a fresh chapter of the violent denial of rights and ecological damage.

Smoke in the woods
Sharachchandra Lele, The Hindu
So, what is the impetus behind this new draft policy? Granting the private sector access to public resources is one. But an additional driving force seems to be India’s commitment made in Paris in 2015 to sequester 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in our forests. “Carbon neutral timber” is listed as the first benefit from forests and a subsection on integrating climate change concerns highlights its importance. Conveniently, the accumulated ₹50,000 crore of NPV monies (called CAMPA, or Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority, funds) provides the means to achieving this carbon target.


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