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The Centre’s Exclusionist View of Conservation Is Increasingly Counterproductive

The Centre’s Exclusionist View of Conservation Is Increasingly Counterproductive

Over the past five to seven years, several laws have been proposed, ostensibly, for the betterment of India’s forests and forest dwellers. There have been drafts, bills, amendments and acts concerning afforestation (CAMPA 2016), reducing foreign exchange expenditure and being self-sufficient (palm oil 2017), reforesting degraded lands through private sector partnership (draft National Forest Policy 2018), securing the country’s forests and wildlife (Critical Wildlife Habitats and the creation of Tiger Reserves) and, most recently, the proposed amendment to the archaic Indian Forest Act 1927 (2019).

Most NGOs, activists and individuals working for the well-being of Adivasis and other forest peoples have been preoccupied with responding to these new attempts by the state to undermine whatever little our marginalised forest-based and pastoral communities have. The state, needless to say, plays no part in explicating what these new ways of conservation are, nor how the 80-100 million people who depend quite directly on natural resources will gain anything and be better-off.

Unfortunately, most of us trying to critique these new proposals and ideas of the state do so with the assumption that the state is honest, that it has only missed or overlooked something, made some silly mistake, and just needs to be pointed in the right direction to achieve justice for the communities concerned. But the way things are going, can we believe the state’s good intention by any stretch of the imagination? Looking at each of the state’s attempts at “conservation”, we see a pattern.


The Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) is now an Act meant to compensate (through afforestation) the loss of forests due to diversions for all sorts of projects, be it a shooting range, a coal mine, river-linking, a highway or a dam. It is strange enough that a Supreme Court order had to direct the state forest departments to begin spending this enormous amount of accumulated fund (Rs 52,000 crore: more than $7 billion).

Why afforestation did not happen alongside diversions needs more rigorous questioning. Stranger still is the way that the supposed afforestation is happening, and the money and the opportunities that have been wasted. Audits have shown that the compensatory money has also been used for non-forestry purposes in Chhattisgarh and elsewhere; new rest-houses and swank vehicles are now a common sight in Chhattisgarh.

Also read: The Compensatory Afforestation Bill Should Not Be Passed in Its Current Flawed Form

The Nalgonda district of Telangana, where 90% of the land comes under the revenue department, is a CAMPA paradise. A lot of the diversion has happened along the Godavari river, mainly due to the Kaleshwaram irrigation project, budgeted at Rs 80,000 crore. Despite the net present value of forests (NPV), which is essentially about the amount of land diverted and other costs incurred in the actual afforestation, which the user agency is bound to pay, the quality of land in Nalgonda can never match what is lost.

In fact, these lands that are targeted for planting are not even encroached – itself a rarity in India – as it is rocky, barren and, in stretches of several acres, sheer sheet rock. Not a blade of grass in sight. Afforestation in such places includes blasting these rocks, importing soil, and planting species of Ficus, neem, and another 4-5 species that will tolerate such terrain.

As the terrains are so different – between the diverted forest and the new afforested area – the plant species, too, need to change. In much of Nalgonda, we would need tropical dry evergreen plants and could, if an effort is made, recreate a tropical dry evergreen forest (TDEF). Such forests have over the years been wiped out, with only 1-2% of their original areas remaining.

However, having dealt with plant nurseries of diverse species in large numbers for more than a decade, the forest department nurseries I’ve seen made me realise that this is not the institution equipped to understand and work in varied ecosystems. At present, the FD is good at policing the forest, yes, but actually understanding and caring for it? No.

Deforestation. Credit: CodiePie/flickr

Compensatory afforestation runs smoothly in states and places where there are no encroachments or lands claimed by the FRA to deal with. Where it does happen, a common problem that people face is the slipping away of their commons – as these come under ‘revenue lands’, they are the first spaces to be fenced off by the FD, planted and deemed reserved forests – and now need to find new places to get fuel wood, their medicinal plants or to take their cattle out to graze.

The day to day suffering and drudgery of the people afflicted by CAMPA has increased manifold. In Jharkhand and Odisha, there have been conflicts due to the CAMPA project encroaching into areas claimed by local communities under the FRA.

Palm oil

The decision to increase the area under palm oil in the 14 states chosen, despite clear data about its impact on groundwater, is ecologically and socially, dangerous. The social and environmental problems associated with expanding palm oil is being realised all over the world – the recent moratorium in Indonesia is a case in point – and we in India continue as if foreign exchange is more crucial than water.

Also read: With Palm Oil Expansion, India is Blazing a Trail to a Parched Future

Indonesia can boast of annual rainfalls of between 4000 mm-6000 mm; the average Indian figure is less than 1000 mm in most sub-regions, around 1500 mm in some regions, and only in the Assam-Meghalaya region, does it touch 2000 mm. To do well, palm oil should be rain-fed; in India, we harvest our groundwater to feed it the 250 litres of water per palm.

Simultaneously, India is facing one of its worst water crises, with 600 million people facing shortages: the NITI Aayog warns that the situation is only going to get worse. The problems of water in India are “attributed to lack of government planning, increased corporate privatisation, industrial and human waste and government corruption”; the state-subsidised fertilisers and pesticides, many of which are banned in other countries, (and electricity for pumps to draw water), only catalyses the existing crises.

An oil palm plantation in Theni, Tamil Nadu. Credit: Madhu Ramnath

The National Mission on Oils and Oil Palm (NMOOP), unleashed in 2014, also causes similar social problems for marginalised peoples. In an extreme case, a Konda Reddy Adivasi village in Visakhapatnam district is completely surrounded by palm oil plantations; a patch of 200 ha that they used for their usufruct needs was recently fenced off to compensate for the land submerged by the Polavaram dam. The Adivasi families have no option but to work as labourers in the palm oil plantations.

Draft National Forest Policy (2018) and amendment to Indian Forest Act (2019)

The draft National Forest Policy sets the tone for an exclusionist view of conservation, harping on “eco-security” and the prevention of soil erosion; it invokes climate change (sec 2.13) and future generations and appeals to a larger time and space. But what is insidious is the complete absence of (and even the pretence) of consulting the gram sabha and the local population, the people who know and live in the environments that are being discussed.

The amendment to the IFA 1927 takes it to its logical conclusion, that is hidden in the National Forest Policy, giving the forest department unilateral powers, allowing it to be armed, assuring indemnity for its actions, and regarding the vast numbers of forest-dependent peoples as suspects instead of stakeholders and custodians of forests and resources.

Instead of conceptualising the landscape as a whole – mountains, valleys, wetlands, sacred spaces, and community lands – the proposed IFA breaks everything down, making special laws for each kind of demarcated area. Reserved forests where a forest settlement officer may decide what the rights will be of a community person living there, perhaps for generations (Ch 2, Sec 4); Village forests where the defunct and repressive Joint Forest management will be revived (Ch 3, Sec 28); and Protection forests where grazing and NTFP collection may be closed if the state deems it necessary for conservation (Ch 4, Sec 30). There is no consultation with the communities living in or near the forests for any of these provisions, or about alternate sources of livelihood.

Also read: An Anti-Forest Policy: Rhetoric or Sleight of Hand?

What is most startling is the power given to forest officers to enter the homes of forest dwellers, to question them and even to arrest them on grounds of ‘reasonable suspicion’ without a warrant (Sec 64). Past experiences, since colonial times, show that much of the conflict in rural and tribal areas in India is due to the result of a mismatched interface between two world views and attitudes, of a state that assumes the right of ownership and management of the forests, and that of the people living in and off these forests, who have, or have had, their own systems of ownership and management of the forests.

The intention and the hope that was invoked with the introduction of the Forest Rights Act (2006) was, along with providing a sense of tenure security to India’s marginal peoples – which is the foundation for all natural resource conservation – to also rejuvenate traditional systems of forest and land management.

Changing landscapes as well as various forces of modernity have made gaps in these latter systems, which now need to be plugged in with, what we know from modern science – identification and restoration of RET species, assessments of biodiversity, soil samples, carrying capacities, a systematic documentation, etc. – but the overall fabric of traditional conservation still remains intact.

In much of tribal India, we encounter well-preserved sacred groves, customs such as first fruit ceremonies, the practice of “leaving behind” a regenerative part while gathering yams, an astute and unique sense of observation of natural phenomena, etc., all evidence of a sensitivity that goes beyond a purely utilitarian approach.

Adivasi women during a protest against the proposed mining of bauxite in Niyamgiri, Odisha. | Reuters

One would have thought that the proper implementation of the FRA, especially the Community Forest Resource rights – that would encourage communities to plan and manage their territories – would gradually free the Forest Department to engage in areas other than revenue accumulation and policing.

For instance, it could ensure that all the post-mining restoration procedures agreed upon by companies are carried out in the 493 coal mines operating in the country. This in itself would entail large-scale seed-collection of appropriate species, establishment and maintenance of nurseries, and focused planting operations according to the soil context.

The FD could also ensure that the effluence and slurry from mining do not drain into the rivers nearby – as is so often the case and seldom reported – and destroy aquatic life. There are so many other mines, dams, roads and other projects that are potential ecological nightmares, where a department truly committed to its domain can do wonders to minimise damage. Instead, what we are now faced with is an additional threat of the department promoting itself from ‘police’ to ‘paramilitary’.

The Forest Rights Act (2006) and the Panchayat Extension for Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act have been used by local communities to protect natural and sacred habitats, often from private companies whose business is to extract resources from such areas. More than any government department or high profile conservation group it has been the civil society and these legislations that have prevented, or at least delayed, destructive large-scale projects.

Also read: From Close Quarters: Protecting an Adivasi Culture the State Wants to Destroy

But the FRA, too, has been opposed – by Wildlife First, an NGO, and some other groups. They pointed out that ‘land’ and ‘rights over land’ are state subjects according to the Seventh Schedule of the constitution, and questioned the legislative competency of parliament is decide upon it.

Their demand that the people whose claims have been rejected under the Individual Forest Rights and the Community Forest Rights be evicted from the lands they occupy; according to the petitioners, those with rejected claims are encroachers on forest lands. The Supreme Court passed an order on February 13 to that effect.

The state has done little to defend its legal position, on which more than a million marginalised people depend. The stay order that came about on February 28 was more of a response to massive protests across the country by tribal and civil society groups. The apex court has given the states four months to show why so many claims have been rejected, and the details therein. Ministry data shows that only 44.83% of the claims have been accepted. The next hearing is fixed for 24th July 2019.

Returning to the larger picture of India’s forests and forest residents, we witness a shrinking of their spaces. With the proposed and ongoing legislation and interventions of the government referred to earlier, we see a brazen attempt at undoing the two pieces of legislation (FRA and PESA) that have helped fight injustice.

There is ample scope for these interventions – CAMPA, palm oil expansion, National Forest Policy and the, possibly, amended Indian Forest Act – to converge and create a new composite of monocultures, protected and restricted areas, and rural populations whose livelihood options will be minimal.

One can foresee a new conservation landscape of plantations, tiger reserves and wildlife habitats, and fenced-in communities without rights. The rest of India’s land may be opened up for whatever development will come to mean.

All of this will add to already brewing unrest.

Madhu Ramnath is a botanist, anthropologist and writer. He is the author of Woodsmoke and Leafcups.

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