[Commentary] Forest restoration: challenges and opportunities for India

  • In the UN decade on Ecosystem Restoration, afforestation that does not consider local factors and faulty planting in landscapes like savannahs which causes loss to local biodiversity, are being replaced with better forest restoration techniques.
  • Identification and availability of area, lack of research with suitable strategies, conflict of interest among stakeholders, poverty and financing are some of the challenges in forest restoration for India, but there also exist opportunities to meet many global targets.
  • Forest-dependent communities, as the most important and influential stakeholders, must be included in decision-making. Their concerns must be addressed, and incentives must be offered.
  • The views in this commentary are that of the author.

Forest restoration is the act of bringing back a forest or landscape which has been degraded or damaged by anthropogenic exploitation or natural factors, to its original state. Forest restoration not only facilitates the recovery of degraded forests and their various functions, but is also considered as one of the best solutions to contribute to sustainable development by restoring the ecological, economic and social functions and values of the forests.

The continued decline of global forests by 3% between 1990 and 2015 as per the reports of FAO (2018) has also necessitated the need for increased forest protection and restoration. The trend of adopting tree planting as a suitable strategy to fight global warming owing to their ability to sequester carbon, thereby slowing climate change, is being challenged by alternate postulations, as in many instances planting without considering local factors and ecology may lead to negative consequences and more damages to ecosystems than the intended benefits. Similarly, faulty planting like planting in grasslands like savannahs may be disastrous, causing loss of local biodiversity and their survival.

A study from 2020 that mapped the carbon accumulation potential from global natural forest regrowth, stated that naturally regenerated forests tend to have nearly 32% more carbon storage. These findings have led to a favourable tilt in the conservation story, with more emphasis on forest restoration than tree planting. In this decade (2021-2030) on Ecosystem Restoration as designated by the UN, it is essential to employ new techniques of forest restoration. Restoration is now widely accepted, and its features such as cost-effectiveness and the ability to conserve more biodiversity make it a more suitable intervention than tree planting. It is slowly gaining popularity among people and the governments.

Transitioning from afforestation to forest restoration

Joining the Bonn challenge in 2015 with a pledge to restore 13 million hectares of degraded and deforested land by 2020, India later revised its restoration target to 26 million hectares by 2030. Since 2011, India has also brought an area of 9.8 million hectares under restoration.  However, as per a report from World Resource Institute (WRI), India has nearly 140 million hectares of potential for forest protection and landscape restoration that can sequester 3 to 4.3 billion tons of above-ground carbon by 2040. Considering the multiple benefits of the restoration approach including enhanced  biodiversity, ecosystem services and livelihood needs of people, serious deliberations are on the cards for a transition from afforestation to ecological restoration.

The thrust of the Indian Government so far,  has mainly been around various afforestation and reforestation programmes like Compensatory Afforestation and more recently the revamped National Mission on Green India in addition to certain project-specific programmes like Project Tiger and Fire Management. This is in addition to various state-sponsored programmes like ‘Telangana Ku Haritha Haram’ of Telangana.

The most significant reason, causing the continued degradation of forests in India is grazing. It affects more than 75% of forest area, shifting cultivation and encroachment over 10 m ha of forest area. This dependency and complexity of livelihoods linked with forests has not only affected the progress of various afforestation programmes but also continues to pose serious challenges for the future growth of forests including their restoration.

As a revised and upgraded version of forest restoration, Forest and Landscape Restoration (FLR) is a mechanism that demands to bring together the people or communities falling under a designated landscape to identify, negotiate and implement the mutually agreed interventions for the betterment of the area. The inclusion of landscape concept is more relevant and essential for developing countries like India where we have millions of people depending on forests for their livelihood.

Challenges in forest restoration

Many challenges need to be suitably examined and studied to attain restoration targets. Identification and availability of area is one of the major challenges. In India, 41% of forests are already degraded as per the National Forest Commission report from 2006. The open forests of the country with a density between 10%  and 40% have been increased from  2,49,930 sq. km (1991) to 3,07,120 sq. km (2021). There are no definite guidelines or scientifically established norms regarding the selection of areas for restoration. The availability of open forests and other categories like scrub forests are again subject to their suitability and other parameters. The lack of scientific benchmarks for selection of degraded forests under various agro-climatic zones makes this task of area identification, tough.

A forest degraded by human activities. Photo by Mohan Chandra Pargaien.
A forest degraded by human activities. Photo by Mohan Chandra Pargaien.

Secondly, India is home to 10 major types of forests which are being managed under varied management and silviculture practices with extremities of climatic factors. Nearly 5.03% of its geographical areas are protected areas (PA) with an entirely different system of management. Until recently, the major thrust in Indian forestry has been towards raising trees for revenue or production forestry under various silvicultural systems with more emphasis on tree planting as one of the restoration methods. Though there is a lot of research done on restoration ecology, many of these findings and recommendations are not fully suitable for India’s diverse habitats and more specifically to altered ecosystems with specific local challenges. Hence, local research especially those relating to natural regeneration of various species including ecological aspects can act as a guiding tool for formulating area-specific restoration approaches and methodologies.

A majority of the fires in the forest are caused by humans and are an important cause of forest degradation. Photo by Mohan Chandra Pargaien.
A majority of the fires in the forest are caused by humans and are an important cause of forest degradation. Photo by Mohan Chandra Pargaien.

Another obstacle is the conflict of interest among stakeholders. There are many stakeholders involved in executing restoration interventions ranging from villagers to community leaders to government/non-government members to people with social or political interests. For example, a villager may be more interested in his/her livelihood goals; the community leader may favour the equitable sharing of produce and similarly; the government may aim to accord priority to the protection of area for environmental conservation. Negotiations with a wide range of stakeholders for resolving conflicts are therefore a must and a challenging feat to reach a suitable trade-off.

Many communities depend on forests for their livelihood. Photo by Mohan Chandra Pargaien.
Many communities in India depend on forests for their livelihood. Photo by Mohan Chandra Pargaien.

Adequate financing is another concern in restoration projects. In countries like India, where there are huge dependencies on forests for various purposes, there is a need for adequate funds not only for the engagement of stakeholders and restoration activities but also for costs of foregoing their livelihood activities like grazing, unsustainable minor forest produce (MFP) collection, etc. Failure to address these issues may lead to lacklustre participation of people and may even hamper the success of the restoration initiatives. Further, high costs of restoration pose a big challenge for scaling up and also may likely cause indifference due to lack of interest among policymakers over some time. There is a need to involve non-governmental organisations including corporations and philanthropists to augment the efforts of the government. The recent initiative of Telangana in creating a Green Fund for tree planting activities, needs to be replicated in other states.

Ecological degradation and poverty are reciprocal. Out of the 21.9% population living under the poverty line, nearly 275 million people depend on the forest for subsistence. Poverty is linked with the degradation of forests due to this dependence. 

Lastly, the concept and functioning of forest restoration being a complex and new  approach needs to be understood effectively not only by the government  agencies but also by other people associated with it.

Opportunities to meet global targets 

The restoration approach with a focus on forest restoration and biodiversity conservation provides an excellent opportunity to meet various targets and commitments of India, under various platforms. Be it the restoration of 26 MHA lands under the Bonn Challenge or an increase of forest cover over 5 MHA duly improving another 5 million hectares of forest/non-forest lands under the Green India Mission or various land-based activities under agro-forestry or for biofuel purposes, effective strategies on restoration can help achieve these objectives, and also provide enormous opportunities for livelihood enhancement and socio-economic welfare of the rural population.

Apart from the ongoing programmes for afforestation, many land-based programmes can be integrated to address the funding challenges of considerably. Programmes like MNREGA, Highway Plantations, Biodiversity Plans and funds from the state governments including municipalities and panchayats can be effectively integrated to tackle the restoration activities both inside and outside the reserved forest areas in an inclusive manner. Also, the ongoing mandate of spending 2% of the average net profit of all companies towards CSR activities resulted in 24,689 crore rupees during 2019-20 and a considerable part of this amount can be utilised for various restoration interventions.

In the Indian context, the deep-rooted inequalities and challenges relating to land rights, land tenure and land use planning have a direct bearing on the success of the restoration. The various legal provisions relating to these issues under existing acts like FRA, PESA, etc. seek for a comprehensive, inclusive approach duly providing the much-needed redressal mechanism for these challenges.

Forest restoration has become one of the most favoured channels to mitigate the challenges of climate change and a key instrument to achieve the net-zero target. The country needs to reinforce its priority and bring much-needed policy changes, adequate finances with an integrated and inclusive approach in the forefront, duly involving multiple stakeholders including state governments.

Restoration activities are one of the sources of livelihood for people. Involving them in restorating activites and deicion-making is important. Photo by Mohan Chandra Pargaien.
Restoration activities are one of the sources of livelihood for people. Involving them in decision-making is important. Photo by Mohan Chandra Pargaien.

Because involving people is crucial for the success of any restoration intervention,  proactive policy decisions like those in Telangana can provide much needed public support and the required platform for their participation in the programme. The forest-dependent communities, being the major and decisive stakeholders, need to be given importance not only by redressing their core issues but also by providing them incentives and rewards for their contribution to ameliorating the degraded landscapes of the country.

The author is a Senior IFS Officer in Telangana.

Read more: Climate mitigation should not come at cost of biodiversity conservation, warns tropical savannah ecologist

Banner image: Grazing is one of the main reasons for forest degradation. Photo by Mohan Chandra Pargaien.

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