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You are here: Home | Environment | Community forests of Orissa | India's forests as carbon sinks

India's forests as carbon sinks

By Subrat Kumar Sahu

The Indian state has always looked at forests as a source of never-ending revenues. Now, in the context of climate change negotiations, our forests are being looked on as carbon sinks that could be worth a staggering USD 120 billion

Read Part 1 of this series here
Read Part 2 of this series here
Read Part 3 of this series here
Read Part 4 of this series here
Read Part 5 of this series here

A Santhal tribesman living on the fringes of the Simlipal Tiger Reserve in Mayurbhanj district in Orissa wonders: “Why do they do plantation? Just leave the forest to itself. Don’t tamper with it and it will grow and spread all over. Why are you spending so much money to plant trees? They don’t sustain; even if they do, you can’t call them forests!” 

The man actually did not say ‘forest’; he used the term jhar, which anthropologist Narendra Singh equates with the ‘wilds’. The tribesman of course had not heard of the German botanist Dietrich Brandis, appointed by the British government back in the 1850s to initiate ‘scientific management of India’s forests’. The practice continues today, for which state governments take huge loans from international financial institutions, multiplying their foreign debt.  

Narendra Singh says: “In order to turn the wilds into an industry, you have to first destroy the mysteries of ‘nature’; you have to (make) them behave; turn them into ‘forests’ so that you can take complete control over them and manage them to generate revenue and make profits. And in the process you kill the very essence of the wilds -- the ecology -- that they have contained in them for ages, and you still call them ‘nature’. For that matter, you can also call a square park with boundaries in a city a piece of nature. Fine. But that piece of nature does not have ecology in it. You cannot manage nature or the wilds with laws and statutes and boundaries. They manage themselves, or they don’t.”  

So, anything you don’t understand and can’t bring into your profit-making schemes you have to first destroy and then replace with something you can dictate to. For example, a jhar (the wilds) with all its intriguing diversity of plant and animal life has to be cut down and replaced with monoculture plantation, often with plant species that are not indigenous to the given forest or even the country, to be cut down again a few years later to generate revenue. It is primarily this ‘revenue’ angle that keeps the forest department going. That, in a nutshell, has been the history of the relationship between the forest department and India’s forests for the past 150 years. And to maintain this relationship, the department needs huge amounts of money.  

The ‘wilds’ must be made to behave by being replaced by monoculture plantations!

In the foreword to ‘India: State of Forests Report 2009’, Union Environment and Forests Minister Jairam Ramesh writes: “Our commitment to the forestry sector continues to be strong. India has more than doubled its budget for forestry this year, to Rs 8,300 crore (USD 1.85 billion) and this financial increase is going to be sustained.” 

The forest department has a huge task ahead of it in order to live up to the objectives laid out some 150 years ago: to retain complete control over the forests; to relentlessly pressure community forest management (CFM) committees; to harass and abuse (even to kill) millions of tribal communities that have lived in forests for generations; to sustain its nexus with the timber mafia and poachers; to routinely harvest patches of forest arbitrarily chosen; and, above all, to keep raising the profit bar!  

The latest in the list of tasks is to market India’s forests in the growing global carbon trade.  

The global carbon trade and India’s forests 

Under the clean development mechanism (CDM) conceptualised in the Kyoto Protocol and put into practice to mitigate global warming, industries make billions of dollars by selling tonnes of carbon they ‘conceptually’ save. The concept goes something like this: businesses in the developed world ‘invest’ in helping businesses in the developing world set up and run ‘clean technologies’ that emit less carbon. The price in the international market for a tonne of carbon has been agreed on by all parties to the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) which monitors this new-world trade. The amount of carbon saved through clean technologies, compared to that in the business-as-usual scenario, is provided as compensation (according to the price fixed) to the ‘implementing’ business in the developing world by the ‘investing’ business in the developed world. In return, the latter is allowed to emit the same amount of carbon back home.  

It’s a little baffling as to how this mechanism actually reduces net global emissions, and how it addresses the impending perils of global warming! There are also huge question marks over whether the so-called CDM projects (there are about 1,200 now in India) actually emit less carbon. The day I visited villages around the Hindalco smelter near Hirakud dam in Orissa, the villagers were fuming (some were even crying) over the destruction, the previous day, of full-grown paddy sown on tens of acres of farmland due to pollution from the factory. I now read in the newspapers that the plant is soon going to be certified a CDM project. Likewise, the Bhushan steel and power plant in Sambalpur district, Orissa, is also a CDM project. Such examples abound…  

The Bhushan steel and power plant, a CDM project, belches out thick smoke after gobbling up vast areas of dense forest

Still, the global carbon trade is flourishing. Smoke-belching coal-fired power plants are being certified as CDM projects and are making billions; so too are dams that have inundated thousands of hectares of primary forest and produce lethal greenhouse gases such as methane.  

Why then should India’s vast expanse of forests lag behind?  

In a document released in August 2009 by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) titled ‘India’s Forest and Tree Cover: Contribution as a Carbon Sink’ (it’s actually the abridged version of a technical paper of the same name produced by the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education, and re-released by the MoEF), minister Jairam Ramesh writes: “Forestry is at the centrestage of global climate change negotiations. This is because forests have the potential to be a carbon sink as well as a source of carbon emissions… It is India’s view that we need an agreement on a comprehensive framework for compensation and positive incentives for forestry as part of the ongoing climate change negotiations.” 

This position is perfectly in line with the Indian state’s long-held belief that forests are the source of a never-ending stream of revenue. Now, in the context of climate change negotiations, India’s forests have opened up an ‘enormous opportunity’ to maximise this revenue.  

How will it work? 

The technical paper by the ICFRE -- which is going to be the basis for climate change negotiations involving India’s forests -- has all the arguments. “(Forests) absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and store carbon in wood, leaves, litter, roots, and soil by acting as ‘carbon sinks’… Forests, by acting as sinks, are considered to moderate the global climate.”  

The MoEF document, which basically quotes the technical paper, says: “From 1995 to 2005, the carbon stocks stored in our forests and trees have increased from 6,245 MT (million tonnes) to 6,662 MT, registering an annual increment of 38 MT of carbon or 138 MT of CO2-equivalent… Our estimates show that the annual CO2 removals by India’s forest and tree cover is enough to neutralise 11.25% of India’s total greenhouse gas emissions (CO2-equivalent) at 1994 levels… This is equivalent to offsetting 100% emissions from all energy in residential and transport sectors, or 40% of total emissions from the agriculture sector. Clearly, India’s forest and tree cover is serving as a major mode of carbon mitigation for India and the world.” 

The catch comes at the end: “Putting a conservative value of USD 5 per tonne of CO2 locked in our forests, this huge sink of about 24,000 MT of CO2 is worth USD 120 billion, or Rs 600,000 crore (6,000 billion). Incremental carbon under scenario 3 (in which India’s forest cover increases at a rate higher than the historical rate, by 2015) will add a value of around USD 1.2 billion, or Rs 6,000 crore (60 billion) every year to India’s treasury of forest sink, assuming a value of USD 7 per tonne.” 

The government claims India’s forests could fetch Rs 6,000 billion in the carbon market

A National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers (NFFPFW) position paper titled ‘Imaginary Sinks: India’s REDD Ambitions’ states: “This opportunity becomes a windfall with the advent of REDD, or the proposal that CDM projects should cover the Reduced Emissions through Deforestation and Degradation scenario, which means if a project reduces any emissions caused by deforestation and degradation of forests, it should get CDM status. India now contends that it should be given carbon credits for both its old and new forests.” Sensing an opportunity here, the country has an ambitious programme of raising 30 million hectares of new plantations on both ‘degraded’ lands and farmlands, unleashing a fresh burden on food security. 

All this leads to a torrent of questions. To list only a few: 

  • How authentic is India’s assessment of its forest cover? How is the carbon sequestration capacity of India’s forests calculated?

The NFFPFW position paper throws some light on this: “Instead of linear and wholesome ‘constant’ constructs, Indian forests (like any other tropical forests) are part of a larger dynamic and ever-changing socio-political and socio-ecological discourse (or a set of such discourses). Mathematical calculations and simulated models to project sequestration of carbon in forests can never be expected to assimilate the innumerable, essentially asymmetric and ‘truant’ variables that such discourses contain. Neither hypothetical baselines nor imaginary ‘future’ scenarios can explain/interpret/predict contextually related but often spatially separated sets of uncertain social, political, and ecological events influencing ‘deforestation’ events. This methodological impossibility, coupled with doubtful and unverified official forest cover estimates, makes an estimation of all carbon stocks in Indian forests downright impossible.” 

  • If India’s forest cover neutralises 11.25% of our total greenhouse gas emissions, how is it important in terms of mitigating global warming apart from hopes over the kind of money it would fetch in the global carbon market?

Forests are natural resources, and global warming is largely a man-made phenomenon. If we were actually serious about containing emissions in order to address global warming, only an incriminating mind would justify standing forests as a passport to emitting more. The somewhat vacuous argument is that since we have so much standing forests that absorb so much carbon, industries only have to pay a price and then happily emit as much greenhouse gas as they want! There is already huge pressure on India’s forests thanks to the ‘consumerist’ development model we are so aggressively pursuing.

Forests are best left to serve the natural evolutionary process, thereby sustaining traditional economies
  • In the event that India’s forests get CDM status, by accepting whatever carbon sequestration calculation method, who reaps the benefits? The countless forest communities that have protected and kept the forests alive? The forest department that has always considered India’s forests its private fiefdom? Or private entities that have long wished for ownership of the country’s forests?

It is often said that if the CDM regime is really about rewarding those who have a small carbon footprint, the world’s forest people and rag-pickers would have been the richest communities on earth by now! But that will never happen. Because the CDM regime is all about ‘business’; it has nothing to do with emission reduction or global warming. The latter is just a ‘premise’ to strike profitable deals. The unprecedented sincerity with which the Indian government is pushing for India’s forests to get CDM status is precisely to clear hurdles in the path of privatising forests. For, with so much money at stake, the forests cannot be left in the hands of those who cannot ‘manage them efficiently’ (‘efficiency’ being a typical capitalist construct).  

And so, ironically, history is about to repeat itself, reminding us of Dietrich Brandis who came to India to ‘manage’ our forests scientifically some 150 years ago. Now, private players are waiting to ‘manage our forests efficiently’. 

The attempt to privatise India’s forests is not new; the pulp and paper lobby has been trying since 1992 to lease ‘degraded forests’ (‘degraded’ according to the forest department’s definition) in order to meet growing demands for raw material. The lobby has been arguing that industrial demand could, to a large extent, be met by raising ‘protected’ private plantations on forest lands that are degraded.  

The Indian government, in fact, did try to push a Bill in 1994 facilitating the handing over of ‘degraded forests’ to industries. Besides stiff resistance from community groups, the move was opposed by the Planning Commission which constituted an expert committee, chaired by N C Saxena, to look into the matter. The ‘Saxena Reports 1998’ categorically refute industry’s claims that degraded lands do not support biodiversity and are not used by communities. The reports argue that leasing out forests to industry would prove to be both ecologically and socially harmful, and would be an injustice to communities that use the forests for their livelihood and other purposes. It clearly states that no forests in the country can be labelled ‘absolutely degraded’. In 2003, industry replied with the ‘Re-greening India’ report (published by the Confederation of Indian Industry), which made out a strong case for the lease of forests to the private sector. The CII report mentioned the possibility of earning carbon credits, as trees sequester carbon.  

Then the World Bank joined in, advocating for private players to manage India’s forests. ‘World Bank Forest Strategy 2003’ says that most communities fail to garner the full potential of forests, even though they are successfully protecting them. The case for private players comes in very strongly in the assessment that the total forest income from commercial timber, bamboo, and non-timber products in improved forests is expected to rise from an estimated USD 222 million in 2004 to approximately USD 2 billion (2,000 million) by 2020. With so much money locked in our forests, it would be blasphemous to even suggest that the private sector would resist the temptation, especially at a time when everybody, from government to the middle class to the mainstream media, believes that traditional communities have no right to sit on ‘profits’ that are due to the private sector! 

For whom does the forest stand: traditional communities or profiteers?

One can well imagine what turn the ‘market’ will take once REDD and the forestry CDM idea are put into effect. Going by an ICFRE technical paper estimate, all the stored carbon converted into credits would amount to a staggering Rs 6,000 billion! The NFFPFW adds: “This is a new market, which, besides the Indian government, all shades of carbon brokers, consultants, and investors eye expectantly, and for good reason. Even in the non-Kyoto voluntary market, forestry credits are fetching about USD 8 per credit (the UNFCCC has not yet issued credits to forestry projects). This can increase enormously with UNFCCC approval.”  

If REDD were agreed on, carbon trading in India’s forests would really take off. And with the failure so far of the Forest Rights Act 2006 to ensure community rights to forest-dependent people, Indian forests are headed towards complete corporatisation -- a transition from old-world colonial feudalism to new-age market capitalism, the state being replaced by the company. In all this, it will be interesting to see how the forest department reacts.  

Sinking feeling in Orissa  

‘Orissa Forest Sector Vision 2020’ spells out some ambitious (and some outrageous!) milestones by 2020. For instance: 33% of Orissa under ‘dense’ forest cover; all forests to have management plans; shifting cultivation eliminated completely (perhaps here they mean eliminating communities dependent on shifting cultivation!); flow of foreign tourists to conservation sites doubled, etc. The document makes little mention of the role (or even the existence) of CFM groups. The means to achieve these milestones are largely through three entities: the JFM network (under forest department control), the DFID (Department For International Development, UK) forestry project, and the JBIC (Japan Bank of International Cooperation) forestry project.  

Forestry projects essentially mean plantations, using funds coming in from external sources. Communities that have protected Orissa’s forests for decades recall their experiences with the SIDA (Swedish International Development Agency)-funded forestry project, conducted between 1981 and 1996 (in two phases). Hemant Behera, president of the Budabahal CFM committee in Debgarh district, says: “Under the SIDA social forestry project, they were just destroying nature and regenerating forests, which did not work. The whole exercise was a disaster. Plantation is not forest; it does not live for long, nor does it meet any needs of the people.” 

Arakhita Sahu, a senior member of the Ma Maninaga Jungle Suraksha Parishad (a federation of about 200 CFM groups) in Nayagarh district, adds: “Such forestry programmes are enforced in dense forest areas where communities have already been protecting forests for decades. The current forest development initiatives by the government, such as the JBIC-funded Orissa Forestry Sector Development Project, pose a threat to community forestry initiatives. Besides, these are being introduced to counter the non-monetary philosophy behind forest protection and management by CFM groups in Orissa.”  

Going by the vision document, by the end of the JBIC project (2012), all forest areas above 10 hectares currently with the revenue department will be demarcated and handed over to the Orissa forest department. There have been no amendments to the milestones in the document, despite FRA 2006 being in force. In fact, there is absolutely no mention of community rights except for certain revised roles for JFM committees. CFM is mentioned only to stress that its autonomy will be curtailed, “Categories like village forests, Gramya Jungle, JFM and CFM forests are incorporated in a flexible framework that provides graded autonomy for local self-governance on different categories of lands. JFM provides a flexible step-wise approach to increasing autonomy of communities.” CFM is again mentioned in the hope that it will help the forest department generate revenue: “VSS and CFM groups will be facilitated to harvest and market timber.” 

After detailing the outcome of all these externally-funded forestry (read ‘plantation’) projects and reiterating the forest department’s control over all forests (including those under the revenue department), the catch comes at the end, under ‘Vision Element: Allocations, Investment, Insurance, and Incentives’. The envisioned milestone at the end of the JBIC project, in 2012, reads: “More broad-based and substantial investment in environmental services covering purchase of carbon credits under CDM, biodiversity conservation, and preserving landscape values.” 

Perhaps that explains why the forest department in Orissa is pushing the JBIC project on a war-footing despite CFM groups, district-level CFM federations, even the state-level federation (the OJM-Orissa Jungle Manch) repeatedly warning the government not to repeat the mistakes of the SIDA and DFID projects. The JBIC forestry project involves the largest ever loan -- Rs 560 crore (5.6 billion) -- the Orissa forest department has taken so far. Members of the OJM say it’s baffling why such a huge loan was needed. The forest department has failed to implement earlier projects; still it continues to push the state into debt! 

An appeal by the Ma Maninaga Jungle Suraksha Parishad states: “We as a federation along with the state-level body of forest federations -- Orissa Jungle Manch -- had widely protested the government’s intention of a coalition with JBIC for funding the forestry sector. This was a spontaneous protest from all corners of Orissa against the process followed for seeking this external aid. Neither were communities, the biggest stakeholders, consulted before thinking of external funding for the forestry sector, nor were they taken into consideration in the process by which the project was going to be implemented at the ground level. But the government went on to sign the MoU with the JBIC. Now that the JBIC, a component of the Japanese government, is on the floor and huge money is going to be pumped into the forestry sector, we condemn the whole process -- for the project is non-democratic and non-participatory -- and herewith appeal to the larger civil society to support us in keeping our initiatives, unity, and forests intact.” 

While the state’s restlessness in tapping whatever funding – even in the form of loan – stands exposed for long, the latest move definitely has an eye on the CDM market, many believe.  

Hemant Behera of Budabahal village in Debgarh looks a bit puzzled when he says, “Some forest officers came to us and were trying to motivate us to go for the JBIC forestry programme in our community forest. We asked why the Japanese government is giving you so much money to plant trees here! They said that it is because if we plant trees here, the clean air will travel to Japan!” He looked at me for an explanation; I looked the other way!   

Laxmidhar Balia of the OJM said, “Let them get the loan citing whatever reason. We are self-sufficient and can take care of our forests. Money cannot manage our forests.”  

It is time we understood once and for all that whatever the forest department is pushing for is never managing the forests. So long as the whole discourse on legitimate rights or ownership over forests is trivialised towards forest management, communities will keep making efforts to protect their forests and the state will keep appropriating their rights and efforts. Forests are being managed anyway, by communities. The core of the issue here  always is: who controls the forests at the end of the day? And the unfortunate fact is that the forest department has so far managed to post its authority over people’s resources. This underlying dynamic is now going to take a new and lethal turn with the advent of carbon trading, which seeks to ‘unlock’ the billions of dollars locked in India’s forests. And if they succeed, we will soon see the death of even the ‘empowering’ FRA 2006.  

Soumitra Ghosh of the NFFPFW says: “What will happen to the carbon stored in the forest biomass, under the FRA regime? The Act says that the community owns all NTFP (non-timber forest produce) of plant origin in any forest of India. Will the carbon supposedly stored in the biomass and forest soil be treated as NTFP and hence treated as community property? The Indian government has not evidently thought about it yet. The ICFRE technical paper only talks about JFM (under forest department control); it does not mention the FRA at all. This clearly shows that the government, despite very clear and precise provisions in the FRA, wishes to retain effective control over the country’s forests. The REDD money will act as an incentive here, and the very strong forest bureaucracy of India will want to hold on to it. This, in effect, will signal the end of the FRA, though not in a legal sense… Unless forest movements in the country develop a strategy to counter REDD and all forms of carbon trading in the country’s forests, the gains of the FRA may be irretrievably lost.”  

Eventually perhaps, forests will be renamed after companies. Niyamgiri may be called Vedantagiri five years down the line; and the Khandadhar Mountain, POSCO-peak! Just as nobody today knows that there once existed the quiet, idyllic, self-reliant forest villages called Kalimati and Sakchi, which now lie buried under the incessant roars of engines in the sprawling urbanscape that we know as Tatanagar or Jamshedpur in Jharkhand! 

Life-sustaining resource or carbon-filled industry?

(Subrat Kumar Sahu is an independent writer and filmmaker based in New Delhi. He was formerly with TerraGreen, a magazine on the environment and sustainable development. He was awarded the Infochange Media Fellowship 2009 to research the history of community forest management in his native Orissa. This is the concluding article in his series.)   

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