The government is set to throw open the management of up to 40% of Indian forests to the private sector to revive degraded forests but experts warn it may destroy complex ecosystems and deprive local communities of a livelihood.
The environment ministry issued guidelines to the states last month, where it argued it didn’t have the resources to manage forests well and laid down the procedure to lease out degraded forests to private companies, who would “carry out afforestation and extract timber”.
For over a century, these forests have been under government control and the latest move comes after decades of lobbying by forest-based industries, sources said.“It has been felt that ongoing national afforestry programmes have not been able to make the desired impact in improving productivity and quality of forest cover due to a lack of sufficient investment, capacity, technological upgradation and adequate skilled manpower,” said the guidelines, a copy of which was accessed by HT.
“Thus there is need to look at options including how private sector can contribute in improving and restoring forest landscapes apart from meeting the vital requirement of various forest products,” the guidelines said.
The rules showed the ministry intended to introduce new rules to allow private participation in forest management because forest land was allowed to be diverted only for developmental projects and not plantation under the forest conservation act. The country has around 69 million hectares forest cover, out of which about 40% is categorised as open forests or scrubs -- together called “degraded forests” – which have less than 40% canopy cover.
But experts cautioned the scheme was likely to convert chunks of natural forests into monoculture industrial plantations and devastate local ecosystems because the guidelines prohibited firms from planting the same species of trees in only 10-15% of the area, meant to be developed for local communities.“Even the most degraded natural forests have 50-100 species of trees per hectare. For their end products, industries would hardly plant one or two species,” said a former director of Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal.
“The natural eco-systems are complex and sensitive, where each species has a role and is symbiotically dependent on other species. Removing 95-98% of species for growing 1-2 species may result in the fast degradation of the site.
”The guidelines also said tribal communities could access non-timber forest produce in only 10-15% of the leased-out area – a violation to the Forest Rights Act that recognised forest dwellers’ traditional rights to forestland and its resources, experts argued.
When contacted, director general of forests SS Negi refused to comment. "I don't remember if we have sent the guidelines to the states. I don't remember its details," he said.
The documents with HT show the guidelines were sent to the Madhya Pradesh forest department on August 11.The scheme will first be implemented on forests with less than 10% canopy cover and “based on the experience gained”, could be extended to forests with up to 40% cover
“Interested states forest departments may identify such forest areas not exceeding 5000/10,000 hectares to be initiated as pilots for private participation,” the guidelines said.
The identified parcels would be open for competitive bidding by public listed companies, co-operatives, public sector undertakings, charitable public trusts and foundations.The guidelines go against the National Forest Policy 1988, which says the primary use of forests should be for environmental benefits and the needs of local communities while industries should extract raw material from captive plantations.
States will approach the Centre for approval to lease out forests to private companies, similar to the process of diversion of forest land for industrial projects. “We refused such demands a couple of years ago, saying the national forest policy did not permit it. But there has been constant pressure for more than a year from within the government. The ministry is now even planning to amend the national forest policy,” said an environment ministry official.