Is the new forest policy draft missing the wood for the trees?

  • The national government has opened the Draft National Forest Policy 2018 for public comments. Once it is in force, the new policy will replace the one from 1988.
  • Even though it has a long list of objectives, its focus is on increasing wood resources from industrial forestry.
  • The aim of the draft policy is two-fold – increase production of wood raw material to reduce import dependence and strengthen carbon sequestration to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Critics are apprehensive about the new draft undoing some of the policy gains of the past 30 years.

The national government has initiated the process of revamping the National Forest Policy. The policy that is in place currently was announced 30 years ago and is known as the National Forest Policy 1988 (NFP-1988). The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has published for public comments the Draft National Forest Policy 2018 (DNFP-2018).

The DNFP-2018 aims to “safeguard the ecological and livelihood security of people, of the present and future generations, based on sustainable management of the forests for the flow of ecosystem services. In order to achieve the national goal for eco-security, the country should have a minimum of one-third of the total land area under forest and tree cover. In the hills and mountainous regions, the aim will be to maintain two-third of the area under forest & tree cover in order to prevent soil erosion and land degradation and also to ensure the stability of the fragile eco-systems.”

The objectives include the maintenance of environmental stability and conservation of biodiversity; reversal of the degradation of forests; improvement of the livelihoods of people through the sustainable use of ecosystem services; and also help in meeting India’s greening goals under its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). Further, it talks about maintaining soil quality; safeguarding forestlands; managing protected areas and other wildlife rich areas; protecting watersheds; and increasing tree cover outside forests.

There is much livelihood support from forests for the poor communities living close by. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier / Mongabay.

There is also mention of integrating climate change mitigation and adaptation through REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries); implementing green accounting; managing green spaces in urban environment; and establishing a credible monitoring and evaluation framework. These are concepts that evolved into international and national environmental discussions in the recent years.

Focus on increasing productivity from forests

With the listing of such a broad range of objectives the DNFP-2018 should have been welcome to all stakeholders related to forests in the country, and should not have created the debates that it is generating today. The debates and the controversies have arisen because beyond the objectives the document focuses more on increasing productivity from forests.

For existing forests this will be through increased protection and for forest plantations “through scientific and technological interventions so as to encourage usage of more timber so that the dependency on other carbon footprint wood substitutes is reduced.” Additionally, there would be intensification of “afforestation with suitable species.”

Strategising how productivity can be increased in forest plantations, the draft policy states: “public-private participation models will be developed for undertaking afforestation and reforestation activities in degraded forest areas and forest areas available with Forest Development Corporations and outside forests.”

A mission mode is suggested for urban greening. “Promotion of trees outside forests & urban greens will be taken up on a mission mode for attaining the national goal of bringing one third of the area under forests & trees cover and also for achieving the INDC targets of the country,” reads the DNFP-2018.

The draft policy talks about community forest management. “There is a need to further strengthen this participatory approach, for which a National Community Forest Management (CFM) Mission will be launched.” The mission will work through the village-level gram sabhas to ensure community forestry.

Back to square one on community participation

“On the issue of community participation, the DNFP-2018 has moved backwards rather than building on the progress made from the time of the NFP-1988, followed by the joint forest management (JFM) process and the Forests Rights Act of 2006 (FRA-2006),” said Sharachchandra Lele, distinguished fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE).

The new draft forest policy may not be beneficial for this Malayali tribal from Kolli Hills in Tamil Nadu. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier / Mongabay.

“The fact that there are communities that either live in the forests or are heavily dependent on it for their resources is not mentioned,” Lele continued. “The FRA-2006 is mentioned only in the context of harmonisation with other laws through the proposed CFM. This negates all the work that has gone before for giving rights to the forest-dwelling and forest-dependent communities.”

Lele emphasized that in the NFP-1988 people’s participation in forest management was mentioned. As a follow up, the JFM programme, which was initiated in the 1990s, started by involving people in the management of degraded forests and peripheries. Later, communities were allowed to participate in forest management of not-so-degraded forests under governmental control.

It is the FRA-2006 that legislatively mandated that forest-dwelling communities have rights to manage their forests, even while not closing the regulatory role of the forest departments in various states of the country. “The FRA-2006 is really more forward-looking when compared to the idea of participatory forest management related to degraded forests,” observed Lele.

According to him, the new draft also undoes the hierarchy of importance over forest use that the NFP-1988 had created. “The NFP-1988 said that though forests are important for multiple uses, the maintenance of ecological balance is of the highest priority. Economic benefit should be subservient to it.”

Forests in the mountains provide ecosystem services and climate resilience to those living in the plains. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier / Mongabay.

B.J. Krishnan, senior environment lawyer and a member of the Western Ghats Ecology Experts Panel (WGEEP – also known as the Madhav Gadgil Committee) echoes Lele’s comments. “The NFP-1988 states that the first charge on forest produce would be for the protection of the livelihoods of tribals and forest communities. It is this approach of the 1988 policy that led to the evolution of the FRA-2006,” he said.

“About 22% of land area in the country is under forest cover, though the quality and nature of the forest health varies,” Krishnan continued. “In a country of 1.25 billion people two-thirds scratch the earth to make a living. If 22% of the land is not accessible to them, where will they go? How can participation take place without access? There is a total mismatch.”

Not enough wood

It is India’s increasing dependency on imported wood that drove the support for industrial forestry in the DNFP-2018. Growing timber within the country is expected to kill two birds with one stone – meet industrial needs and also sequester carbon to meet India’s INDC commitments on mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.

In its INDC, India has committed to create an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030. During their growth phase trees draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequester it in their biomass.

The third spillover impact, as mentioned in the policy draft, is that wood can replace other materials, which are manufactured from fossil fuel sources.

“It is welcome that in the DNFP-2018 the focus is on giving attention to the forestry in the sense of commercial forestry and economic angle by realising the need for meeting domestic demand for wood,” said T. R. Manoharan, senior advisor, Forest Stewardship Council – India (FSC-India).

“We do not have enough wood and our industries are starving,” he explained. “They don’t get enough raw material and our ports are now finding it difficult to handle the kind of quantity that we are required to import. We are a net importer of forest produce. So realising this need there is a thrust on production forestry in the DNFP-2018. It can also create value addition to the ‘Make in India’ campaign.”

Earlier forest working has converted many natural forests – like this one in Parambikulam Tiger Reserve – into teak plantations. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier / Mongabay.

Boost for forest certification

Manoharan is also happy that the DNFP-2018 gives policy support to forest certification. “I am happy to see forest certification incorporated into the draft policy,” he told Mongabay-India… “However, I would have liked the wording to be a little different. Certification not only brings market access and financial returns but also brings benefit to the people. Certification is a way to use economic agency to reward responsible forest management.”

He feels that the DFNP-2018 can give policy support to the movement to increase certification in the country. “At FSC-India, we are involved in a process of developing a National Forest Stewardship Standard. The draft is ready and it will be shared in the public domain. There will be a series of consultations and field-testing. We expect the standard to be ready by the end of this year.”

According to him, currently 521,510 hectares of forests are certified in the country. In the next three years aim is to raise it to 3 million hectares. Similarly, currently 411 companies in the Indian value chain have Chain of Custody (COC) certification, and the aim is to raise it to 600 in the coming four years. “This policy platform is a boost to achieve greater spread of certification in the country,” Manoharan observed.

Why not farm forestry?

Even while critics accept the need for wood in the country, it is the model prescribed for generating forestry resources that is causing the debate. “I am worried about the privatisation business that could undo the rights given to tribals under the FRA-2006 and the gains made on forest community rights over the past 30 years,” said environment historian Ramachandra Guha.

“Some time ago I was in Gadchiroli in Maharashtra where the first forest rights project has taken off very well with rights over bamboo bringing them economic benefits to the forest community. I hope the loopholes in the draft are plugged in the final policy document, and public lands are not handed over to private companies for industrial forestry,” he said.

Guha asks why industrial houses cannot deal directly with farmers to grow timber trees on their lands. “There are so many good examples from agriculture. This is how cotton, tobacco and sugarcane are farmed and why can’t it be done with farm forestry?”

Interestingly, according to an industry source, farmers in the Western Ghats region are apprehensive of planting timber trees on their lands because they are scared that their farms will then be classified as ecologically fragile lands. Once thus classified, the farmers fear that they would need to conserve their land and would find it difficult to develop and manage it.

The shola-grassland ecosystem of the Western Ghats provides water to the peninsula. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier / Mongabay.

Lack of knowledge-driven solutions

Praveen Bhargav of Wildlife First is however disappointed that the DNFP-2018 “is bereft of knowledge-driven solutions that have the potential to balance the competing needs of conservation and development.” This is despite the advancement of scientific knowledge since 1988 and overwhelming data on the threats that forests face.

“Shockingly, the most important challenge of forest fragmentation, which is scientifically established as the most serious threat to biodiversity is not even mentioned,” he added. “Consequently, the critical solution of consolidation of fragmented habitats, and prescriptions on preventing fragmentation of the remaining large blocks is completely missing. Thus, a huge opportunity of a paradigm shift from the failed compensatory afforestation regime to a science-based landscape/ecosystem conservation regime is being lost.”

An elephant camouflaged within trees. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier / Mongabay.

The idea started in the 1990s

While the DNFP-2018 is stirring a controversy because of its focus on industrial forestry, it is not as if this is not without a precedent. Successive governments had earlier made attempts to rewrite the NFP-1988. During the time of the Narasimha Rao Government in 1995, Environment Minister Kamal Nath had initiated a two-pronged process to restrict the use of forests by forest-based communities and lease degraded forestlands to forest-based industries. ‘Degraded’ was defined as forests with less than 40 percent canopy cover.

Following this, when the United Front coalition government was in power under the leadership of Prime Minister I. K. Gujral, a committee was constituted in 1997 to find ways to augment the availability of wood. Again, the demand for leasing degraded forestlands to industry re-emerged before the A. K. Mukherjee Committee. At the same time another committee was constituted to suggest rewriting of the NFP-1988.


There are many communities that continue their cultural association with forests and sacred groves. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier / Mongabay.

A policy is a document that indicates the government’s thinking on a particular subject. It is not a legislated action, so technically it can be rewritten by every successive national government.

So while support for industrial forestry resurrects phoenix-like every few years and there is an real need for generating wood within the country, it is best done by benefitting all stakeholders. A forest is after all not a mere stand of over-mature timber but a home to wildlife and forest-dwelling communities. The ecosystem services from forests, both financially tangible and otherwise, provide sustainability to the national economy and resilience to climate change.

Krishnan observed: “Unless human economy is integrated into conservation, it will not work. You cannot make enemies and expect conservation to succeed.”

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