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Mr Environment Minister, India is carrying out deforestation, not reforestation

On Wednesday morning, Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar gave India one more reason to think of him as among the country’s worst environment ministers till date.

As the Indian Express reported, the minister sent out an intra-ministry letter on July 16 asking bureaucrats to replace the term “diversion” of forest land with “reforestation” in their communications. When asked about this, Javadekar told the Express: “For every diversion of forest land for a project… compensatory afforestation on equal area of non-forest land is a must. So ultimately, it is reforestation only. This is all about thinking positive and using the right expression.”

The power of positive thinking apart, what Javadekar said is wrong. Compensatory afforestation is not working in India.

The Dongria Kondhs of Odisha now face a more formidable enemy than Vedanta

Two years ago, when the tribal people of Odisha’s thickly forested Niyamgiri hills unanimously rejected the plans of the London-based conglomerate Vedanta Resources to mine bauxite in their lands, it appeared that a decade-long struggle to protect the hills and forests – and the tribal way of life – had finally succeeded.

But that might have been a case of premature celebration. Fear and anger are again stalking the hills.

Security camps of the Central Reserve Police Force have been mushrooming in this part of Kalahandi district. From one camp established five years ago, there are now three on the periphery of Niyamgiri. More are expected to come up.

Government officials cite rising Naxal activity as the reason for the security buildup. But among the tribal Kondhs, the increased paramilitary presence is leading to fears that the government is trying to force them off their land.

How the congress subverted its biggest rural development programme in Mizoram

Until last fortnight, most nights in Mizoram were lit up by the red glow of forest fires. Long thin lines of flame, rising and falling along the contours of the hills, ate their way up through the forest. It was jhum time in the state, when farmers who practice the traditional practice of slash-and-burn cultivation torch large sections of jungle so that they can begin planting next season’s crops.

In Mizoram, as in other parts of the North East, the forests are owned by the local community. There is little individually-owned farmland. Each year, villages burn a part of their community forest to clear land for farming. The next year, they move to a new tract, leaving the previous one fallow for the soil to recover, returning to it after some years.

This year, the administration set March 15 as the deadline for burning forests. And so, in the evenings, even in the state’s capital of Aizawl, one could see thick tendrils of smoke rising from its surrounding hills. In the mornings, one woke up to see wisps of soot and burnt leaves on the ground and in the air.

in 2011, the congress government in mizoram launched NLUP — new land use policy. ostensibly to get farmers out of jhum cultivation. in this story, i take stock of how the programme is working. and find that it has been subverted by the state government into nothing a tool for gathering voters by doling out patronage.

Announcing “Ear To The Ground”

How is India doing?
It’s hard to say. While some of the major changes underway in the country are extremely visible, others, less dramatic or occurring away from the media’s usual hunting grounds, are more difficult to detect. Between them, we have an incomplete understanding of India as it is today.
The fallout is predictable. We live in a balkanised democracy whose people are poorly aware about the lives of their fellow citizens. The country keeps throwing up surprises ‒ the recent lynching in Dimapur, unexpected election outcomes as in Delhi, a strident new religiosity. It’s getting more difficult to comprehend where we are headed…

i am uploading this post late. my first story for scroll’s field reporting series, called “ear to the ground”, appeared on the 19th. that day, i was in central mizoram — in its lunglei district with dim connectivity. the next day, i travelled further south for another 7 hours and ended up in saiha, one of the three autonomous district councils in mizoram. this evening, as i type this post out belatedly, i am in lawngtlai.

these are all parts of the country i have never seen before. and so many of the issues i am encountering are ones i have never written on earlier. like this first story on dampa.

The park is overrun by assorted gunmen, from local hunters to armed insurgents. A senior forest official in Mizoram’s forest department estimates that, given Dampa’s location, abutting Mizoram’s border with Bangladesh and Tripura, the reserve is used by as many as 12 separatist groups variously to enter or leave India.Key among them are splinter groups of the Shanti Bahini, which is fighting for Chakma autonomy in Bangladesh, and the National Liberation Front of Tripura, which wants to establish the state as an independent Christian nation.
In recent years, the NLFT has carried out a set of kidnappings in and around Dampa. The most recent took place in February, when NLFT insurgents, working with the Bru Democratic Front of Mizoram, kidnapped 22 workers of the Border Roads Organisation near Dampa. While the Mizos were released the same day, two non-Mizos were taken hostage. Unconfirmed reports suggest they were eventually allowed to go, but only after ransom payments were made.
Armed insurgents, however, aren’t the only threat to the park. Dampa exemplifies the complexities of wildlife conservation in the North East, a region where not just animals, even people are caught in the throes of upheaval.

ps: have spent close to a month in mizoram. one month more to go. it is a daunting thought. time goes by so quickly. and there is so much yet to understand.

on the quantum of natural forests in india

India has no more than 3.3 lakh sq kms of land under real forests, less than half the number claimed by the environment ministry in the 2013 forest survey released last week.

for the longest time, india’s environment ministry has been claiming india is adding forests, not losing them. this assertion, as a bunch of academics have argued, is built around increasingly lax definitions re what qualifies as a forests. this old article describes their concerns. the good news is that the forest survey of india, which conducts these biennial forest surveys, has vastly improved its methodology in its latest report. what it found echoes what many have felt — but the state has denied — for a long while. india’s natural forests are in steep decline. and now stand at less than half of what the government claims as forest cover.

it is likely to fall lower yet. the ministry continues to ease forest diversion processes. see this recent story.

On the new forest diversion norms

Last week, India’s environment ministry overhauled the process it follows for identifying forests where industrial activities can be permitted. Instead of using six parameters — forest type, biological richness, wildlife value, density of forest cover, integrity of the landscape, and hydrological value – for deciding whether a forestland can be given over for, say, mining, ministry officials told the media that the ministry would henceforth use four parameters. According to media reports, ministry officials said biological richness would be dropped as that is accounted for under wildlife value. Similarly, the ministry clubbed hydrological value with forest cover. In the process, the ministry has mixed up concepts which, as forest ecologist Harini Nagendra says, are related but not replaceable.

– for deciding whether a forestland can be given over for, say, mining, ministry officials told the media that the ministry would henceforth use four parameters.

Accor ..

the strange case of the missing 2013 forest cover report

A crucial appointment and general elections have delayed the biennial government report on the state of Indian forests. This report, which was due in 2013, was first delayed because the Forest Survey of India (FSI), which conducts the survey, was headless for six months. And then, the ministry of environment held back the report, citing elections and Election Commission approval.

While the ministry plays down the delay — just a few months, I was told — this story argues that any delay has significant impacts, and that this latest instance of indifference only underscores the urgency to overhaul how India calculates — and vastly over-estimates — her forest cover.