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NEW DELHI: New guidelines on identification of lands to conduct “compensatory afforestation” issued by the union environment ministry threatens to deprive forest dwellers’ access to customary community forests.
In a letter sent to all state governments on November 8, 2017, the ministry said “the revenue lands, zudpi jungle, chhote-bade jhar ka jungle, jungle jhari land, waste lands and others… shall be considered for the purpose of compensatory afforestation.” Most state governments had been facing severe shortage of land to conduct compensatory afforestation. Every time any forest land is diverted for non-forest purposes like mining or industry, the user agency—private or public-sector project is supposed to “afforest” an area of the same size of the forests that were diverted, to make up for the ecological loss. Since these plantations do not immediately provide the ecological services that the natural forest that was cut down would provide, the law requires the user agency to compensate the loss by paying the “net present value (NPV)” of the forests for the next 50 years. The NPV, calculated by a panel of experts is anywhere between Rs 5 to 11 lakh depending on the type and quality of forests that were diverted.
The letter quoted guidelines issued by the ministry in 2003 on implementation of the forest conservation act 1980 which states compensatory afforestation can be allowed on community forests provided those lands are notified as revenue forests. “The application of GIS based decision support system (DSS) by the ministry suggests that in many cases a substantial portion of land identified for compensatory afforestation already contain vegetation of varying density. Creation of compensatory afforestation on these lands will not fully compensate the loss of trees and there will not be enough space for requisite number of plants to be planted,” the letter states adding that “outright rejection of such non-forest land for compensatory afforestation is not desirable. However, once such lands have been selected for compensatory afforestation, they are required to be transferred to the state forest department and brought under its regular control management.”
Further, the letter adds that some amendments have been made to the earlier definition of compensatory afforestation in the 2003 guidelines. The amends state that the “purpose of compensatory afforestation is to compensate loss of land by land and loss of trees by trees,” if requisite number of trees i.e 1000 per ha cannot be planted in the non-forest land identified for compensatory afforestation, then it can be planted in degraded forest lands. The document also states that compensatory afforestation can include “soil and moisture conservation, regeneration cleaning and silvicultural activities in addition to plantation.”
The letter also asks for expediting creation of land banks for “speedy disposal of forest clearance proposals.” It adds that priority for inclusion in the land banks will be given to degraded forest lands with crown density up to 40% under forest department, wildlife corridors, catchments of rivers etc. While this may boost conservation of degraded forests in India, the letter doesn’t mention forest rights of tribals and other forest dwellers.
Forest rights experts and activists are up in arms against the new guidelines. “There is no mention of the forest rights act or the rights already vested in these lands. We had strongly criticized this earlier as all these lands are community lands with substantive rights vested in them. But that was before the forest rights act (FRA) had been enacted. Now with the FRA in force, and all these lands claimable as community forests, requiring that these be converted into a land bank for compensatory afforestation is criminal and must be challenged,” said Madhu Sarin, forest rights expert.
TOI had highlighted last year that dense natural forests around some villages in Odisha are being cleared to conduct compensatory afforestation. Forest communities have been protesting these plantations for years now. The particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTGs), who are entirely forest dependent, do not approve of the species that are being planted as they do not supplement their diverse food basket. The plantations are also causing a fodder scarcity for elephants.