A recent controversial bill that outlines a framework for the utilisation of compensatory afforestation funds is being strongly contested and challenged by civil society actors. It raises important questions that are fundamentally connected to forests: Whose are they and who should be compensated for their loss.
The Compensatory Afforestation, Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) has over the years accumulated a staggering Rs 41,000 crore as recompense for forest land having been diverted for non-forestry purposes. The amount is calculated on the Net Present Value (NPV) of the diverted forest and the cost of afforestation; it ranges between Rs 5-11 lakh per hectare depending on the type and condition of a forest.
The current bill does not take into account any of the criticism voiced against an earlier version, proposed under the UPA government in 2013; it continues to ignore the Forest Rights Act. Instead of using the CAMPA funds to empower local communities to carry out afforestation, forest enrichment activities and ecological restoration, the Bill places its faith in the colonial-era forest bureaucracy.
In considering the use of these funds, it makes sense to ask: Whose forests are these anyway? Who suffers when forests are diverted for non- forestry purposes and what is the best means of ensuring meaningful compensation of this loss — both ecologically and socially. As is common knowledge, India inherited a colonial forest governance infrastructure that unilaterally treats forests as state property. The state takeover of forest land has been deeply contested and it was only in 2006, that a nationwide mobilisation demanding local rights over forests led to the Forest Rights Act (FRA).
The FRA provides for individual and community rights over forests and provides a framework for communities to govern them. According to a recent study by Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), almost half of India’s forests are likely to come under the jurisdiction of gram sabhas; thus, any efforts to regenerate or afforest these lands will require their consent and support. In view of this, an amendment to the proposed bill was introduced in the Rajya Sabha to include the provision of gram sabha consent for any afforestation activity. The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF), however, wants to push the CAMPA Bill in its current form, bypassing the authority of gram sabhas and the legal and moral rights of local communities over forests.
The emphasis is on using these funds for plantation drives through the forest department despite there being clear evidence that much of these efforts fail. Official records show that 19.4 million hectares has been afforested by the forest department over the last decade but forest cover has barely increased, reflecting the failure of the centralised forest bureaucracy to undertake ecological greening. Even the ecological value of whatever survives is highly dubious, as monocultures and mixed plantations can’t be substitutes for natural forests.
Instead of entrusting the Rs 41,000 crore to the forest bureaucracy, we need to use these funds to further strengthen local rights and empower communities to restore forests and degraded lands. For example in Odisha, the state where I have done extensive research, more than 10,000 villages have protected and regenerated local forests with no external funds.
India has a large number of such examples of communities taking up ecological restoration at low costs. These efforts can be greatly strengthened through securing local rights over forests and providing support to community efforts to conserve them. The decision over where, what and how to plant and regenerate degraded lands, instead of being in the hands of a distant, inefficient bureaucracy, needs to be in the hands of local communities, who have the capacity to undertake adaptive management and maintain close oversight. Innovative systems of incentives and direct payments can be designed using remote sensing.
Evidence from around the world shows that farmers and local communities are far more efficient and effective at protecting landscapes as compared to centralised bureaucracies, and that secure rights lead to better stewardship of land and forests. In China, over 100 million hectares of forests has been handed over to communities and the government has invested over $50 billion, incentivising farmers and communities to conserve forests. Even in India, farmers have taken up forestry with great enthusiasm and 85-90 per cent of the country’s industrial wood supply is now sourced from them.
Using CAMPA funds to support community-based afforestation will also lead to major positive social and ecological outcomes. It will ensure a flow of Rs 4,000-5,000 crore to some of the poorest communities, as wage labour every year, with positive spin-offs in terms of improved incomes, poverty alleviation, food security and nutrition as well as better ecological outcomes in terms of eco-restoration, biodiversity conservation and carbon sequestration.
Both legally and morally, forests are local commons — and it is the tribals and forest dwellers who suffer the most when they are lost. Even though both the Kanchan Chopra Committee and the IIFM Committee on Forest NPV clearly mention that communities must be compensated for the loss of forests, the CAF bill is totally silent about their rights and compensation. One can only describe this as a retrogressive resource grab by a ministry and the colonial-era bureaucracy, which pays no heed to the law of the land and the moral claims of the most vulnerable Indians. The political leadership in the country needs to see through this resource grab and stand by its forests and forest people.