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Govt panel suggests notifying afforested land as ‘protected forest’ in some cases under new scheme

Accredited compensatory afforestation scheme allows developers to buy afforested land from private or public entities, instead of finding non-forest land & bearing afforestation cost.

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New Delhi: The Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) has suggested that afforested land be notified as ‘protected forests’ in case there are difficulties in transferring the land to the state forest department under the new accredited compensatory afforestation scheme (ACA), the details of implementation for which are still being worked out. The suggestion came at a meeting earlier this month. 

Accredited compensatory afforestation (ACA) allows project developers to purchase afforested land from private or public entities. This is done as a way of “compensating” for forest land lost to non-forest activity, and was introduced by the Forest (Conservation) Rules of 2022, earlier this year. 

This system is a radical shift away from previous norms, which made it mandatory for project developers to find non-forest land and bear the cost of raising compensatory afforestation on it. 

 Afforestation refers to the creation of ‘forest’ through plantations on land that previously had no tree cover. Protected forest are areas that have a limited degree of protection under local and domestic laws. 

Experts feel, however, that while the scheme incentivises the creation of afforested land by assigning it monetary value, it doesn’t adequately account for the ecological and cultural losses associated with diverting natural forest land. 

The government has meanwhile said that it was motivated to change compensatory afforestation norms because of difficulties such as delays in funding, untimely availability of non-forest land and uncertainty in the survival of afforested plantations. 

 It has justified the ACA scheme by saying previous norms didn’t incentivise private or government institutions to engage in afforestation activities, making it “desirable to have a mechanism in place incentivising such private landowners or government institutions for raising afforestation to increase trees outside forests.”

The scheme is likely to further India’s ambition of achieving 33 per cent forest and tree cover, as well as its climate goal of creating a carbon sink capable of absorbing 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, by 2030.

Recent studies have shown afforestation may not lead to higher forest and tree cover, and that they do not necessarily address the underlying issues leading to environmental degradation.

Also Read: Cut trees for projects in Nicobar, plant some in MP? Why Modi govt plan hasn’t assuaged concerns

Draft Guidelines for ACA

Draft guidelines on how the ACA should be implemented have been in circulation since September, and are currently open to suggestions from various ministries and departments.

Under the draft guidelines, state forest departments are envisaged to vet the afforested land by participating entities, following which they will be registered on a centralised online portal for project developers to see. 

Registered entities are free to “promote or publicise their credentials and availability” for purchase by project developers, say the draft guidelines, adding that once purchased, the afforested land is transferred to the state forest department.

The Ministry of Coal has flagged the “legal constraint of not allowing the transfer of non-forest land to the Forest Department”, as a possible impediment to the implementation of the scheme, the minutes of a meeting by the FAC on 9 December reveal. 

In response to this, the FAC suggested that in such “exceptional cases”, government owned afforested land should be notified as ‘protected forests’ under the Indian Forest Act “without changing their ownership”.

According to the draft guidelines, to be considered for the scheme, the afforested plantations must be on land not already classified as forest land, be at least 10 hectares in size and five years old, and have a tree canopy density of 0.4 per hectare, classified as “moderately dense” by the Forest Survey of India. 

One hectare of afforested land is equivalent to one ACA. The financial agreement for the ACAs are to be decided between registered entities offering afforestation and the project developers interested in buying, the draft guidelines propose. Further, the ACAs earned are proposed to be transferable, meaning “ACAs earned by government agencies can be swapped in lieu of diversion proposals for their own use”.

‘ACA a step in right direction but there are concerns’

According to Ritwick Dutta, founder of the Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE), the scheme incentivises the diversion of natural forests by commodifying compensatory afforestation.

“The risk is that the whole concept of in-situ conservation completely loses its value,” he told ThePrint, adding, “It does not address the issues that has always affected compensatory afforestation, which is either the planting of the wrong species, or planting them in areas that are already densely forested.”

The draft guidelines state that plantations on afforested land should “preferably be heterogeneous in nature consisting of indigenous species”, and that “afforestation of exotic species shall necessarily be avoided”.

Rajesh Thadani, senior researcher with the Centre for Ecology Development and Research,  is of the view that the ACA scheme is a “step in the right direction” in terms of incentivising private players to engage in afforestation, but admits that “concerns remain”.

“A five-year-old planted forest does not and cannot replicate the ecosystem functions of a diverse natural forest, and the implications of cutting forests in fragile areas — mountains, coastal areas, wetlands or old primary forests are serious even if compensatory afforestation or ACA is carried out.”

He added: “Such schemes cannot be treated as a licence to cut down fragile forests.  Forests are not all equal and the loss in biodiversity and ecosystem function when certain kinds of forests are cut down is irreplaceable.”

Apart from the ecological costs of diverting natural forest land, Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher with the Centre for Policy Research, said the scheme doesn’t address the livelihood rights and cultural costs either.

The scheme qualifies land vacated by villages that have been relocated from national parks and tiger reserves for accredited compensatory afforestation. Acquisitions from areas like these are sometimes contested by villagers under the Forest Rights Act, which recognises the rights of forest dwellers to forest resources and habitation.

“Once land has been acquired through various laws by the government, rights over that land are considered to be extinguished. Even if the acquisition is contested in court, it does not have a bearing on the transferability of that land for the purposes of compensatory afforestation until there is a court order,” said Kohli.

She added: “Since the scheme monetizes afforestation, a situation may arise when private agencies buy large tracts of land for the purposes of compensatory afforestation. There are conflicts, including legacy litigation that would need to be addressed.”

(Edited by Geethalakshmi Ramanathan)

Also Read: Survival rate of trees planted roadside best in Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, govt data shows


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