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What the Wall Street Journal Can’t See in India’s Forests: Aruna Chandrashekhar

February 17, 2012

 Guest post by ARUNA CHANDRASEKHAR

If we cut the entire forest down, where will we live?’- Muria adivasi, Warangal, Andhra Pradesh 

I don’t even know how to begin addressing a story as blindly biased in its premise as this one in the Wall Street Journal, which draws an obtuse line between loss of forest cover and land usage by adivasis, when it is land grab by industrialization that is endangering all we have left.

So I’m going to do this paragraph by paragraph.

India’s forest cover decreased by 367 square kilometers between 2007 and 2009, and it was primarily tribal and hilly regions that were to blame.

The tribal and hilly regions are the last vestiges of India’s forests.  How can you blame entire regions, without casting any aspersions on institutions or practices responsible?

The report showed some areas of progress. Among the 15 states that increased their forest cover in the period are Orissa and Rajasthan. In Punjab, the nation’s grain bowl, enhanced plantation activities and an increase in agro-forestry practices contributed to the highest gain in forest cover with 100 square kilometers.

Between the years of 2008 to 2011, Orissa’s Forest Department granted clearance for diversion of 3239.81 hectares of forest land to mining companies (source: Forest Department Records). Between 1980 and 2011, 46,256.29 hectares of forest were diverted for non-forest purposes, while 60% of all claimsfor recognition of people’s forest rights were rejected. For the POSCO project alone, 800,000 trees and 1300 hectares of forest will give way to what is hailed by the business papers as India’s largest Foreign Direct Investment. 74% of the total area to be occupied by the steel plant is forest land and 60,000 trees have already been cut as of last year.

As for the plantation activities in the state of Punjab, which has only 6 percent of its area under forest, five times less than the pristine national goal of 33%, around 1.5 lakh trees were axed for a six-lane national highway. According to environmental policy, compensatory afforestation must be done for twice the number of trees, and yet the state’s forest department hasn’t even planted one-fourth of that number, when it should have finished by 2009. 

The blame, in this case, has been placed on Compensatory Afforestation Planning and Management Authority (CAMPA) and the mismanagement of funds under it.

CAMPA is mechanism to collect and disburse funds from project authorities whenever there is diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes. It is based on the fundamentally flawed assumption that money can compensate biodiversity, and the funds, once procured, can be adequately made to work hard for the environment, despite overwhelming proof indicating otherwise. As this story in the Deccan Chronicle indicates, between 1997-98 and 2006-07, a total of 8,915 hectares of forest land was diverted for 96 projects in Madhya Pradesh. From this, Rs 38 crores was made available by user agencies, of which only Rs 2.61 crores ended up being used for afforestation. In India, 11,000 crores available under CAMPA lies stagnant, as projects and clearances issued multiply.

The reason why there’s possibly so little afforestation carried out, as certain not-so-bashful state governments admit, is this: there’s no more land left. Most of it has been sold or promised in the thousands of Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) signed between government and private entities each year- to set up mines, industries, thermal power plants, Special Economic Zones that skip through the loops, ports and big dams, all valiantly opposed by indigenous communities who fear the destruction of their environment.

None of these projects find any mention in the story as even possible causes of deforestation. No space, similarly, has been given to the lapses in the land acquisition and environment clearance processes, which have been sped up exponentially since the liberalisation of the Indian economy in the early 90′s.

While it can’t get any clearer that the reporter has written this from the comfort of her desk, what makes it worse is that no attempt has been made to understand the traditional practices and knowledge systems of India’s forest-dwelling communities. Instead, there has been selective use of  quotes from governmental sources (anyone notice that none of the environmentalists or tribal welfare activists are named?) and pictures that portray tribals as responsible for large-scale deforestation, when they are anything but.

Most adivasis have a spiritual connect with the land they belong to, and look upon the forest as their mother- the source of life and livelihood. Each tribe hasextensive religious and social norms that prohibit the exploitation of natural resources and the idea of separation and compensation are repugnant to their existence. Deforestation in India first began on a large scale with the arrival of the British and their need for timber, culminating in the repressive Indian Forests Act that had little to do with conservation, but was responsible for making adivasis encroachers on their own land, subject to evictions and brutal exploitation to this day.

The irony is that while those who have been conservationists long before the word was invented are perceived as intruders, Forest Department officials strike deals with private enterprise and allow illegal mining and felling to go on on a rampant scale inside India’s “protected forests”.

Instead, Mr. Kumar said, new regulations that protect forest-dwellers’ rights may have encouraged more tribal populations to occupy forested areas between 2007 and 2009 and contributed to de-forestation.

The Forest Rights Act of 2006, portrayed seen with such suspicion in the story, is a measure to undo the historical injustices committed against adivasis and to recognise them as the rightful owners of the forestland that they have lived on and protected for generations. It is not, as erroneously pointed out, a means to “occupy” forests, but to provide people with a means to oppose illegal acquisition of their forests by government and private interests. Which is perhaps why the government officials in your story don’t sound overtly enthusiastic about its implementation.

Most of the north-eastern Indian states, which have hilly terrain and are inhabited by many tribal groups, showed significant reduction in forest cover. These are areas where shifting cultivation, a practice where plots of fertile land are cultivated and then abandoned, is commonly practiced. The communities clear additional land as they move from one area to the next.

As for podu or shifting cultivation, it is a traditional system of farming well-rooted in the principles of crop rotation; while one plot is cultivated over seasons, another is allowed to regenerate. The sheer bio-diversity and yield of indigenous crops grown in this sensitive system of farming is spectacular, and compared to plantation and extensive cultivation practised in Punjab and Haryana, agriculture in tribal areas thrives alongside the forests that nourish it.

But most importantly, it is ridiculous to bring up the impact of shifting cultivation in the north-east, when 7.8 million trees will be cut as part of the forest clearance process for a single dam, the 1,500MW Tipaimukh hydroelectric project in Manipur, with the diversion of a total of 24,329 hectares of forest land.

The Dibang Valley Project in Arunachal Pradesh will submerge what their own EIA describes as “some of the last large contiguous tracts of tropical, subtropical and temperate forests in the country.” It is also home to the Idu Mishmi tribe, numbering only 9500, who are at threat from 17 different large hydel projects on the river. The Prime Minister gave sanctity to the project before the environment clearance was even given. Interestingly, in the North-East, the implementation of the Forest Rights Act hasn’t even started.

The state that really jumps out in the report is the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, which lost a whopping 281 square kilometers of forest cover, contributing 76.5% of the net decline in forest cover nationally.

Ah, my beloved home state, where 256,000 hectares of forest have been encroached upon as of March, 2011 (source: MoEF). How green are its 300 industrial parks, its 113 shiny SEZs and thermal power plants happily munching away at its coastline. What a benevolent government that dubs wetland ecosystems as waste lands, while it acts as a front agency for mining companieswith bauxite on their minds.

But no, did we hear you say that “Maoist militants that are active across several Indian states – are responsible for the felling of trees and heavy deforestation?”Is it militants, then, who are coercing the government of Andhra Pradesh to submerge 4000 hectares of virgin, deciduous forest at a single go for the Polavaram dam, Mr. Chatterjee? And yet, here we have the Director General of the Forest Survey of India, blissfully unaware of one of the biggest diversions of forest in the state’s history (and the largest evictor of people in India’s history for a single project), as he tells us “even the drastic reduction in the Khammam district of Andhra Pradesh is not permanent.” In 2009, the government of Andhra Pradesh told the Ministry of Environment and Forests that there were no land rights to be settled in the project affected areas, whereas in Khammam alone, 4,000 claims are pending at the sub-division level and 205 villages will be submerged if the project goes through.

While the increase in eucalyptus plantations is, in part, responsible for deforestation in Andhra Pradesh, it’s important to understand who’s doing the planting and why, for which we have to rewind to the Kyoto Protocol, where the idea of Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) was conceived. CDM, put simply, allows countries like mine to trade credits for offsetting the polluting activities of free markets like yours by pretty afforestation drives. Except that as soon as you broadly dub an ecosystem a carbon sink, you make it seem replaceable. In India’s case (which has cornered up to 33% of the total CDM projects worldwide), when native forests give way to mines and dams, compensatory afforestation is done with exotic cash-crops such as eucalyptus, which can either be sold as carbon credits and/or at an extremely high profit that is seldom shared with the forest communities that do the hard work.

This de/afforestation, contrary to what the article conveys, is carried out by a) a nexus of the funding agencies such as the World Bank in collaboration with private entities, and b) the forest department itself. Worst of all? In Andhra Pradesh, the eucalyptus plantations are being raised with CAMPA funds after clear- felling 4,900 hectares of existing forest area. No wonder the Eastern Ghats are seen as such a lucrative venue for CDM-based agro-forestry initiatives; with the extent of permissions being given to exploit its mineral wealth and natural resources, there is plenty of lost forest cover and juked statistics to make up for.

And so, understand this before you colour victims as perpetrators, and perpetrators as the saviours of India’s forests: it is not indigenous communities that are razing India’s canopy to the ground. That is happening, instead, because the Indian government refuses to recognise/continues to violate customary rights and every progressive law in the book to favour an economic policy that puts profit over people and their environment.

(Aruna Chandrasekhar is a field organiser with the Mining Information Clearing House of India.)

14 Comments leave one →
  1. Prakash permalink
    February 17, 2012 7:21 PM

    Wonderful article, Aruna. Facts are not always what the folks are interested in. It pays to play to the gallery!

  2. Inasu Thalak/ poet,writer/. Paris permalink
    February 17, 2012 8:25 PM

    Destruction of forests and the wanton exploitation of natural resources are the prerequisites
    for the kind of progress a l’occidentale India (and other development-hungry regions) has
    mis en route since independance. Our planning, educational syllabus and above all our
    subliminal desire to have a “good life”- they all look up to the Western model. Which in the
    say of some well-thinking specialists in Europe has come to a breathless point. The notion
    of sustainable development as bandied around by the UN and its mercenaries is practisable
    only in countries with large inhabited areas and thin population density. In France, there is
    a school of thought that proposes “de-growing economy”! But the governments of the indu-
    strialized nations in the West will not tell that their model finally makes for the plunder and pillage of Nature. And even if they try to dissuade us to follow their path, we will not now listen, because we have already set in motion citizen’s desire to have comforts and con-
    veniences like in the Western world, forgetting in the melee that our climes we do not need all that. If you want to see how wantonly Nature and Forests have been raped and ravaged,
    you only have to visit Kerala which had one third of its territory as pristine forests in 1957, and now hardly 5% of its total territory as “reserved forest area”.Kerala could have used its
    natural resources and uneven topography to imagine a daringly different development model:extensive water transport system with its numerous lakes, backwaters and canals. Even rivers could be navigable if we will to do so. Instead the Keralites have chosen to build
    bridges and flyovers, roads along the ancient waterways, etc. Our governments, both in Delhi and in the states, ministers and experts with no vision and imagination, have failed to
    define a development philosophy that suits our climate, landscapes, natural resources and
    peoples’ habitats. Like elsewhere in the Americas and in Asia. the tribal population has been the victims and loosers. Wall Street Journal has naturally no interest in pointing at the
    governmental agencies for the debacle being encated with corporate connivance!

  3. Hartman de Souza permalink
    February 17, 2012 9:36 PM

    “Wow” is all I can say after reading this!!!

    “And so, understand this before you colour victims as perpetrators, and perpetrators as the saviours of India’s forests”, Aruna writes, “it is not indigenous communities that are razing India’s canopy to the ground. It is because the Indian government refuses to recognzse and continues to violate customary rights and every progressive law in the book to favour of an economic policy that puts profit over people and their environment”.

    So bloody true.

    In this context, I can do no more than draw all your attentions to Praful Bidwai’s book, The Politics of Climate Change and the Global Crisis – Mortgaging Our Future (Orient BlackSwan, 2012). It is well worth a read. I post below, a review of the book I have just written for a publication:

    For those who’ve seen him go from brilliant, rebellious student to icy cool, impassioned journalist, polished critic of the establishment to scholar activist still obsessively focused on the issues of justice and equity, Praful Bidwai’s recent book was just round the corner.

    It couldn’t have come at a better time in the history of this troubled planet that elites of the world, India included, have come a century closer to destroying in the name of ‘development’ (read ‘more luxurious lifestyles’), and ‘economic growth’ (read ‘even more money to consume even more’).

    Bidwai does to climate change what Miles Davis did to modern jazz, leaving Friedman’s unduly optimistic, US-Centred Hot, Flat and Crowded atonally plonking the white keys.

    No one seized of the rapid damage to the environment therefore, or the urgency of developing equitable policies and practices to protect increasingly disenfranchised peoples whose livelihoods depend on the earth, its forests and its limited water and energy sources, can afford to not read this book.

    The sheer sweep of this rigorously researched study will keep anyone following the wider issues of the environment-development debate enthralled. It is not an easy read. Bidwai goes from the larger geopolitics militating against the earth to the hard but demystified facts of the snows melting and the oceans rising. He exposes the ponziness of carbon credits, argues forcibly for renewable energy alternatives, damns the pro-nuclear energy lobby yet again, and delivers such a stinging critique of the unbridled growth that successive Indian governments have embraced, that readers can be forgiven if they have to repeatedly go back a few pages. Such is horizon the book opens, it defies easy categorization.

    While there are those, head in sand, who parrot the imperatives of the free market, Bidwai reincarnates the earlier First World/Third World division to show how the battles to save the planet are not being fought.

    In the larger picture, he gives us the new actors, the Global North, like the earlier First World, giving to the rest of the world with one hand while stealing with the other; the Global South (now including the BASIC block, Brazil, South Africa, India and China, which, not surprisingly, now contribute to 55 per cent of the world’s emissions, and now do to earlier Third World nations in Africa what was once done unto them); then the new pariahs on the block, the Alliance of Small Island States, one fifth of the world total of countries and particularly vulnerable to the realities of climate change and rising sea levels; and, finally, the main focus of Bidwai’s attention, the Global Poor.

    Reporting from Durban, soon after the book appeared, Bidwai was to chillingly note:
    “Durban was the world’s last chance to make global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions peak this decade, and breathe new life into the world’s sole legally binding climate agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, beyond 2012, when its first phase ends. Only thus could global warming be limited to the 1.5-to-2 degree Celsius ceiling (over preindustrial temperatures) that planet Earth can tolerate. That chance is lost.

    “The world is now on course to 3 to 4 degree C, perhaps 5 degree C, warming by this century’s end or earlier. This spells destruction of billions of lives. Durban has sealed climate apartheid, under which rich polluters evade responsibility, but underprivileged people suffer the worst effects of climate change for which they are least responsible”.
    This is a haunting refrain in the book. Bidwai strips those in New Delhi, politicians, ministers, policy makers, advisors and bureaucrats in no uncertain terms. Not only did they lose the plot in Durban a few weeks ago, they’ve actually had no plan the past many years other than maintaining high growth rates and praying for a trickle-down effect. Strongly recommended reading for them.

    As also those in our media who beat the tom-toms heralding the success at Durban and making out that India came out smelling of roses, or our new minister of environment and forests as she sits with templates of Rapid Environment Impact Assessment reports, gavel in her hand.

    As Bidwai writes: “The global climate negotiations confront India with a huge challenge: reconciling the objectives of ‘development’ and poverty reduction with the global responsibility—and an obligation to its own citizens—to contribute to the fight against climate change. This entails combining developmental equity with environmental effectiveness imaginatively, a task never before attempted anywhere on such a scale. India has tried to rise to the challenge, somewhat reluctantly, and in ways that are awkward, inadequate, ambivalent, and even negative and obstructionist.”

    Delivering the 11th ISRO-JNCASR Satish Dhawan Memorial Lecture in September 2010, reflecting on environment-development Debate, Jairam Ramesh, former environment minister asked us to accept the reality that there was a trade-off between growth and environment.

    “In arriving at decisions to untangle the trade-off,” he said, “three options present themselves—‘yes’, ‘yes but’ and ‘no’. The real problem is that the growth constituency is used to ‘yes’ and can live with ‘yes but’. It cries foul with ‘no’. The environment constituency exults with a ‘no’, grudgingly accepts the ‘yes but’ but cries foul with a ‘yes’. Therefore, one clear lesson is this–maximize the ‘yes, but’, where this is possible.”

    When he reads Bidwai’s book, he may feel compelled to reassess that somewhat simplistic formulation.

    • Evangeline Anderson-Rajkumar permalink
      February 19, 2012 5:06 AM

      I thank Aruna and also Hartman for their sustained prophetic voices of critique and for peeling off the mask of principalities and powers through their writing. I was happy, proud and full of hope when I read Aruna’s article and also your response Hartman to know that we have people gifted with sharp insight to see beyond the lies and falsehood especially when they can distract you from core issue of justice for all. Thanks Aruna, Thanks Hartman.

  4. February 17, 2012 11:29 PM

    Your anger is misdirected. Blame the Forest Report not the Wall Street Journal from quoting from it.

    • Rahul D'souza permalink
      February 18, 2012 12:36 AM

      Isn’t it the duty of a journalist to be sceptical of a report and not produce it as is? In this case the WSJ is as culpable as the Forest Department

  5. Arati Chokshi permalink
    February 18, 2012 12:53 PM

    A very important article on who and what really destroy Indian forests. Thank you.

  6. Uma V Chandru permalink
    February 18, 2012 3:37 PM

    An excellent response to yet another biased WSJ article. If only WSJ had the guts to print your response Aruna!

  7. February 19, 2012 5:44 PM

    If all a journalist is expected to do is blindly quote from a report and a set of blatantly biased sources with obviously conflicted interests, then what is the point of journalism at all?

  8. nishant permalink
    February 20, 2012 7:41 PM

    wonder what the article (published on deforestation on 08.02.12) wanted to highlight primarily – the loss of forest which is happening all around Or the reasons for its fall! unfortunately, in both cases, it is missing woods for the trees with its narrow view!

  9. February 22, 2012 9:46 AM

    Good one Aruna and hartaman we have to do this more….

  10. Nupur permalink
    February 26, 2012 10:09 PM

    Things like this make me so livid.

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