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Forests and climate change in India

Centre for Education and Documentation

Forests and Climate Change are intimately intertwined. Forests have regulated the climate, rain, groundwater, soil of the earth over millennia. Their transpiration act as a regulator of the balance of oxygen and carbon-di-oxide: the world’s forests and forest soils currently store more than one trillion tons of carbon – twice the amount found floating free in the atmosphere.

While deforestation is responsible for about 20 percent of greenhouse gases, overall, forests currently absorb more carbon than they emit. The problem, according to scientists, is that this critical carbon-regulating service could be lost entirely if the earth heats up 2.5 degrees Celsius or more relative to pre-industrial levels, which is expected to occur if emissions are not substantially reduced. Further, higher temperatures, along with the prolonged droughts, more intense pest invasions, and other environmental stresses that could accompany climate change, would lead to considerable forest destruction and degradation (1).

India is one of the 12 mega diversity countries having a vast variety of flora and fauna. It commands 7% of world’s biodiversity and support 16 major forest types, varying from alpine pastures in the Himalayas to temperate, sub-tropical and tropical forests, mangroves of the coastal regions. The country’s forest cover is 67.71 million ha. (21.81%).

Bio-diversity and forest cover

Over the past 150 years, deforestation has contributed an estimated 30 percent of the atmospheric build-up of CO2. It is also a significant driving force behind the loss of genes, species, and ecosystems.

It is expected that there would be large scale shifting of forest biomes throughout India. The highest impact is expected on the teak and sal forests of central and eastern regions and the temperate Himalayas. 85% of the forest grids of the country would change their type. The Western Ghats and forests of the Northeast would be impacted comparatively less.

India, currently, has a dominant forest cover of the Tropical Dry Forest (37.2%) type, followed by Dry Savanna (33%) and Moist Savanna (32.5%) types. This is projected to change with Tropical Dry Forest and Tropical Seasonal Forest (28.4%) becoming dominant. Xeric Scrubland, to a smaller extent, is set to decrease in area and Xeric Woodland is expected to increase in the drier regions. In the colder regions, Boreal and Temperate Conifer coverage decreases while Temperate Deciduous and Temperate Evergreen coverage increases.

This projected shift in vegetation may lead to large-scale forest dieback and loss of biodiversity especially in the transition between forest types.

The Carbon Sink debate and REDD approach

Trees and forests help by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and converting it during photosynthesis to carbon, which they « store » in the form of wood and vegetation, a process referred to as « carbon sequestration. » Trees are generally about 20% carbon by weight. The overall biomass of forests also acts as a « carbon sink » with the organic matter in forest soils – such as the humus produced by the decomposition of dead plants.

The trees and soils of the world’s forests storing more than a quarter of the world’s carbon emissions and India having over 100 million hectares of wasteland and degraded forests, mitigation through the forest sector and afforestation seems like an attractive solution.

However, using forests are carbon sinks has been a contentious issue. The fear is that it legitimizes the continued destruction of old-growth and pristine forests which are rich ecosystem and have an established biodiversity base that naturally maintains the environment. Creating new forest areas would require the creation of entire ecosystems. It is also criticized for being a quick fix that doesn’t tackle the root causes effectively and doesn’t lead to, or promotes actual emissions reduction.

The concept of Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD) was first discussed in COP 11. India proposed the concept of “Compensated Conservation” which is intended to compensate the countries for maintaining and increasing their forests as carbon pools.

But REDD has several significant inbuilt flaws, in particular, it permits the replacement of natural tropical forest with plantations; and it would increase net emissions of carbon to the atmosphere if carbon offsetting were involved.

Besides, the big corporate players, who are responsible for many a problem related to commercial logging, mining, pushing mono-culture plantations and crops etc. take advantage of such schemes and incentives to present a “clean” front, many of their objectionable activities hidden behind a Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) driven carbon sink project.

For example, ITC, one of the largest tobacco companies in India, is taking up afforestation projects in 193 villages in Khammam, Andhra Pradesh. It has a history of damaging and degrading natural resources by promoting a mono-cropping of tobacco among the tribal communities in the Godavari river-basin, which has adversely affected land-productivity and quality. However, this project has been reported as having special significance of being the world’s first large scale Afforestation/ Reforestation project with retrospective carbon credit of 57792 CERs!

Simon Retallack points out that there is not yet enough scientific data on natural carbon cycling to establish full accounting and verification procedures for carbon sinks. The science does not enable prediction of exactly how much carbon is being absorbed by a country’s sinks and whether the carbon moving into forests or soils will actually stay there. Besides this, trees fix carbon only during growing periods and after reaching maturity become carbon neutral, hence reforestation seems a temporary solution.

Lastly, commodifying forest carbon is inequitable, since it discriminates against people who previously had free access to the forest resources. Carbon Sink projects and REDD, refocus attention on a key dilemma – to whom do forests belong to? And who has the rights to sell forest carbon credits? And how does one quantify and put value to what forest-dwellers do i.e. protect forests?

Forest dependent communities

Forests are not just about flora and fauna. In India, they meet the demands of around 950 million people and around 450 million cattle with nearly 200,000 of India‘s villages located in or near forests. Out of the 15,000 species of plants 3,000 species provide non-timber forest produce (NTFP) like fruits, nuts, edible flowers, medicines. These communities, dependent on forest resources for their sustenance, are very much likely to be at the receiving end of the anticipated adverse effects of climate change.

The Ministry of Tribal Affairs of India, for instance, has admitted that the entire Scheduled Tribe population in India already being in a vulnerable state, and therefore, ill equipped to adapt to the vagaries of climate change, are further likely to suffer from loss of livelihood, ill health, food insecurity and so on. Despite their traditional knowledge and coping mechanisms for normal changes in climate, they may be unable to face the impact of rapid change.

Forest dwelling communities are often blamed for deforestation and degradation of forests, especially due to shifting cultivation. The traditional land rights of many peoples who have lived and tilled the land in some of these official “forest” areas for generations, are not considered. The lack of clear documentation and absence of proper surveys even in the past makes it easier to declare such people to be “encroachers” and face severe problems of evictions, and violence.

In May 2002 the government misinterpreted a Supreme Court ruling, to issue a directive to all state governments to immediately evict “encroachers” from all forests.

”A massive eviction drive ensued, which targeted forest communities rather than the commercial and mafia interests which actually led to the destruction of forests. This led to huge dislocation and suffering among already impoverished people. Lakhs of families have been rendered homeless – as many as 40,000 families in Assam alone - and many recorded cases of excessive violence.” (2)

The Scheduled Tribes and Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Rights) Bill 2005 is extremely important not only for providing justice to forest dwellers, but also for conserving the forests themselves by democratising the system of forest conservation. Both are vital to the health of forests and forest communities.

Carbon Sink afforestation projects, in this light, makes the forest communities highly vulnerable. With the Clean Development Mechanism and voluntary carbon offsets, payments for environmental services schemes, and increasing prices for commodities such as agro-fuels, palm oil or soya, there is little reason for optimism. As demand for land increases, people are being pushed off their existing territories. If the financial value of standing forests goes up they are increasingly likely to face governments and companies willing to go to extreme lengths to wrest their forests from them.

The National Action Plan on Climate Change and the Green India Mission

The National Action Plan on Climate Change includes as one of its 8 missions, a mission to Green India. The Green India Mission (GIM) expects to afforest 6 million hectares of degraded forests and aims to expand the forest cover from 23% to 33%.

The Mission projects an ambitious target of 20 million hectares of forest by 2020, at a cost of Rs.44,000 crore (Rs.400 billion). It emphasises a holistic approach to greening, making it clear that the project will not just be limited to trees and plantations, but would focus on restoring diverse ecosystems. The new and restored forest areas are expected to act as a carbon sink and to absorb an additional 43 million tonnes of green house gases every year putting the carbon absorption capacity to 6.35 per cent of the country’s annual emissions by 2020.

The mission also envisages a key role for local communities and includes a four-level monitoring framework. The ministry has promised to bring about a change in the relationship between the people and the forest department, ensuring transparency and putting in place a system of social audits. It has also promised to set up specialised environmental courts under the National Green Tribunal that will hear cases relating to pollution-inflicted damage to the community. The ministry also expects to launch two satellites exclusively devoted to monitoring environmental changes in the country - one for monitoring carbon emissions, and the other to assess forest cover.

However, there have been many criticisms directed at the NAPCC’s failure to recognize the importance of conservation of forests, and the role the forest eco-systems and bio-diversity play in affecting major parts of livelihoods of the forest dwelling communities. With India’s history of afforestation programmes that promote exotic species and poor post-planting maintenance, the GIM only brings about more fears on its execution and management.

Another criticism against the GIM is that the Forest Department keeps the control over the whole system : over the funding and decision making, over all the Mission’s bodies above the village like the State Forest Development Agencies, over the Joint Forest Management Committee which should be accountable to the village and over the “community agents”.

But the forest department is an archaic model, that was installed during the British Colonial times and its main role was more to fulfill the timber hunger of the rulers than protect and manage the Indian forests. The design of the structure itself is such that it protects the interests of the industries and corporations and eliminates interactions with local communities.

If the role of forests in Climate Change needs to be strengthened and the issues of climate change needs to be addressed, the structure of the Forest Department will need to be tranformed. Policymakers will need to address both the ecological impacts of climate change on the forestry sector, as well as the social and economic impacts on communities. This will require effective forest management practices and policies as well as understanding the inter-relations between communities, government, the private sector, and forestry products.


What is required is actually an ecosystems approach with focus on climate justice and the rights and role of local communities. It should also address biodiversity and poverty effectively and challenge the underlying causes of deforestation directly, resolving governance, poverty and land tenure issues.

(1) Cf. Risto Seppälä, Alexander Buck and Pia Katila, « Adaptation of Forests and People to Climate Change. A Global Assessment Report », IUFRO World Series Volume 22. Helsinki, 2009
(2) Jayati GHOSH, « Saving Forests and People », in Frontline, Vol. 2, N°13, June 18, 2005


changement climatique, forêt, protection des forêts, lutte contre la déforestation, politique de l’environnement

, Inde


L’Inde et le changement climatique


This article is available in French: Forêts et changement climatique en Inde

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CED (Centre for Education and Documentation) - CED Mumbai: 3 Suleman Chambers, 4 Battery Street, Behind Regal Cinema, Mumbai - 400 001, INDIA - Phone: (022) 22020019 CED Bangalore: No. 7, 8th Main , 3rd phase, Domlur 2nd Stage, Bangalore - 560071, INDIA - Phone: (080) 25353397 - Inde - -,

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