Can we use our forests well?

This issue of Down To Earth examines a crisis forest-rich states in India find themselves in: conserving forests is a burden states are no longer able - or willing - to afford. This has happened because in India, as concern for natural resources grew, the harvesting of forests stopped. For these states, revenue has dried up, but the establishment costs of maintaining forest departments - intent on protection - continues to climb. In the mid-1990s, for instance, Madhya Pradesh made money from its forest resources. Its revenue was higher than its expenditure in this sector. But by 2005, the situation completely reversed. Now the state spends more than it can earn. Today, Arunachal Pradesh's spending on forestry is as high as its revenue used to be in the mid-1990s. 80 per cent of the state is forested, but today it makes practically nothing from its vast forest wealth.

The situation is such that India today has become a major importer of wood from other countries. From forests cut elsewhere. By 2001, India's export of forest based products stood at Rs 4,459 crore. But imports were over Rs 12,000 crore - 3 times higher. That year, the country spent over Rs 2,000 crore simply on importing wood.

You might argue: so what? After all, this is merely a cost the nation is paying for a higher good. It is saving its forests, vital for ecological and water security. But the picture becomes more complex when other questions are also asked. For instance: who really pays the cost for protecting our forests? Who bears the brunt of protection?

First, it is the forest-dependent states that bear the cost. They are already close to bankruptcy; loss of revenue from resources they possess cripples them further. So, states cut vital social sector expenditures. They hardly like to budget for maintaining and enhancing their forest resources any more. The result: forest-rich states, compromising their growth.

Second, understand that it is the poorest that bear the burden of conservation. Forest areas in India are enormously rich lands, but people who live there are the poorest. They live lives crucially linked to using the many resources a forest provides. They exist in a forest economy. But nobody is interested in building a future, economically speaking, on these resources. So it is no wonder, or accident, that the poor in such areas get poorer.

We just do not know how to build futures in forest lands. Economic progress, to us, has nothing to do with hugging our forests to ourselves. The profit is in destroying them: for mining, for industries. Similarly, for the poor, managing forests as forests does not bring them wealth. They can only survive if they clear forests to cultivate marginal and degraded lands, eke out an ever-meagre return. The land degrades, the people become more destitute: so turns the vicious cycle of poverty.

What we desperately need, therefore, are new ways of managing our forest wealth. We need a forest policy and practice that can straddle conservation as well as productivity. This is what I would like to suggest:

Firstly, we should determine which forests need to be protected, at all costs. These are areas of high ecological value, or of important water sources, or vital for species protection. These lands have to be managed only for conservation.

Secondly, we need to realise that this conservation will cost money. We cannot piggyback upon the poor, for our sakes. Therefore, we need to incorporate the principles of valuing forests for the tangible as well as intangible benefits. And we must pay. We must pay to the communities who live in and around forest lands; they must be compensated for protecting resources, when allowed to. The cost must be paid, by users - us - for water, recreation or other services, for its protection and maintenance.

Currently, there exists a provision to calculate the net present value of forests, and pay up an amount when they are diverted for non-forest purposes. But this is payment for destruction. This is not payment to protect forests as forests. Also, the money goes to a central authority, not to the state that has sacrificed its forests. Certainly not to the community that bears the cost of 'diversion'. This only makes forests 'unprofitable' and 'uneconomical'. There is no incentive to protect or to build.

In the remaining forest land, what we could do - and this is my third recommendation - is revamp the conservation policies for forests. We need to plant trees, to also cut them. We need, quite literally, to make money on our forest wealth. But we need to learn how to make money without destroying the forests. It is here that we must learn from our mistakes, to build forest policies that have a future.

We know our forest lands are populated and intensely 'used'. We know livestock pressure on them is high and that animals suppress regeneration. At the same time, people need forests for their livelihood needs. Currently, bureaucracies manage these lands. They pay lip service to community forest development and joint forest management. But the truth is that vast swathes of forest land in the country lie underutilised and remain underproductive, simply because we have not learnt how to increase productivity by involving the people who use these increasingly degraded lands. If we were to learn from our mistakes, we could invest in these lands, to build economic futures. We could plant trees we could cut and sell. Make money from. When people will earn, they will plant once again. There will be jobs, economic prosperity. In short, we need a policy that values our forests and a policy that builds up the value of our forests.

Our forests are too important to be left unused and uncared for.

- Sunita Narain