Relevance of conservation focus
Corporatisation of forest management will have far-reaching consequences to be borne by not only the present but also the future generations
Following legal reforms and the new policy brought out in 1980s, there was a big change in the forestry perspective and protection and conservation has become dominant strategy over the commercial exploitation of forests. Forests are now seen as the resource to be protected mainly for maintaining the environmental stability and benefiting the local communities rather than generating revenues. This is in alignment with the forest management principles adopted globally.
Proposal on Production
A forest professional with good experience and expertise in plantations shared a presentation made by him at a recent meeting in Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), New Delhi, on a social media wherein it was stated that annual wood production in the country is 88 million cum (3 million cum from forests and 85 million cum from Trees Outside the Forest) with a deficit of 21 million cum which is currently met by imports. He suggested to promote wood production through incentives and tax concessions for utilising 35 million hectares of farmer-owned cultivated waste lands and current fallows and 0.1 million hectares of community lands with projected wood production of 7.5 million cu metres. In addition to this, he has recommended to use 6 million hectares (10%) forest area for production forestry under Public Private Partnership (PPP) mode to produce 2 to 3 million cu metres of large sized wood per annum. He shared his serious concerns over the low wood productivity of forests, declining trend of wood production from the forests and the imports of wood and wood products which prompted him to present this proposal and to advocate for suitable policy reforms.
There is no dispute regarding the facts presented and the issues highlighted. The proposal regarding utilising the unused farm lands, current fallows, community lands and waste lands for wood production is to be welcomed by one and all. However, the proposal of allocating 6 million hectares for production forestry needs to be analysed comprehensively as it is going to be major policy shift of placing conservation in the backseat on one hand and corporatisation of the forest management on the other, which will have far-reaching consequences to be borne by not only the present but also the future generations.
Productivity and wood
Poor productivity of forests and wood scarcity in the country is shown as the reasons for proposing forest policy and management reforms. Productivity is a good concept for assessing the efficiency of primary production systems such as agriculture, horticulture and tree plantations. Forests are not mere tree groves yielding only timber, but they are generally multilayered structures with vegetation of various kinds – trees, shrubs, herbs, creepers and, therefore, emphasis on wood productivity will not give holistic picture. Further, for some forest types such as grass lands, wetlands, mangroves, meadows etc., wood production does not find relevance. Moreover, assessing the forests in large scale based on the single measure of productivity which does not capture the various other outputs – goods (non-timber forest products, herbal medicines) and services (ecological, cultural and livelihood support) – is inappropriate.
Import bill on the wood to the tune of 6 million cubic meters on round and sawn wood is insignificant as compared to import of agricultural products like oil seeds, pulses and other food grains which are the most essential items. Further, processed wood products comprise not only wood from forest but also the material processed from agricultural products, synthetics etc. Their imports generally take place due to consumer's demand and preferences on design, quality and other features rather than reasons of domestic wood shortage.
Forest land to production
forestry not justified
Most of the accessible and fertile forest lands were cleared for agriculture under grow more food campaign to attain food security, rehabilitation of displaced villages under various irrigation projects and to accommodate big industrial establishments in the past. The remaining forests (about 60 million hectares), in spite of their degradation status are necessary for biodiversity conservation, livelihoods enhancement, food security and preservation of cultural linkage. The proposal of allocating 6 million hectares for just promoting one kind of product (wood) by sacrificing all these benefits is not pragmatic.
It is not known why the thrust on Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP) which has got more share in revenue, employment, rural livelihoods and tribal welfare as compared to wood products is missed out in the proposed production forestry scheme. A holistic approach is necessary while proposing such kind of proposals instead of trying to address the issues in isolation and piecemeal manner which will have negative implications. Further, the proposal with projected annual production of 2-3 million cum of large sized wood (Value in present market rates is about Rs 3,000 cr) from 6 million hectares which works out to average annual return of Rs 200 per acre at a huge cost on environment and livelihoods is not justifiable.
Such projects of low economic returns after allotting to private agencies, are not likely to retain with the same land use and after a few years get converted into farming of profitable crops unlike continuation of the successful models of large scalewood plantations in countries like Canada, Sweden where the population is limited, land availability is plenty, land hunger is absent and various other factors.
It would be useful to take up production forestry in waste lands (92 million hectares available) instead of allocating forest land (6 million hectares) through community participation or PPP mode which helps to achieve the objectives of waste land reclamation, green cover improvement and wood production enhancement. Additionally, there is a good opportunity to promote the proposed production forestry in the forest land of about 4.2 million ha for which individual rights were given to the Scheduled Tribes under RoFR Act, 2006 by persuading them and contribute to their livelihoods improvement and economic prosperity.
It is observed in Telugu states that the tree-growing farmers (pulp wood) are trying to switch over to other crops due to non-remunerative prices and marketing problems. They have been demanding declaration of Minimum Support Price (MSP) and pleading with the government to stop harvesting and sales of pulp wood grown by State owned Forest Development Corporations (FDCs) in order to balance the supply and demand and to maintain price stability. More such problems and complications are bound to occur when wood production rises. It seems the proposal has not factored such issues.
The country cannot afford to lose the existing natural forests irrespective of their degradation status in the name of production forestry by scarifying the benefits of catchment protection, bio-shielding of coastal belts, climate amelioration, soil conservation, pollution abatement, biodiversity conservation, livelihoods enhancement, food security, cultural linkages provided by them. Forest management should continue its conservation and sustainable management approach and focus on rehabilitation, rejuvenation, restoration, conservation, wildlife habitat improvement of the existing natural forests with active participation of communities and other stakeholders. Additionally, the forest service has to play a greater role in addressing the problems pertaining to climate change, natural disaster mitigation, coastal management and pollution control and strive for overall improvement of ecological security of the country.
(Writer is former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests & Head of Forest Force, Andhra Pradesh)