To provide resilience and buffer the impact of uncertain weather conditions
Planting a tree seedling is an investment in our future. It is an act of hope and optimism. Trees store large amounts of carbon, thereby reducing carbon dioxide build-up in our atmosphere. Forests clean our air, reduce pollution, help recharge aquifers, improve soil quality and provide a myriad other benefits and services without which human existence would be difficult. Despite the recognition of their importance, investments by corporates in planting trees or conserving forests remain low. This article focusses on constraints and solutions through which the private sector can support greening endeavours through csr.
In India, forestry has traditionally been the preserve of the government. Most forest lands are owned by the government or subject to government regulation. Yet, the day-to-day dependence of local communities on forests is considerable and exerts strong influence on the success of any plantation or conservation efforts. Herein lies one problem. Visit a forestry site a few months after plantation and you may find rows of empty pits, where once there was a field of young saplings. The empty pit problem is common in plantations carried out without community involvement or investment in protection, and an issue that has discouraged many. If not empty, the pits may have small saplings which appear not to have grown at all. In this age of instant gratification, we need to recognise that forests, especially those in less than favourable climates, grow slowly and it can take many years for the impact of afforestation to become visible.
Unclear regulation can be another issue. While well intentioned, a number of overlapping and often contradicting policies limit the involvement of communities and create confusion. While the India Forest Act (1927) is the country’s guiding forestry legislation, there exist several other legislations for specific areas or issues including the Wildlife Protection Act (1972), the Forest Conservation Act (1980), Forest rights act (recognising traditional forest dwellers: 2006) and the Biodiversity Act (2002), among others. Further national and state governments are jointly responsible for the sustainable management of forests, but in practice, state forest departments act as forest custodians. This leads to different rules and regulations in different states! How does a corporate then even know where to start?
To look into solutions, one must first understand the problem. As a result of the government efforts, deforestation rates in India have dropped continually over the past century. Today forest cover is almost stable – at present a little over 21 per cent of our geographic area, as against a stated optimal goal of 33 per cent. Increasing the forest cover is a priority, but a larger issue may be that of degradation of quality of existing forests.
Forest degradation is commonly a result of excessive use and dependence on forest biomass. In a country where the majority of rural population and close to half of all households use wood as their main source of cooking fuel, forests around villages will continue to be cut and trees lopped leading to deterioration in forest quality. Another cause of degradation is the cutting of high-value tress, such as sandalwood or rosewood, in certain forests.
Can corporates play a role?
The government has gradually opened up to partnerships with corporate India in the forestry sector. The National Action Plan on Climate Change (napcc) has eight missions under its fold, including ‘Sustaining the Himalayan eco-system’ and the National Mission for a Green India (gim). The Green India Mission is of particular relevance as it aims at protecting, restoring and enhancing India’s forest cover and responding to climate change through increasing forest cover, improving ecosystem services and increasing forest based livelihood incomes. gim encourages the participation of the private sector in social forestry enterprises that increase forest biomass and create a carbon sink. csr activities could augment and work towards the objectives of gim.
Some pointers for companies willing to invest in greening degraded areas:
Build partnerships: Successful afforestation efforts benefit from partnership with local organisations. This could be a local ngo, a community-based organisation or an implementing agency created by the corporate. Whatever its form, credibility and trust with the local community is important.
Have patience: The time frame must be right. Seedlings are vulnerable for the first few years of their life. While solutions differ across forest types, a few years of protection from grazing goes a long way in ensuring survival. Investment in protection often exceeds plantation costs in successful efforts.
Choose the right species and location: A mix of local species that help preserve ecosystem function, enhance diversity and most importantly, are useful to local communities, is at the heart of good plantation efforts.
Not all forests are equal: Some areas, by virtue of their location should be prioritised. These include critical water recharge zones for aquifers or springs. Others areas, by virtue of their proximity to urban locations provide a large number of people with respite from the ill effects of urban life. Orienting csr efforts to areas of high ecosystem flows is more impactful.
For corporates looking at more than just planting the opportunities multiply:
Focus on degradation: Half of India uses firewood for cooking. Firewood cutting causes degradation. The solution is not to plant more seedlings but to provide alternatives. Improved cookstoves, and the introduction of lpg or induction cookstoves, can significantly reduce forest degradation. Improved animal husbandry can enhance breed quality, encourage stall feeding and reduce forest degradation caused by grazing of free ranging animals. A corporate aiming to improve forest quality may often be most successful if efforts focus on providing alternatives to forest biomass. With a leaking bucket, fixing the holes may be a better solution than filling more water!
Build awareness: Trees make our towns and cities a lot more habitable by providing shade, regulating temperatures, recharging groundwater, helping abate pollution and providing a habitat for birds. Urban planting done in conjunction with citizen groups or school children can help boost awareness. Forest loss in areas such as manger bani, a 200 ha sacred grove in the Aravalli hills, sandwiched between Delhi and Faridabad, is largely due to encroachment given the high property value compounded by somewhat unclear legal status. Awareness of the vital functions this forest plays can help save it and would be far more productive than any plantation effort.
Use technology: Forests and wildlife would both benefit immensely through citizen science platforms that collate information from ordinary citizens and connect them to the environment. The role of technology in protecting forests and high value trees is being explored in a smart Forest Initiative – a csr of Hitachi India with a government institute.
Low-cost options: Often planting is needed, but low-cost options such as direct sowing of seeds, rather than expensive nursery grown seedlings, can be more effective, ecologically sound and help build community ownership.
Buying for conservation: The high price of land in India is a threat to forests, particularly those near urban areas. Purchasing and locking away land for conservation is common in countries such as the US – but as yet rare in India and rarely attempted by private companies. csr efforts could set aside some lands for conservation purposes using them only for public benefit and use.
Thus far, efforts by Indian companies to increase forest cover or preserve forests through csr funding have been relatively limited and large scale initiatives are rare. Efforts remain patchy. Vodafone planted 300,000 trees in Kanha in recent years. Hindustan Zinc has collaborated on a social forestry project. Ernst & Young has taken voluntary affirmative action to be carbon neutral through afforestation efforts. On a larger scale, draft guidelines issued in 2016 to the banking sector called for allocation of at least 25 per cent of the csr funds for afforestation efforts, but there appears to have been limited progress thus far.
While csr donations to education and health, or to support national programmes such as Swachh Bharat, are undoubtedly important, the importance of trees and forests in sustaining our planet cannot be overemphasised. At a time when climate change is leading to uncertain and erratic weather conditions and triggering many natural disasters, forests provide resilience and buffer the impacts of such events. They help improve the quality of our lives.