How to plant trees for development

Today, in India, forest protection happens against all odds. There is no economic value seen in forests, but there is value seen in the development project for which forestland is required. Clearly, this is not the way to go. We need a value to be paid for standing forests; it needs to be shared with people who inhabit these lands; we need to grow trees in ways which bring money to the poor; and we need to learn how to protect, regenerate and grow trees, all at the same time.

The last time India seriously tried planting trees was in the late 1980s. The then prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, had declared that he wanted to make tree plantation a peoples’ movement. The Wasteland Development Board was set up and social forestry was the buzzword. But soon it was realised that planting trees was more than just digging pits—it was about institutional mechanisms that would give people rights over trees and a stake in management. It was at this time that Anil Agarwal and I co-authored a report on greening India called Towards Green Villages. In this we showed how every effort to plant trees would be defeated unless people got benefits from these forestlands. It is important to understand that India has the highest density of livestock and no wall can keep out people’s goats. 

All this built an understanding of the need to involve people in afforestation. We argued that village communities should be given rights over government forestland so that they could plant trees and reap benefits. There was huge opposition to this idea. Many foresters and conservationists feared that this would destroy forests; people would take over these lands or fail to manage the business of planting trees.

A compromise was worked out: a scheme called Joint Forest Management. Under this trees would be planted on forestland; people would plant and protect the forest and voluntarily keep their animals out. In return they would get usufruct rights over grass and a share of the timber revenue. The forest department kept control through village committees formed under the scheme.

There were many problems with this approach but the final insult came when the trees were ready for harvest. In villages where people provided years of free labour to guard and grow trees, the payment turned out to be minuscule. Why? The forest department adopted a highly deceptive and ingenious method of calculating the revenue that would accrue to the people. It deducted all the expenses of the department and then calculated the net revenue. The 20-25 per cent of the sale proceeds promised to people turned out to be a pittance. In this way people lost trust, the country lost the opportunity to get a real partnership in planting trees.

As a result, the country has swung from one extreme position to another, from the pre-1980s, when the focus was on extraction, to now, the post-2010 period, when we do not want to cut any tree because we fear it will destroy forests. This fear drives forest policy, which denies people rights to ownership or real partnership in growing trees and building local economies. We now import our wood. Forest productivity is nobody’s business.

Currently, the Supreme Court’s strict directives on forest conservation, not management, guide forest policy. There is a ban on cutting trees in forest areas without a working plan; the plans are either not made or do not focus on production. Then there is a ban on saw mills around forest areas which provides an excuse for not building economies out of forests. The ultimate protection is that all tracts of land with trees get classified as forests. This allows the forest department to take over these areas, even if it cannot take care of the land under its charge.

What really hurts is planting a tree is now bound up in so much red tape that it is not worth the effort. Every state has its own rules to cut, transport or market trees—even if grown on private land—because of which people prefer not to grow trees at all.

We have ended up successfully disconnecting environmental management with development. Today, the poorest people of India live in its richest forested areas. We need to move beyond conservation to sustainable management of this resource. But we can do this only if we can grow trees, cut them and then plant them again. This, in turn, requires partnerships with people. This is what we need to discuss and work on. Environment must become India’s development agenda again. This is imperative.