- A new study has drawn attention to the importance of political reforms, such as those that can secure land rights, for the success of forest carbon storage and finance goals in India.
- Such policies can bolster the decision-making power of indigenous and forest-based communities over the lands they use to shore up forest conservation and protection actions for carbon storage.
- Interventions that are not directly related to the forest sector, such as those that reduce forest degradation, and are not reliant on finance, are also important to realise the goals of forest carbon finance.
- Legislations that enhance the decision-making power of local communities over the lands they use, such as the Forest Rights Act, 2006, need to be mainstreamed in climate action discourse.
Political reforms that strengthen the decision-making power of indigenous and forest-dependent communities, over the lands they use, can address challenges with forest carbon finance in India that has a poor track record of enforcing the rights of communities over their lands, says a study.
Drawing from tribal forestry in the U.S. and government forestry cases in India, researchers underscore the importance of “strong enforceable rights, accountability, and countervailing power” in forest carbon finance which often fails for political reasons. Non-financial reforms, including interventions outside the forestry sector, must accompany forest finance, states the study, by a team of researchers from the U.S., Europe and Asia, on how politics shapes the outcomes of forest carbon finance,
“There is really strong evidence that reforestation and forest protection programs are more effective when they engage the local community of forest users, so any forest sector reforms in India need to enhance the decision-making authority of these local forest users over the lands they use,” study’s corresponding author Forrest Fleischman, at the Department of Forest Resources, University of Minnesota, told Mongabay-India.
Money allocated to forest carbon storage, such as through United Nations Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation and the Clean Development Mechanism, may simply be wasted if the proposed interventions are ineffective. “India has a rather poor record of respecting the rights of indigenous and forest-based communities concerning forestry, and we see no change in this pattern concerning forest programs specifically aimed at forest carbon,” said Fleischman.
“With regards to biodiversity, much of India’s carbon storage plan relies on plantations of a small number of tree species – often either exotics or native species with high commercial value that are relatively easy to propagate in nurseries. These kinds of plantations often don’t reflect the biodiversity of India’s forests,” he added.
India, which is executing a range of measures directly associated with the forest sector to conserve and enhance the forest and tree cover, has committed to creating an additional carbon sink of 2.5 billion to 3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030 to meet the pledges under the Paris Agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Forest carbon storage often conflicts with the needs of both forest users and forest managers because many of India’s forestry programs are in areas overlapping customary rights over those areas by indigenous communities. According to a 2016 study by Land Conflict Watch, more than 40 percent of all land-related conflicts out of 289 ongoing ones involve forest lands, mostly concentrated in regions where customary rights of tribal communities are not recognised.
Whose land is it anyway?
Lack of clarity on land rights is a “major hurdle” in implementing forest carbon finance projects, reiterates Indian Forest Service officer Pushpendra Rana, co-author of the forest carbon finance study who is with the forest department of the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. In Himachal Pradesh, 67 percent of the land is under the forest department, but a vast chunk of these lands have overlapping use and access rights of local communities.
“Even the migratory pastoral communities require land for grazing livestock and local communities need them for securing their livelihood needs. We need to identify and recognize these rights so as to extract from this pool of land and keep it away from public use to use it only for forest carbon finance projects,” Rana said.
“In terms of management it is very difficult to enforce rules and guidelines for forest carbon finance due to these conflicting interests, overlapping rights and non-recognition of local communities as equal stakeholders in carbon rights and benefits,” said Rana, adding that incentives provided to local communities to implement forest carbon projects on lands with overlapping rights “should be much higher compared to lost livelihood benefits or tailored to local realities to make them attractive to the communities; they should be compensated for lost rights and access to forest resources.”
For consultants working on these projects with communities, it is crucial to fine-tune these concepts (carbon finance) as per local realities and forest management strategies; the technical information should be translated into user friendly (both local community and forester) language sans the jargon for the communities so they can be better informed and involved.
Secure community property rights and community participation for improved monitoring and supervision during and after tree planting (three to five years) translates into favourable outcomes for long-term plant survival in forest protection programmes, as Rana saw in a separate study he co-authored, on 23 randomly selected public forest plantations in Kangra district in Himachal Pradesh. Local livelihood benefits and seedling survival rate were the other two indicators to help assess the likelihood and directionality of the long-term social and ecological impacts of forest plantations.
In Lower Bihan, for instance, local committees regulated people’s use of the planted area by applying sanctions in phases and by ensuring regular protection from migratory shepherds and fires. Violators were asked to shift their grazing to other locations. In Naura, community members restrained their grazing within planted areas and even stopped migratory shepherds from entering these plantation sites.
On the other hand, land parcels in Naura and Bhangar, where monitoring by forest officials was poor, plantations did not succeed. In Milkh, planted trees did not survive due to damage by migratory shepherds. “Where communities had taken ownership of sites, chances of plant survival were better after the project ended,” Rana noted.
Prioritising landscapes for forest carbon projects is another way to align domestic policies and global goals for climate mitigation, environmental justice, conservation and sustainable development. “In some cases, carbon sequestration can be a major objective and in other cases, it can assume a low priority, depending on how the land is used by communities,” he said.
According to a 2021 paper by the Centre for Nature-based Climate Solutions, and Department of Biological Sciences, National University of Singapore, a vast majority of financially viable and most profitable forest carbon sites are located in the Asia-Pacific region; India along with Brazil, Indonesia, Malaysia and Bolivia are the top five countries representing a substantial amount of potential returns from the trading of carbon credits in markets that could support the protection of forests, thereby benefiting forest stakeholders, the paper said. Another study finds that 294.5 million people live on tropical forest restoration opportunity land in the Global South, including 12 percent of the total population in low-income countries.
Non-forest policies important in forest carbon
Fleischman adds that there is emerging evidence that other policies that are not directly linked to the forestry sector may be strong complements to forest-related policies − such as improved access to gas cookstoves reduces firewood demand and cuts forest degradation in some parts of India where woodfuel demand to fire up traditional cookstoves is a major driver of degradation. Indoor air pollution from the burning of solid fuel for cooking accounts for a significant number of premature deaths in India so there are health benefits as well.
“But gas cookstoves don’t necessarily have a benefit in terms of net carbon storage, since they replace a potentially renewable resource (wood) with a fossil fuel energy source. In some regions, we’ve also seen farmers abandon marginal land and/or adopt agroforestry practices when it makes economic sense to do so. So we could think of complementary interventions that are outside the forest sector which might include provision of gas stoves, enhancing markets and capital availability for agroforestry, and providing viable alternative livelihoods to farming on marginal lands,” Fleischman stated.
A 2021 policy brief by TERI that examines and proposes a pathway for India to attain its forestry National Determined Contribution target of achieving 2.5–3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide mentions that policies that are indirectly related to the forestry sector (such as the scheme to provide LPG cylinders at a subsidised rate) contribute to providing proper pricing structures, compensation and financial aid to farmers, better irrigation and water management plans, and reducing pressure on forests.
The policy brief elaborates that if the 10 crore (100 million) households adopt LPG for cooking, it will lead to “saving of trees and fuelwood demand to a large extent accounting to 1377 million tonnes of fuelwood through which 1734 MtCO2e (metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent) per year could be sequestered. In addition to it, carbon finance can be obtained of approximately worth Rs. 65,025 crore per annum against the sequestered CO2.” To achieve this the government needs to spend Rs. 16000 crore per year to provide 50 percent subsidy per cylinder to 10 crore households.
A recent research finds that activities related to natural resource management under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), India’s social security programme for rural people, can capture 249 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2030.
Researchers further noted that instead of modifying forestry practices, carbon forestry in India is geared towards “re-packaging existing programs” under new headings with “more continuity than change.”
“India has a long record of promoting large-scale tree planting programs, dating back at least to the 1970s. Much of what is claimed as carbon forestry in India merely re-packages what’s been done for several decades (and doesn’t have the best track record) and says that it will store carbon. These programs are very similar to ones promoted in the 1970s and 1980s to alleviate a perceived fuelwood crisis, or in the 1990s to promote social cohesion and reforestation through Joint Forest Management,” added Fleischman.
India-based forest rights expert and activist Tushar Das, who was not associated with the study, agreed with the observations stating that the current approach to climate finance, international commitments and domestic climate action plans do not comply with the legislation and policies that enhance rights of forest-dependent communities such as the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA) and Panchayat (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 or PESA.
“Current approaches to climate action are based on the flawed model of monoculture plantations implemented by the forest department through compensatory afforestation programmes (CAMPA). Our studies on CAMPA have found that there are major impacts of the plantations on forest and land rights and biodiversity because monoculture plantations are ecologically destructive. There are issues associated with undermining local governance by Gram Sabhas. There is also a push for engagement of private sectors in the plantation programmes,” Dash told Mongabay-India.
He adds that while FRA and PESA changed the paradigm in forest governance, they are not mainstreamed in climate policies and action, including carbon finance. “Talking about FRA alone, studies estimate that 40 mn hectares of forest can be protected by implementing FRA. So if that is the scope of FRA and the importance and potential of tenure rights, in not just securing rights but also conserving forest resources and eco-restoration, then why does FRA not figure in climate policies and institutional mechanisms to implement climate finance,” questioned Dash.
Fleischman, F., Basant, S., Fischer, H., Gupta, D., Lopez, G. G., Kashwan, P., … & Schmitz, M. (2021). How politics shapes the outcomes of forest carbon finance. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 51, 7-14.
Rana, P., & Miller, D. C. (2021). Predicting the long-term social and ecological impacts of tree-planting programs: Evidence from northern India. World Development, 140, 105367.
Banner image: Grey heron at Kaveri river near Biligundlu. Photo by P Jeganathan/Wikimedia Commons.