Some Comments on the Draft National Forest Policy 2018
THIS note on behalf of the CPI(M) is to record our opposition to the main thrust of the Draft National Forest Policy 2018 which is to privatise and commercialise forests. We see the policy document as a continuation of the unjust and pro-corporate process established by the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act (CAFA). This highly flawed law had eliminated the rights of tribal communities, other traditional forest dwellers and gram sabhas for access and management of forests and their produce. The draft policy takes this approach even further. In fact the word "tribal" appears only once in the entire document reflecting the British colonial mindset which considered tribals as "encroachers" on their own forest lands.
While the Draft emphasizes the role of forests in carbon sequestration and mitigation of climate change, it actually undermines the importance of natural forests and their other ecological and social services by equating forests with tree cover, using the two terms interchangeably. It neglects the much wider range of benefits from natural forests, beyond acting as carbon sinks. This is primarily to promote commercial plantations in the guise of tree cover as part of the afforestation programmes. Afforestation programmes became necessary in the first place precisely because natural forests had been destroyed for commercial projects in the name of development. The document does not even attempt to question the current intensification of diversion of forest land for mega projects.
Some of our objections are as follows:
1. Blueprint to commercialise and privatise forests
The Draft National Forest Policy 2018 is in essence a blueprint to commercialise forests to serve the interests of industry and to bring in the private sector for the actual management of forests through the so-called public private partnership model. If allowed, this will also pave the way for changing the character of natural forests to production or plantation forests, and undermining the wide range of ecological and social services provided by them. This is in contrast to the 1988 Forest Policy document which had subordinated commercial goals and private profit to the maintenance of ecological balance, protection of bio-diversity and assertion of the rights of forest dwellers to non-timber forest produce for sustenance and livelihoods.
The privatisation and commercialisation thrust dominates the Policy document and runs through several sections and clauses throughout the document. The emphasis is on increasing forest plantations and shockingly the afforestation and reforestation programme is also to be dedicated to this goal. In other words afforestation is in the main to consist of planting commercially useful timber. The ostensible reason for the emphasis in increasing forest plantations at the cost of everything else is to make wood the substitute for more carbon emitting products under the slogan “wood is good.” This perspective gives priority to the role of forests in carbon sequestration in preference to the other ecological and social services provided by forests, such as water recharge, checking soil erosion and providing fuel, fodder and other useful products to forest-dwelling communities.
2. Afforestation as the cover to promote plantations
In Section 3 entitled Essential Principles of Forest Management, Clause 3.2 states " Productivity of forest plantations will be increased through scientific and technological interventions so as to encourage the use of timber so that the dependency on other High carbon footprints wood substitutes is reduced."
In Clause 3.5 it is stated "Afforestation with suitable species will be intensified." The 1988 policy on this issue had specifically a clause which stated "no exotic species should be introduced through public or private sources unless long term scientific trials...have established that they are suitable and have no adverse impact on native vegetation and environment." Historically we have examples such as when the British planted pine trees for commercial use across Himachal Pradesh destroying native vegetation and much else. But this policy draft has no such concerns.
In the Section on Strategy 4.(d) titled Increase the Productivity of Forest Plantations, the kind of "suitable species" is stated as "commercially important species" like "teak, sal, sisham, poplar, gmelina, eucalyptus..." can be introduced and then the key sentence "Private participation models will be developed for undertaking afforestation ."
Taking this further in the Section 4.2 titled New Thrust Areas in Forest and Tree Managament, it is stated "the demand for timber and other forest produce is showing an increasing trend and is likely to continue as the economy grows...States would be encouraged to further develop their plantation programmes. Clause 4.4 states "there is a need to stimulate growth in the forest based industry sector. Forest corporations and industrial units need to step up growing of industrial plantations for meeting the demand of raw materials. "
3. Ambiguity on Question of Land for Afforestation
Where is the land for afforestation? On which land are the forest plantations to be increased? This is the crux of the issue. The draft is deliberately ambiguous if not duplicitous on this point. Although it mentions plantations "outside forests" in many other clauses it includes forests and forest land under forest corporations for planting trees for commercial use.
It is here that the experience of the implementation of CAFA is critical to understand the actual implications of this conflation of afforestation and forest plantations. An ongoing study of 2,479 compensatory afforestation projects across 10 states by forest rights groups has shown that over 70 per cent were consisting of plantations on existing forest land, including dense forests. The study detailed the violence unleashed against villagers by government agencies because they were protesting against such plantations. The draft policy praises, supports and promotes such plantations.
The 1988 Forest Policy had stated "(3.2) Diversion of good and productive agriculture lands to forestry should be discouraged in view of the need for increased food production." In this document food security of the nation does not even warrant a mention. On the contrary, the policy draft promotes agreements between industry and farmers to ensure more availability of timber.
4. Diversion of Forest Land
The draft acknowledges that the 1988 Policy had ensured an increase in forest cover. That policy had a whole section (4.4) on "Diversion of Forest Land for Non-Forest Purposes." The central government has announced "ease of business" policies which include the dilution of environmental parameters before permission is granted for industrial projects. Liberalisation of the Mines and Minerals Regulation Act through a series of amendments has opened up mineral rich forest areas including thickly forested hilly areas for mining. The 2018 policy draft has just one sentence on this crucial question which says "safeguard forest land by exercising strict restraint on diversion for non-forestry purposes..." Restraint on whom? The central government which is responsible for the diversion of thousands of hectares of forest land in just three years? And is not changing natural forests to tree plantations also a major change in the character of forests, somewhat akin to diversion?
5.Tribal Rights Eliminated
The draft policy eliminates rights of tribals and tribal communities and traditional forest dwellers (TFDs) in ownership and control of non-timber forest produce (NTFP) as also in community resources. It snatches away the rights of gram sabhas for management of forests and instead hands it over to proposed centrally controlled corporations.
The Forest Rights Act in Section 5 gives beneficiaries the powers and rights to “protect the wild life, forest and biodiversity; (b) ensure that adjoining catchments area, water sources and other ecological sensitive areas are adequately protected; ensure that the habitat of forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers is preserved from any form of destructive practices affecting their cultural and natural heritage; (d) ensure that the decisions taken by the gram sabha to regulate access to community forest resources and stop any activity which adversely affects wild animals, forests and bio-diversity are complied with”
This comprehensive understanding of the critical role of tribal communities and TFDs in forest management is replaced with a highly bureaucratised framework which includes setting up of so-called Joint Forest Management Committees controlled and appointed by government at the central and state level. At the local level, the secretary and joint account holder of these JFMs are forest guards. Therefore it is clear that these committees have little to do with communities.
The draft states: 4.1.1 (g) “Management of forests and forest plantations will be done as per the central government approved Working/Management plans and also in accordance with the guidelines issued by the Government of India and the MOEFCC.” In the next section 4.4.1(h) it is stated that a “National Community Forest Management Mission will be launched with a legal basis and an operational framework.” These “national and state level plans” will then be “synergised” with the gram sabha. It says “all efforts to ensure synergy between gram sabha and JMFC will be taken for ensuring successful community participation in forest management.” Thus a legally recognised body, the gram sabha, which has powers of forest management under existing laws such as FRA and PESAA (Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act) is to be subordinated to a government and forest department controlled body acting to a plan which has been decided in Delhi or in state capitals which have nothing to do with local communities wishes, plans or requirements.
This highly objectionable proposal undoes whatever little has been achieved in making tribal communities and gram sabhas as the central pivot in forest management policies. Of course the forest department and the centralised bureaucracy have never ever accepted the role of tribal communities and TFDs. It was retired forest officials who went to the Supreme Court against the Forest Rights Act. It is the MOEFCC which tries to usurp powers to override the tribal affairs ministry as the nodal agency for the implementation of FRA.
Much of the forest areas come under the FRA as community resources to which tribals and TFDs have full rights. It should also be noted that the 2014 guidelines issued for private plantations had reduced the rights of tribal communities and traditional forest dwellers to just 15 per cent of the project area. Now the extension of such plantations to areas traditionally used by tribal communities is an instrument to deprive them of existing rights.
The FRA categorically gives tribal communities and TFDs rights over community forest resources.
Section 3 of the FRA states “right of ownership, access to collect, use, and dispose of minor forest produce which has been traditionally collected within or outside village boundaries; other community rights of uses or entitlements such as fish and other products of water bodies, grazing (both se led or transhumant) and traditional seasonal resource access of nomadic or pastoralist communities; rights to protect, regenerate or conserve or manage any community forest resource which they have been traditionally protecting and conserving for sustainable use; right of access to biodiversity and community right to intellectual property and traditional knowledge related to biodiversity and cultural diversity;
The Draft National Forest policy does not mention any of these rights. Instead it wants control over NTFP. It contains a section “Management of non-timber forest produce” which states that such products which provide sustenance to forest communities will be “managed sustainably and “a value chain which is climate smart and market oriented will be made compulsory and part of the business plans related to NTFP.” Thus the draft proposes government takeover of NTFP from the ownership of the tribals and TFDs, blatantly violating the FRA. This is a most highly objectionable proposal in the draft.
6. Proposed Legal Framework
The draft policy document proposes a legal framework to override existing laws, which safeguard tribal rights such as the Forest Rights Act, the Panchayat Extension to Schedule Areas Act and constitutional protections such as those enshrined in the Fifth and Sixth Schedules of the Constitution.
It states in 4.8 “Appropriate laws, rules and regulations as per requirement will be put in place and existing ones suitably amended for effective implementation of this policy.” To oversee all this it proposes a sort of super body which assumes all powers to itself over the forests and communities living in forests...” A National Board of Forestry will be set up headed by the central minister in charge of forests and state ministers in charge of forests to ensure inter-sectoral convergence, simplification of procedure, conflict resolution and periodic review.”
This is a self serving proposal from a ministry which is doing everything possible to hasten the privatisation of forests and to eliminate the rights of tribal communities.
The Draft National Forest Policy should be scrapped. A committee comprising of organisations and individuals working to preserve the environment, forests and the rights of tribal communities and traditional forest dwellers should be set up to redraft the policy within the framework of the Forest Rights Act and other laws which protect and recognise the role of tribal communities in preserving India’s rich bio-diversity and her natural forests.