Revamp afforestation rules for climate justice

India is the fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the world. It has also signed the Paris Climate Agreement, like other 194 countries. The Paris Agreement sets out a global action plan to limit global temperature rise this century well below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. In order to meet this goal, India has formulated its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) plan as mandated by the agreement. The INDC proposes several actions to lower its GHG emission. The ministry of environment, forests and climate change (MoEF&CC) claims that its INDC plan is to bring “climate justice”.  

“Climate justice” is primarily protection of human and ecological rights of the most vulnerable sections impacted by climate change. Looking at the way the same ministry is pushing through a law to utilise compensatory afforestation funds (CAF), however, one finds great injustice being done to India’s indigenous and forest-dwelling communities. The CAF, a fund created to compensate forests taken over for various development projects, is being completely handed over to be utilised by the forest bureaucracy, with utter disregard to the customary and constitutional rights the indigenous communities enjoy.

Ambitious goals, excluded communities 

Under the INDC, India has set ambitious mitigation strategies — including  increase in its forest/tree cover by  five million hectares (m ha) and improving the quality of forest cover in another five m ha of forest lands — thereby creating an additional carbon sink of two to three billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent. These gigantic plans have already been criticised, by local and tribal communities as well as civil society, for being overly “commercial monoculture focussed” and for ignoring community rights over forests.

The latest moves on the compensatory afforestation funds, which would dilute the forest rights of communities, raises fresh doubts over India’s commitment to a socially just and ecologically sustainable pathway to achieve its Paris climate goals. 

On February 16, 2018, the MoEF&CC notified the draft CAF Rules, 2018, which — if passed in their current form — would vest almost absolute power in the forest department and its officials to decide how $6 billion worth of the compensatory afforestation fund will be utilised. The CAF rules don't respect the rights granted by the Forest Rights Act (FRA) to nearly 200 million indigenous people and forest dwellers. The FRA has given Gram Sabhas (village assemblies) the right to decide about all such issues in their areas. The draft CAF rules dilute that. Further, the current rules are likely to promote monoculture plantations in place of diverse natural forests. 

Local communities best preserve carbon sinks 

Local communities have been the best managers of India’s natural forests. Ignoring them means ignoring their role in protecting and preserving biodiversity, which helps mitigate climate change. The carbon sink provided by these plantations is much less compared to that provided by natural forests, many scientific researches have established. Many plantation sites have also witnessed conflicts between the promoters and local communities. While natural forests provide a good chunk of sustainable livelihood sources for the local tribal and other rural communities, such plantations provide raw materials for just big businesses.

India, fortunately, is not only blessed with huge potential for regenerating natural forests but also has a long history of community-managed forestry. Promoting plantations, therefore, does not make much ecological and economic sense in India. 

Involving communities will aid climate goals 

The draft Rules were available for public comments just for a month — a period that got over on March 15 — and there was no effort by the MoEF&CC to reach out to the tribal and forested communities of the nation. This shows the ministry's lack of interest in involving the communities in decision-making in a matter that has a huge bearing on their lives and livelihoods.  

People need to understand the risks and benefits associated with these Rules. The doubts about people’s genuine rights being taken away are further fuelled by the fact that the Rules do away with the provision of “free, prior and informed consent" of Gram Sabhas of forest communities while taking up compensatory afforestation projects, thereby creating significant risk of dispossession and displacement of some of the most vulnerable forest communities in the world.

The government should therefore immediately revisit the draft CAMPA (Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority) Rules and make provisions for giving indigenous communities a major stake in managing these funds. Otherwise there is every chance that afforestation and forest restoration through the $6 billion CAMPA Fund will fail, and India’s chances of achieving its Paris climate goals will be severely affected.   
The writer is Convenor, Combat Climate Change Network, India.  These views are personal


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