New Delhi: Planting trees has long been thought of as an antidote to environmental degradation, with the added benefit of absorbing carbon dioxide. But new research suggests that if tree plantation schemes continue in their current form, they could not only fail to increase tree cover, but also lead to huge financial losses.
A recent study examining the success of tree plantations in Himachal Pradesh has found that “at a minimum, more than half of all spending is likely to be wasteful”, amounting to at least Rs 20 crore. Significantly, the lead author, Pushpendra Rana, is a serving officer in the state’s forest department.
The study, titled ‘Predicting wasteful spending in tree planting programs in Indian Himalaya’, was published in February in World Development, a peer-reviewed journal. The authors include researchers from India and abroad.
The findings contribute to a growing body of research reviewing India’s plantation policies. Though limited to Himachal Pradesh, the researchers believe that the study’s findings could be a springboard for similar assessments across the country.
Pushpendra Rana, lead author of the study and a serving officer in the Himachal Pradesh Forest Department, told ThePrint, “This is the first study to link plantations with financial impact. Tree plantations are thought of as a cost-effective method to mitigate climate change, but our research challenges this narrative.”
“We have applied for grants to study this in other parts of India too,” said Forrest Fleischman, associate professor of environment and natural resource policy at the University of Minnesota, and a co-author of the study.
Only 14% expenditure on plantations ‘effective’
Effective tree planting in Himachal Pradesh is faced with three major challenges, according to the study. One is that target-based programmes focus on short-term gains over long-term goals of ecological restoration.
Another is that tree planting schemes and programmes don’t necessarily address their unintended consequences, or the underlying reasons for degradation.
Moreover, there is a “focus on meeting quantitative planting targets” that could result in planting trees where “they are biophysically unsuited or not desirable for socioeconomic reasons”.
The research analysed plantation expenditure by the Himachal Pradesh forest department between 2016 and 2019, which amounted to $5.67 million (Rs 43 crore). The state government has spent $248.24 million (Rs 1,892 crore) on afforestation activities since 2002, according to the study.
To arrive at their conclusions, the researchers calculated — based on land use data collected over 12 years from 2003 — how many of these trees fell in patches likely to undergo tree cover loss, and compared that with the budget spent on those same plantations.
The biggest reason for potential wasteful expenditure, the paper found, is that 47.7 per cent of the budget for tree plantation, worth over Rs 20 crore, was spent on “non forest unproductive areas”, where the probability of tree cover loss is high.
Other reasons include planting trees in areas where dryness is likely to limit growth (33 per cent of budget spent), where contested land tenure is likely to lead to conflicts with local communities (28.9 per cent), and planting in forests that already have more than 40 per cent tree canopy cover (38.9 per cent).
“Only 14.1 per cent of spending is likely to be effective, with tree planting happening in areas of low-density forest (density between 10 and 40 per cent), which are likely to be degraded forests having high reforestation potential,” says the paper.
Fleischman explained that this indicates that there may not be enough physical space to accommodate the state’s plantation ambitions.
According to the Indian State of Forests Report (ISFR), forest and tree cover in Himachal Pradesh grew by 912 square km since 2019, and already covers 68 per cent of the state’s geographical area.
If the status quo were to persist, the state government is projected to spend “$167.37 million (Rs 1,275 crore) between 2020 and 2030 on planting trees”, much of which could be wasted, says the study.
When planting trees can help
Tree planting can be effective when they are designed to be more in sync with “local biophysical and social contexts”, says the study. By avoiding plantations in areas that already have high forest density alone, the state government could potentially save $63.6 million (Rs 484 crore), it adds.
Though topography, ecology, and climate differ across Indian states and regions, the research from Himachal Pradesh could offer lessons for other states too, say experts.
“Tree plantation programmes could achieve greater success by selecting appropriate native species and focusing on maximising their survival rates, instead of focusing solely on the numbers of trees planted,” Anand Osuri, a scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation who is researching forest restoration in the Western Ghats, told ThePrint.
“Schemes must also identify and address factors perpetuating degradation in the first place. If those are not addressed, the plantations are likely to fail,” he added.
Experts also agree that community involvement is a key driver in successful forest restoration.
In the context of Himachal Pradesh, Rana said, “Only 1 per cent of the expenditure is done in community forests, where the success of these plantations is likely to be higher. Schemes should also use a wider variety of species instead of just a few commercial varieties.”
Rana added that forest officers should use mobile applications such as e-Plantation Site Assistant, which help gauge site suitability for plantations.
Ajay Srivastav, principal chief conservator of forests in Himachal Pradesh, said that the state government was now converting some of its pine tree plantations to “broadleaf forests” — such as oak and other species — which have more livelihood benefits.
What growing research means for India’s climate goals
Under the National Forest Policy of 1988, India aims to cover 33 per cent of its geographical area with forests and trees. India also pledged to create a carbon sink capable of absorbing 2.5-3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, through additional forest and tree cover, by 2030, as part of the Paris Agreement.
The study from Himachal Pradesh is the latest to suggest that achieving these goals will be more difficult than previously thought. Another recent study by researchers from the University of Oxford found that India had “overestimated” the land available to meet its Paris Agreement goal.
Rana and Fleischman are co-authors of another paper, also based in Himachal Pradesh, that found that afforestation activities in the Kangra district did not significantly improve tree canopy cover or rural livelihoods.
“The question we need to ask is, how do we shift people’s resource needs and behaviour so it’s beneficial for them to grow trees, as opposed to just implementing target-based plantations,” Fleischman said.
(Edited by Gitanjali Das)