Compensatery Afforestation Bill | Opinions

On Parliament’s wooden desks, a Bill is knocking. The Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill seeks to govern how forests will be raised, cut, and resurrected across India. It will be looking at how a fund of Rs. 38,000 crore, collected from cutting down forests, is to be used.
Meant initially just for ‘compensatory afforestation’ or plantations, the sheer size of the fund prompted the Supreme Court to set down a schema for its judicious and “appropriate” use. A major thrust of the Bill, being considered by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment and Forests after being introduced in Parliament, is to use the money to set up artificial plantations, while another clause is to use it for ‘infrastructure’. While not irrelevant in themselves, a series of ecological checks are required before this money is unlocked for artificial measures: whether man-made forests or buildings.
Two immediate challenges exist. Many consider the Compensatory Afforestation money as “blood money”, as its very existence is tied down to the diversion of original forests. This leads to the question whether the proliferation of this fund should be privileged at all, and if forest diversion needs an inherent pause. At a less ideological level, the question remains: do we have land available for planting new forests?
Forests as natural resources

The premise of ‘compensation’ is that of a trade-off: environmental concerns will be sacrificed for developmental projects. Compensatory Afforestation relies on this notion, but it also believes that forests are replaceable fairly easily. This follows from a historic view of forests as sources of wood, bamboo and so on, rather than as systems of biodiversity. If forests are actually just seen as natural resources — with the emphasis more on ‘resources’ than on ‘natural’ — the idea of compensatory afforestation is pain-free. In the words of Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change Prakash Javadekar, forest diversion should be referred to as ‘reforestation’. This is perhaps why the Bill stresses on creating artificial plantations.
However, the science of biodiversity debunks the idea that complex forest systems can be recreated easily. Ecological restoration plays a key role in it, as does time. Secondly, several States have said that they do not have land banks for planting new forests. For this reason, parts of the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) funds have been used in the past for purchasing forest department vehicles or repairing buildings. Further, compensatory afforestation has been undertaken on the flanks of railway lines, highways, and so on, raising trees with poor survival rates but certainly not creating biodiverse forests.

“The science of biodiversity debunks the idea that complex forest systems can be created easily.”
Rather than creating new and artificial forests, existing forest land should be restored and bought by the forest department using the CAMPA funds. This is controversial, of course. Decisions have to be made on ecological (rather than political) merit and with safeguards. Such consolidation could include areas like forest corridors (a tenuous link between two tiger reserves) and eco-sensitive areas (a riparian or estuarine system).

The Bill further suggests: ‘The money received… shall be used for artificial regeneration (plantation), assisted natural regeneration, forest management, forest protection, infrastructure development, wildlife protection and management, supply of wood and other forest produce-saving devices… in the manner as may be prescribed.” There can be many readings of these activities.
‘Infrastructure development’ and ‘supply of wood’ are confusing at best. Infrastructure, like development, could have both restorative and destructive connotations. For instance, Mr. Javadekar has asked for ‘development’ of forests by giving them to private companies for timber and wood-cutting, a first for Indian forests, traditionally controlled only by the government, while simultaneously calling for forest restoration. Similarly, infrastructure could mean watchtowers and water purification systems for forest guards or it could mean misusing the fund for administrative, non-budgeted tasks.
User agencies such as the National Highway Authority of India have suggested that the CAMPA fund be used for mitigation of wildlife deaths on roads through creation of underpasses and bypasses for animals. Other agencies might make similar demands. This is where the raison d’etre of the CAMPA fund must be remembered. It would only be fair for the fund to be used for infrastructure where such infrastructure does not deteriorate the situation for forests and wildlife. Safeguards on what kind of infrastructure CAMPA money should create will need to include wildlife impact assessments.
Not just forests

There are critical ecosystems that require attention and funding today, including marine areas, birding areas, riparian and coastal areas, and high altitude grasslands. The scale of the CAMPA fund gives us a serious chance to reimagine and recreate no-go areas for nature preservation.
The fact that most States have CAMPA funds means that these no-go areas can go beyond the States. For instance, no-go areas in the Western Ghats, which is a geomorphological unit broken up administratively by States, can be secured with CAMPA money, by putting in community compensation or incentivisation schemes along with wildlife, wetland and forest protection schemes.
In the Supreme Court’s famous lion judgment (Centre for Environmental Law WWF-1 v. Union of India and Ors), it was held that critical areas and species should be conserved through concerted action plans. CAMPA money can and should be channelised for conservation of endangered species, such as the caracal, or species that are neglected such as the stork and gugong. There is obviously no thought going into the cutting down of forests. But the much more difficult task of making up for the cutting down requires ecological inputs on a landscape level. Rather than unimaginative solutions that stop short with buildings and failed nurseries, now is the time to privilege ecological solutions.
Securing existing natural tracts, making forests contiguous, safeguarding fragile habitat, and bringing fair compensation schemes for local stakeholders is the way forward. Otherwise, we may be missing the woods for the trees.
(Neha Sinha is with the Bombay Natural History Society. Views expressed are personal. Email: n.sinha@bnhs.org)

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