Earlier this month, at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, 141 world leaders promised to end and reverse deforestation by 2030. Though India pledged to reduce its total projected carbon emissions by one billion tonnes by 2030, it did not sign the declaration on forests and land use.
Protecting India’s forests could actually help this effort as trees absorb carbon from the atmosphere. Natural climate solutions help absorb carbon emissions and keep rising global temperatures under check. India has 21.67 percent forest cover, and though reforestation efforts are on, they are slow and complex.
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Reforestation in India involves setting up joint forest management committees (JFMCs), which comprise local communities, state forest departments, women’s self-help groups and, in some cases, the corporate sector. Most reforestation programmes use the ‘seed ball campaign’, which involves planting seeds of trees in the ground and monitoring growth, but new research shows that this may not be the most effective method as it does not take into account natural methods of growth.
According to Jonah Busch, climate economics fellow at Conservation International, a US non-profit, it is also about ensuring the right mix of species in the right places with follow-through to ensure that full forests keep standing for decades to come.
Jayant Kulkarni, who heads the Pune-based non-profit Wildlife Research and Conservation Society, explained that though tree plantation is the traditional technique of reforestation, now many practitioners recommend a combination of plantation and assisted natural regeneration. The latter involves the encouragement and protection of naturally germinated seedlings for reforestation and is more economical than tree plantation.
Every monsoon, Kulkarni’s organisation carries out plantation of locally available mixed tree species in the Western Ghats’ Koyna-Chandoli wildlife corridor under the Sahyadri Tiger Reserve. This is done with the active involvement of private forest owners and volunteers.
The seed ball technique of reforestation has also garnered much publicity, but sometimes it doesn’t ensure good germination. “There is a natural germination process as part of which some seeds go through ingestion and defecation by herbivores. On the other hand, in seed balls, seeds are just put inside balls made of wet soil and compost, dried and then scattered. It may be effective for some species, but not all,” Kulkarni said.
Chhattisgarh, which has 44.21% forest cover, launched a state-wide seed ball campaign in 2019 to address human-animal conflict through the active participation of JFMCs. In the Durg forest division in Chhattisgarh, for instance, divisional forest officer Dhammshil Ganveer has carried out reforestation on 4.50 hectares of revenue land. His team is currently monitoring the growth of 5,000 saplings of three to four feet high. “The aim is to sequester carbon as well as provide livelihood opportunities to locals. The forest department must ensure that communities feel a sense of ownership towards plantations and joint participation yields good results,” he said.
Though the forest department is in the forefront of reforestation attempts, the corporate sector is also being encouraged to participate. But experts say that there is a need to analyse its long-term implications, especially when it comes to the rights of forest communities which are often overlooked.
Bhubaneshwar-based independent researcher Tushar Dash, who has experience of working with forest communities, said the current approach to afforestation and reforestation is flawed in many respects. “The compensatory afforestation projects (now implemented under the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act, 2016) are not in compliance with PESA or the Forest Rights Act, 2006. So, reforestation or afforestation projects often violate the rights of local communities, especially Adivasis."
He suggests giving the funds allocated for these activities to the gram sabhas or village councils. “CAF does not have any such provision, and hence, conflict exists. Local biodiversity is being impacted as almost 70 percent of the plantation is monoculture. Even JFMCs are formed and controlled by the forest departments and they often act against the wishes of local communities,” Dash said.
In Chhattisgarh, the Bhilai Steel Plant has been doing reforestation as part of its corporate social responsibility but only in non-forest areas. Tapesh Jha, the additional principal chief conservator of forest, development and planning, said that under the Hariyar Kosh programme corporate funds have been channelized and plantation carried out. The pandemic was a setback as many companies failed to contribute, he said. From 2016-17 to 2020-21, 437 sites have been covered under the Hariyar campaign involving 3828 hectares and the plantation of over 44 lakh or 4.4 million trees.
One problem is that in many areas plantation of a single species or a few commercial varieties is being hailed as a successful reforestation attempt whereas the original forest cover having a large diversity is lost. Kulkarni said that the strategy depends on the agencies involved. Some may only think of carbon sequestration and overlook biodiversity of the plantation. Besides checking emissions, reforestation can also help restore critical wildlife corridors for the reduction of human-animal conflicts as in the case of the Koyna-Chandoli corridor in Maharashtra.
India, which is among the top 10 countries of the world in terms of forest area, stayed away from the COP 26 declaration on deforestation. Das feels it is significant. “India stayed away for two reasons. If the country signed the declaration, it would have confirmed that deforestation is an issue. It has always claimed that forest cover has increased even though it has been challenged in many places. Large-scale diversion is happening and the government wants to push plantations,” Dash added.
Though both restored natural forests and commercial plantations take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and store it in living trees, natural forests are better for biodiversity while plantations yield higher economic returns from timber. “Natural forests often end up storing more carbon than commercial plantations, as these forests continue to grow rather than being harvested every few years,” Busch said. “Keeping existing forests standing is better than reforestation.”