India’s forest protection laws start getting teeth

India’s forests, spread over an estimated 70-million hectares at the latest count, have long been at the centre of a development-versus-conservation debate in the rising Asian power.

The forests are home not only to more than 100 000 species of flora and fauna — many of them rare — but provide livelihoods for 200-million largely tribal people.

India’s forests also contain some of the country’s richest mineral deposits, specifically iron ore and bauxite. In confrontations with mining corporations aligned with the state, the conservationists and tribal forest dwellers have usually lost.

Laws and regulations meant to protect the forests and their inhabitants were routinely ignored, bent or circumvented for decades.

But with growing awareness of the adverse environmental impact of destruction and degradation of forests, and a pro-active federal environment minister in Jairam Ramesh, the trend may be changing.

UN Climate Change Conference
Just days before a United Nations Climate Change Conference began last week in Cancun, Mexico, the Indian Ministry of Forests and Environment put out a statement of its will to protect its forests. Global forests are a major absorber of greenhouse gasses blamed for global warming.

The commitment in words and a host of laws have long been there to protect India’s forests, but it is recent actions by the Environment Ministry — its careful appraisal before giving clearance to projects and refusal on at least one major count in 2010 — that has given hope, say conservation activists.

In August, the Ministry for Forests and Environment rejected British firm Vedanta Resources Plc’s proposed $1,7-billion project with the Orissa government to mine bauxite in the Niyamgiri hills in Kalahandi district of Orissa.

The government’s decision was based on the recommendations of a panel led by former bureaucrat NC Saxena that said allowing mining in the area would deprive two primitive tribal groups — the Kutia and Dongria Kondh — of their rights over forest land and their livelihood and upset a fragile ecosystem.

The battle against Vedanta waged by the about 5 000-strong tribal people in the Lanjigarh-Niyamgiri belt of Orissa’s Kalahandi district has often been compared to the Na’vi people’s struggle in James Cameron film Avatar.

For the Dongria Kondh, Niyamgiri is not just a hill, but in the style of ancient animist faiths, it is their god and protector. The tribe make a subsistence living which they do not want to change for a new environment. The rich ecology of the region has been protected by the presence of these tribes.

Forests Rights Act
The Saxena panel found the project by a Vedanta subsidiary along with Orissa Mining Corporation, especially its expansion plan, violated several sections of the Forests Rights Act of 2006, which recognises the rights of forest dwellers, and other conservation laws going back as far as 1980.

The law relating to rights of forest dwellers has been in force since 2008 and the others even longer. But rarely have they been used to stop mega-projects like Vedanta’s, or that of South Korean steel giant POSCO, whose project, also in Orissa, has been put on hold while the Environment Ministry mulls a divided assessment by a four-member panel.

Ramesh says he wants to find a balance between development and conservation. His ministry has cleared other projects with conditions, like the project for a second airport for India’s financial hub Mumbai, and the French-supported nuclear power project in Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra state located in the ecologically sensitive forested hills of the Western Ghats.

Many of Ramesh’s recent decisions have displeased his ministerial colleagues and industry, while others have had activists and local people up in arms. There were demonstration in Ratnagiri Saturday against the nuclear power plant.

“I am convinced that the time has come to make trade-offs explicit and make the correct choice, however unpalatable that might be to some,” Ramesh said in September.

Ramesh maintains that conservation and development can go hand-in-hand. He reminds of the Brundtland Report definition of sustainable development — development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

The laws are all there, what is needed is compliance: “Is the debate really environment versus development or is it one of adhering to rules, regulations and laws versus taking the rules, regulations and laws for granted? I think the latter is a more accurate representation,” Ramesh says.

Meanwhile, there is good news. India is one of the few developing countries where forest cover has actually grown — by about 3-million hectares over the past decade. — Sapa-DPA

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