Extensive land-use change has increasingly come under the lens for amplifying the damage from extreme weather events | Photo: Wildlife Conservation Society

The perils of taking forests for granted

The importance of ecosystem services is yet to be fully recognised by India’s policy makers despite the ever-growing threats of extreme weather

Over the course of a few days in August 2018, the village of Mukkodlu, about 15kms from Madikeri, the capital of the district of Kodagu in Karnataka, was washed away by a landslide. Mukkodlu was only one of several villages where houses were completely destroyed by landslides. Kodagu and the people of neighbouring districts of Karnataka, all located on or near the Western Ghats, were still recovering from the extreme rainfalls of late-2018, when heavier and more intense rainfall in 2019 destroyed many more villages and verdant coffee plantations, which this region is known for. In the two years preceding these extreme rainfall events, the region had witnessed one of its worst droughts.

These are just a few incidents of extreme weather wreaking havoc in southern India’s Western Ghats over the past few years. Apart from loss of life and homesteads, peoples’ source of livelihoods has also been severely affected. Inundated as well as drought-stricken coffee plantations have resulted in loss of harvest and destruction of plants. The farmers affected by this are still to recover. Some have gone out of business altogether.

At the same time, multiple projects are being planned through the remaining natural forests of the 1,600-kilometre-long Western Ghats. This despite the region being classified as a hottest hotspot of biological biodiversity by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). A railway line cutting through the Sahyadri mountains, to connect the Northern Karnataka city of Hubli to the coastal town of Ankola, is being planned and highways through the Western Ghats and multiple dam projects have already claimed thousands of trees in protected areas. The region is also exploited for sand mining on its riverbeds and stone quarrying of its rock formations. Many government-sanctioned reports, most famously the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) report, more popularly known as the Gadgil report that was submitted to the government in 2011, have repeatedly warned about the catastrophic damage that is inevitable if India’s forests are sacrificed at the altar of infrastructure, mining and other development.

The report had warned that cultivation of commercial crops on steep slopes was leading to rapid erosion and increased run-off. It had also said there was a need to control the massive encroachment and deforestation in the catchment of major rivers such as the Godavari, Krishna and Cauvery. It also spoke against building large dams in the ecologically sensitive area. It is almost as if scientific knowledge is wilfully ignored by policy makers, even if it’s at the risk of not only the destruction of natural forests, but also of people’s lives and livelihoods. The warnings of such reports have been ignored and the result is that the impact of such extreme weather events is made all the worse as any resident of the Western Ghats region can testify.

Compromised ecosystems

One reason for these extreme weather events to cause more damage than they would have done otherwise is that incessant development has led to ecological balances being disturbed, compromising the ecosystem services that forests and protected areas offer. For example, deforestation in the catchment area of a river reduces the land’s ability to retain water. These compromised ecosystems, combined with the impacts of climate change in such eco-sensitive zones, have increased the intensity and damages from extreme weather events.

As this report stated, out of the 2,592 proposals for projects in Protected Areas (PA) that the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) received for environment clearance in the past six years, more than 87% have been approved. This is based on data available on the ministry’s clearance monitoring website, Parivesh. At the same time, according to a report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) that was released in February 2020, India’s projected GDP loss due to environmental degradation and future changes in water yield could be as much as $5.9 billion to $9.2 billion. 

As the report states, “Nature’s loss undermines our ability to tackle climate change. The second-biggest economic impact from the loss of nature identified through this study relates to its impact on carbon sequestration. If we are to meet climate challenges in an optimal way, we will have to consider nature as a key contributor to the solution. Conversely, nature’s loss undermines our ability to tackle climate change.”

Professor Mahesh Sankaran, an ecosystem and community ecologist at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bengaluru, says, “When we convert natural ecosystems such as forests, grasslands and savannas to other ‘human’ land-uses, what we are doing is essentially increasing the production of some services, but decreasing others (i.e. we are trading off between different services). More often than not, we end up increasing ‘provisioning’ services such as food and timber production, but negatively impacting regulating, supporting and cultural services (eg climate and flood regulation, carbon sequestration, regulation of hydrological cycles, eco-tourism).”

Sankaran is part of the Long-term Ecosystem Monitoring Network- India (LEMoN) and has been studying India’s forests for many decades. He adds, “In the long term, this is not a viable option because these other services are critical to ensure the sustainability of even ‘human-dominated’ landscapes and ensure our quality of life. Biodiversity loss, land conversion and degradation are also well recognised to negatively influence the ability of systems to deal with extreme climatic events such as droughts and extreme rainfall events, and can result, for example, in increased flooding.”

According to a MoEF&CC report published 11 years ago, India’s forests absorb more than 10% of the country’s greenhouse gases. This August 2009 report values India’s ‘ecosystem services’ at 4.2% of India’s GDP or Rs6 lakh crore ($120 billion). While there has been recognition of the value that forests provide, there has been little action on the ground to dissuade development in eco-sensitive regions. The landslides, flooding and the loss of lives and livelihoods in recent years is the tremendous price that is being paid for this inaction.

Different models of development

Thousands of Goans had come out earlier this month to protest against their state government’s move to expand railway lines for transporting coal, at the cost of destroying national parks and wildlife sanctuaries in the state.

During the lockdown, among the 30 forest clearance proposals discussed by the National Board for Wildlife (NBW) were the proposals to develop railway lines through the Bhagwan Mahaveer Widlife Sanctuary and the Mollem National Park. If the projects go ahead, they will lead to the cutting of nearly 60,000 trees in these protected regions, diverting 170 hectares of forests for development. The Goan citizenry have decided that this development at the cost of their state’s forests is unwarranted and have taken to the streets to make their voices heard. The protestors say they are not against development but they don’t want to lose out on the environmental and economic benefits that these forests provide them. The forests are eco-tourism hotspots and are the source for multiple rivers, which act as the lifeline for Goa’s water supply. The benefits that the railway lines will bring will be much lesser than the value of the ecosystem services that these forests offer.

Experts state the idea of looking at environmental resources as being obstructive to economic development is outdated. As Professor Nandan Nawn, an economist who specialises in environment and development at TERI School of Advanced Studies (TERI SAS), New Delhi, says, “Reports such as the Gadgil report recommended putting some restrictions on some areas, no doubt, but also regulated use. Unfortunately, any kind of regulation is construed to be an anathema to economic growth. It is conveniently forgotten that the market itself is an institution and its efficient functioning requires a robust and functioning regulatory framework. Perhaps the short-term considerations of the elected governments take priority over sustainability of gains. The values derived by the resource people are mostly outside the market, and hence do not get reported in the GDP calculations.”

Professor Nawn, who specialises in environment and development, political economy and ecological economics, however, feels there are different, more sustainable models of development that are gaining a foothold in India and across the world. As he says, “However, things are changing. The System of Environmental Economic Accounting (SEEA) of the United Nations is about to be implemented in India soon. Among others, it extends the same treatment to depletion of natural capital as to the physical capital. At least, we will be able to know how much loss is taking place every year. Also, the pandemic had induced a large-scale urban to rural migration. Governments will be compelled to provide livelihood opportunities to these people. A bioeconomy is the easiest answer.”

Institutions such as the Biodiversity Management Committee, which is in place at the panchayat level, still largely remain toothless though. While such institutions provide a good framework, the need of the hour is to implement such sustainable models. Professor Jagdish Krishnaswamy of the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) says, “Ecosystem services are irreplaceable and it’s largely not helpful to look at the environment in economic terms. Our forests are our ecological assets. Clearly, they have to be a big part of our strategy for our future.”

Professor Krishnaswamy has researched extensively on various vegetation’s response to changes in climate and land cover change in India. He adds, “I personally think ecosystem services should be quantified in biophysical and socio-economic terms. We should be thinking in terms of quantifications, jobs provided through resources such as non-timber forest produce or capture fisheries in marine ecosystems or rivers. These kinds of services also provide food security for many forest-dependent people across India.”

The forest-dependent people, who are estimated to be anywhere from 275 to 400 million, are the worst-affected both by development that engulfs forest ecosystems as well as the impacts of climate change. As Professor Shankaran says, “We will need to rethink our approach. We need to stop making land-use decisions that prioritise short-term economic gains at the cost of longer-term losses in ecosystem service provisioning. Human well-being and quality of life does not just depend on the economic benefits that we derive from ecosystems, but also on these other non-material benefits.” Laws such as the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, which are meant to act as a safety net for the forest-dependant people are either not applied or provisions made in the law are revoked or diluted, many times with other government ministry’s, such as the environment ministry, blocking the affecting implementation of the law.

This is the second installment in an in-depth three-part series on India’s forest conservation and afforestation policies on Carbon Copy. The third part will explore the double-squeeze experienced by forest-dependent people facing the brunt of both law and climate impacts.