Take a leaf from Gujarat, and let tribals own and operate forests

Draft amendments to the Indian Forest Act have been circulated for comment, and provoked much controversy. The ministry of environment proposes enhanced powers for the police and bureaucrats in dealing with forest tribals to improve forest cover. In 2015, the government made a UN climate commitment to create an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of carbon through additional tree cover by 2030.

The new draft includes a new concept — producer forests. Wasteland and thin forests are to be leased out to corporations to produce commercial timber, wood pulp, medicinal plants and other forest species. Some estimates put wasteland and thin forest at a quarter of all forest land. India currently imports an estimated Rs 46,000 crore worth of wood and timber products, and the proposed producer forests could greatly reduce such imports while creating large livelihood and production opportunities.

However, many critics see this as a plot to deprive tribals of forest rights by creating an unholy nexus of police, forest bureaucracy and corporations. The new draft provides that if tribal rights under Forest Rights Act (FRA) are in conflict with conservation, these rights can be compulsorily acquired by the government by offering compensation.

Some environmentalists complain that FRA has encouraged forest dwellers to expand illegal encroachments and cattle herds whose grazing thwarts regeneration of degraded forests. But tribal empowerment activists condemn the new amendments for eroding hard-won rights.

There is some merit in all these opposing viewpoints. The old Forest Act certainly needs updating. If done wisely, this can be a win-win for all concerned. Alas, few things in India are done well, so fears of a disaster should be taken seriously.

FRA defined bamboo as a grass, not a tree. Hence it vested ownership and collection rights with tribals, not the government. But other laws have been interpreted as saying that bamboo inside forests is government property and cannot be cut by tribals, whereas bamboo grown in plantations outside forests can be. This defeats the aim of empowering forest dwellers.

The folly of this becomes clear when we look at events in Dediapada taluka, Gujarat. Forest officials have been reluctant to recognise tribal rights fully. But in 2009, the bamboo forest in Dediapada flowered and died en masse. The dry fallen bamboo constituted a major fire hazard. So, the local divsional forest officer authorised local tribals to collect, transport and sell the dead bamboo.

With assistance from ARCH Vahini, a local NGO, the tribals struck a deal with the nearby JK Paper Mills to sell dry bamboo at Rs 2,815 per tonne. Between April 2014 and June 2015, the tribals supplied 96,000 tonnes of bamboo, yielding Rs 12 crore in wages and a net profit of Rs 6.5 crore, kept in a panchayat account for further investment in plantations. JK Paper Mills offered free saplings and technical advice to expand the bamboo groves.

The tribals could cut bamboo for their own use. In subsequent years, the bamboo price for the mill was higher but the quantity was kept lower, following advice from ARCH Vahini, to avoid over-exploitation of bamboo.

In five years, 31 tribal villages have supplied over Rs 30 crore worth of bamboo, providing wages totalling almost Rs 20 crore to thousands of households. Visitors to the area will see many tribals in jeans driving motorcycles. They are not the primitive hunter-gatherers romanticised by some activists. They are capable entrepreneurs. Once penniless tribals have now become responsible and prosperous plantation owners.

This shows the way forward. Producer forests can work. But why lease forest land to corporations? Why not lease it to cooperatives or producer companies formed by forest dwellers? As Dediapada has shown, tribals are entirely capable of managing plantations with some assistance from NGOs and industrial consumers like JK Paper Mills. The industrial consumers will be anxious to help with technical advice to ensure rising supplies of raw material.

There is no need for the mill to own and operate a producer forest. This is much better done by tribals themselves. That will end the current tension over the proposed amendments to the Indian Forest Act. It will be a win-win for tribals, the environment, carbon emissions, industry, and import dependence.

In theory, India has large wastelands that can be afforested by corporations. In practice, these lands are already used by villagers for grazing and collecting minor produce like herbs. Hence past attempts to grant wastelands to corporations has been stalled by fierce local resistance. The way forward is for the locals to create the new plantations on wasteland with technical help from industrial consumers.

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