India’s forests are facing huge economic and social pressures that threaten their existence. In 2014, a High Level Committee on Environmental Laws observed that the quality of the country’s forest cover has constantly been declining from 1951, this in spite of the increase of forested areas. The poor quality of compensatory afforestation programs has been flagged as one of the causes behind the degradation. India’s CAF Bill of 2015 was designed to provide for a financial scheme that would cope with the underutilisation of the funds collected for afforestation purposes and finally enable State Authorities to plant new forests. Is this a promising move?
Content and Status of the Bill
It is requested by the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 that « non-forest land, equal to the size of the forest being diverted for non-forest purposes, is afforested ». The CAF Bill (2015) makes permanent the National and State Compensatory Afforestation Management and Planning Authorities (CAMPAs) and most importantly plans on allocating 90% of the funding to the State Funds, for: (1) compensatory afforestation, (2) the Net Present Value of forests (NPV), and (3) other specific projects. First passed in the Lok Sabha on 8 May 2015, the Bill fell into cold storage after opposition in the Rajya Sabha. It got amended in May 2016 and is now under the Standing Committee on Environment & Forests’s scrutiny.
Analysis : the Afforestation Bill, a Green Economy Bill?
Benefits of afforestation programs can already be seen in India. Around the forest reserves in Kerala, they have led to a thriving growth of the overall forest cover of the State. Nevertheless, to reach such a level of sound and perennial afforestation, dependable and well-functioning State Forest Departments are needed. With the CAF Bill planning that 90% of the funds be transferred to States, the effective utilisation of funding depends on the capacity and transparency of State Forest Departments. Not only should afforestation be more systematic but it also ought to be followed-up, with dedicated people in charge of the upkeep of the planted trees.Nevertheless, the Bill and the forestry policy it supports have several drawbacks. First, afforestation on the ground is far from being systematically pursued. Entitled by the Bill, this practice of legal deforestation for which you can pay is all the more dangerous that, besides underestimating the value of original forests and not warning off forest diversion, it is not followed by sound afforestation programs.Another major difficulty lies in finding available and suitable land. Procuring land for afforestation – as opposed to using it for other more blatantly money-making purposes such as industry or agriculture – is not an easy task. In smaller or heavily forested States like Chattisgarh, procurement of land for afforestation is even more difficult given the scarcity of available non-forested land.Ecologically speaking, afforestation is not ideal. Deforested trees have much more ecological, economic and social value than young ones. It takes no less than 50 years before a newly-planted forest is mature enough to supply for the same value of good and services than the original one. Plus, deforestation causes irreversible damages to biodiversity. Afforestation possibilities should not downplay the importance of forest conservation and go hand in hand with state governments’ laxism with regard to deforestation.At the international level, the consequences of the Bill may turn out to be in discrepancy with India’s international engagement to reduce its GHG emissions and halt deforestation in the framework of REDD+ efforts. It represents a major problem in terms of global warming, while India ratified the Paris Agreement on 4 October 2016.
Go for Forest Conservation
What should be privileged is forest conservation – and the protection of existing forests through halting deforestation measures – in the first place. As the Ethiopian success story tells us, the participation of the local communities is pivotal, just as the financial support of the government to make this effort perennial. Providing payments for ecosystem services (PES) is a great mean to commit small stakeholders – local communities, landowners, farmers, etc. – to managing forests in a way that maintains or restores their ecological functionality and enhance human well-being across degraded forested areas. The 2015 CAF Bill will not prevent deforestation from continuing apace. On the contrary, the overarching REDD+ initiative has born fruits in Guyana, Brazil, Kenya, Madagascar and Costa Rica. Why not India? Afforestation should not come after deforestation, but be part of comprehensive forest conservation policies.