Forests of fortune

UNDER pressure and against its own laws, the ministry of environment and forests (MEF) is all set to endow the plywood and paper industry with a bonanza: the use of degraded forest land to raise raw material. In a policy to be announced shortly, forest land will be leased to state forest development corporations (FDCs), which will accept investments from the industry to finance plantations.
br> By going ahead, MEF risks flouting its forest policy of 1988, which prohibits industry from using forest land. Captive plantations will also involve cutting down naturally grown trees and indirectly assigning forest land to external agencies, which violate the Forest Conservation Act (1980).
br> However, MEF officials say that the new policy will "save precious foreign exchange...on account of import of paper pulp; promote self-reliance and increase employment and natural regeneration".
br> At a meeting in June to iron out differences, MEF told industry that it must take care of local community interests and share its produce with the government (see box).
br> However, industry is already quibbling. It dislikes the idea of securing the consent of local communities, or gram sabhas, for captive plantations. It is also against local people getting free grass and taking lops and tops from FDC. The plywood industry has indicated that fodder and firewood species for local communities will be planted on not more than 10 per cent of the land -- drastically short of the 25 per cent proposed.
br> Even with regard to sharing yields, industry claims that the scheme will be unfeasible if over 3 per cent goes to the government. The plywood industry is willing to go only up to 5 per cent. Both are well short of 12.5 per cent stipulated. Besides, industry wants forest land with 40 per cent tree density and a 99-year lease instead of degraded forests with 20 per cent tree density on offer for 30 years.
br> Industry's approach is that that community interests will be unaffected. It claims that land requirement -- 0.3 million ha for the plywood industry and 2.5 million ha for the paper industry -- is a "mere trifle" of the 25 million ha of degraded forests available.
br> Nonetheless, industry representatives are guarded: P V Mehta, secretary of the Federation of Plywood and Paper Board Manufacturers, says evasively, "Let us wait and see what MEF has to offer. We cannot comment now."
br> MEF's decision shocked most non-governmental organisations and critics, who note that a similar attempt only a few years ago was scuttled in time. Says V B Eswaran, former director of the Society for Promotion of Wasteland Development, "The policy will be disastrous. As always, the local community will suffer by losing access to the degraded forests."
br> The policy might just sound the death knell of farm forestry, under which farmers were encouraged to grow industrial species to take the pressure off forests. Critics say that the government had already discouraged farm forestry by allowing cheap imports of industrial raw material.
br> Now the fear is that once a precedent is set, the demands of innumerable plantation industries will be legitimised. Says Eswaran, "Forests will then be up for loot."