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July 6, 2007

The Future of Forests


The Asia pacific region is in a state of flux. Development priorities are high on everyone's agenda and most countries are willing to undergo social and environmental sufferance at the cost of a higher Gross Domestic Product. Economics is the dominating buzzword today and policies aimed at increasing the quality of life get credence over concerns of increasing environmental degradation that most poor countries are likely to suffer or are already suffering. In India, discussions regarding conservation and development depend upon which side of the fence you are on. And, currently most of the fence sitters and decision makers are on the far side of the fence, readily handing out prescriptions that will take India on a higher trajectory of growth. India is already being referred to as the next growth story and the days of the so called ' Hindu rate of growth' seem far behind. For the past three years, we have constantly crossed 9% growth rate with the manufacturing sector touching 15 % this year. New mega projects are being announced everyday and all seems hunky dory. However, all is not pleasant if we look at the trends of degradation that the environment is subject to. Forests of the country, which by government records had crossed 77 million hectares is presently 77.47 mha. However, as revealed by remote sensing imagery and as was perceived to be true informally, actual forest cover may not be more than 67.83 mha or 20.64 % of the total land area. Of greater apprehension is the extent of dense forests, reported to be not more than 5.1 mha or barely 1.56 % of the total land area. Depleting forests now constitute just 0.064 ha on a per capita basis and productivity is equally low, barely 1/3rd of the world average on a cum/ha/year basis. It is a matter of alarm that forest managers recognize and have initiated steps that may well determine the future of the state of the forests in the coming decades. A major reason for degradation includes severe anthropogenic pressure, one which is expected to increase in the coming years. The societal needs of a country of more than one billion have assumed alarming prospects with diversion of forests for non forestry purposes rapidly increasing. Adding to these alarming scenarios is one more. A statistic reveals that 78% of the forest area is subject to heavy grazing and other unregulated uses, another 7-9 % is suffering from pressures of shifting cultivation, besides diversion for meeting non-farm related demands of the burgeoning population. Forests serve multiple roles but increased demands lead to a fall in the health of fragile areas, increasing stress and causing conflicts. Besides, there is considerable hardening of postures of those advocating unrestricted access to traditional users and those who maintain that inviolate areas needs to be protected with zeal to prevent further degradation. Additionally, industrial forces demand more and cheaper access to raw material as well as permission for diversion of forest lands. In the midst of gloom, there is an interminable hope that forests in India would survive and flourish into the next century. For forests were and still continue to have strong social and cultural linkages with adjacent human communities and mainstream religious customs. The starting point is now, as widespread interest in conservation is compelling bystanders, policy makers, wildlifers and activists on either side of the fence to sit and deliberate. For at this moment in time, the loss of forests is at stake and along with it, is the loss of a precious heritage that existed for millennia. With change in use patterns driving demands for forest products and economic growth, management strategies need to be adopted that take into account these issues cohesively. Challenges that will throw themselves up to the manager and demand innovations include × To apply policies that will factor in an area-based approach of management with region specific management doses. × To protect and conserve biodiversity for their inherent value rather than as a commodity for trade – because they too have a right to survive and flourish in their natural habitat. × To reconcile conservation ideals with resource use by communities and to aid them in continuing their traditional way of life. The intention is two fold. Realise that a healthy forest environment and the sustainability of societies are the objectives of forestry and then act. It is true that during the colonial era, forests in India and most countries in the Asia Pacific region were treated as a resource and exploited on a scientific basis. Rotational policies were followed and growth rates were monitored. Economically significant trees were sequentially cut down and mixed forests were cleared to make way for commercially viable species. In India, this continued till the decade of the 70’s before the advent of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. Forests began to be treated as repositories of biodiversity and were subsequently protected. However, this well intentioned act ushered in a downside, that of further alienation of forest rights of indigenous people. Then came the National Forest Policy, 1988 acknowledging the role of indigenous people in conservation of forests and with it, scientific forestry gave way to forestry of the next century. Conserving diversity of inviolate areas is necessary. Though national parks were created in the past century, the emphasis has recently shifted from game management to conservation. A start has been made by designating protected areas as repositories of diversity. These regions cover 4 % of the land area and are expected to rise to not more than 2 or 3 more percentage points. Several opponents of this system emphasize on the rights of people. It is true that people live inside most sanctuaries but a hard choice must be offered to them of the need to maintain inviolate areas. Eco development of communities by involving them in conservation and linking them to markets outside should be emphasized. Wherever possible, those convinced can move out voluntarily and for those who choose not to, adivasis can continue staying inside protected areas, but with restrictions. Community areas, corresponding to existing boundaries, can be created with permissions to carry out small scale agriculture and collection of firewood and forest produce for household consumption. These community areas will work on a charter that seeks protection of forests as their goal and enables those who wish to stay without discrimination or apathy. For more than 85% of forests, the role of human communities becomes crucial. Forests cannot be protected by might alone, neither by protectionism. Firstly, communities live in these regions and they cannot be removed from these parts, not for the paucity of land but also because of the enormous social upheaval that the nation will have to incur with this forced migration. Forests cover large areas and are also scattered in their spread. An approach for hilly region just cannot work for in a plain area. Starting from this knowledge, an area based approach should be implemented. Reserve Forests need to undergo a drastic change in management practices. Today, the need of the hour is to follow a middle path in management. Hence, Forest Protection Committees and Vana Samrakshana Samitis were set up to aid the forest department in its functioning. However, the FPCs and VSS’s as they are called, do not have a decisive role in matters of policy and management. More often than not, they are weak appendages to the existing system and pay lip service to the department. These bodies must be made responsible not only for trade of forest produce but also legally strengthened to be able to have a greater say in management. An area based approach emphasizes on management strategies that are based on the needs of the region. Resource use varies from subsistence (NTFPs, firewood and grazing) to business needs and it will be the decision of the Samitis to allow or refuse permission to users. The system of core, buffer and transitional zones as envisaged will be strengthened. Core area, inside protected areas and otherwise remain inviolate for the protection of biological diversity. Buffer areas, containing the remaining forest should be renamed as community regions. Community forests are maintained by locals who are given ultimate responsibilities for protection. An old prescription, but the community will have a chalked out plan to extract and conserve based on the following criteria – amount of extraction allowed, social fencing initiated and dedicated regeneration activities such as nurseries. The department will support and convince communities to conserve forests or face punishments in the form of loss of rights for short periods. In practice, the rather simplistic formula of involving communities with real power and even greater responsibility is the only ray of hope to ensure that forests survive. Hiving of forests as independent units capable of maintenance by communities with the department as a consultant (initiating watershed interventions and consolidating landscape priorities) will make management a more focused activity, an action oriented movement and not a problem solving mechanism as is practiced presently.