A study looks critically at India’s National Mission for a Green India, arguing that contemporary afforestation goals set under such a mission “assume arbitrary targets” that are rooted in habits of “(neo)colonial governance” rather than “sound science”.
The Green India Mission is one of eight missions under the National Action Plan on Climate Change and aims at “protecting, restoring and enhancing India’s diminishing forest cover and responding to climate change by a combination of adaptation and mitigation measures”. The $7billion environmental intervention, laid out in 2011, seeks to put a third of the country under forest cover by increasing forest and tree cover to the extent of 5 million hectares (mha), besides improving quality of forest/tree cover on another 5 mha of forest/non-forest lands.
“Ostensibly aimed at improving forest-based livelihoods, the initiative has all the qualities of past forestry efforts in India, which have historically performed a reverse role: disinheriting forest-rooted populations,” the study states. It is co-authored by Professor Diana K Davis from the University of California Davis’ history department and Paul Robbins, the director of the Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Same old template
The study notes that for over two centuries, “afforestation has been viewed as a panacea for a variety of ills including civilizational decline, diminished precipitation, warming temperatures, soil erosion, and decreasing biodiversity”. “Given that forest cover of Europe in the colonial period was estimated at roughly one-third, and that this region serves as the source of knowledge, law and statecraft, a taux de boisement [afforestation rate] of 30-33% became the widely accepted minimum for civilization… Exported to India, this targeted minimum, it can easily be concluded, became a conceptual ghost that haunted successive generations of forest policymakers, whose goals might have been diverse… but whose mechanism represent a disordered form of repetitive compulsion, imposed over and over on arid and semi-arid ecosystems and the local communities who knows them best,” it states.
Robbins say the “obsession” with tree-planting has its roots in the colonial forestry bureaucracy. “The British learned this habit, which pervade the pages of the Indian Forester years before independence, from the French, it turns out. A generation of British foresters were trained in Nancy France in the late 19th century. There, they learned what French colonial policies were in Africa: plant trees to cure the ‘runaway’ deforestation and grazing habits of local people, especially pastoralists,” Robbins told The Indian Express, by email.
Does it help?
The study argues that the approach to forestry in India has been “fraught” with “countless, commonly observed problems”. For instance, commitment to fixed rates of forest cover encourages tree plantations in “ecologically inappropriate sites and conditions”. Again, afforestation typically extends the “authority” of Indian state forest departments in a way that is mostly “at the expense of local livelihoods” rather than in “support of them.” One problem of plantation ecologies in India, according to the study, is “enthusiasm for fast growing species and exotic and invasive species, planted in the name of increasing land cover dedicated to ‘forest’.”
“Aggressive afforestation projects in India also tend to draw attention to, and direct resources toward, tree-planting, without a concomitant commitment to addressing the drivers of widespread and large-scale deforestation,” the study states.
Planting vs greening
Does tree-planting really lead to greening? Robbins replied: “This is precisely our point; tree-planting is NOT greening. Greening would take a socio-ecological approach that treated the system as a whole, a ‘Restoration Ecology’ of grasslands, streams, mixed scrub, agro-forestry, and so on. The incredible and beautiful diversity of the Indian ecological mosaic deserves a true ‘greening’ approach, that takes seriously the genius loci, the peculiarity of local systems, and restores these with local people.”
The larger point that the study aims to make, he said, is that “sometimes we do things simply because we have always done them, and think things because we have always thought them”. “By showing that actions and ideas have arbitrary (and sometimes pernicious) roots, it sets us free to imagine new and better things. There is so much important ecological work to do in India; I hope we can be liberated to do it,” Robbins said.