A tree cut is not the same as a tree planted: Understanding ‘quick fix’ solutions to development consequences

A tree cut is not the same as a tree planted: Understanding ‘quick fix’ solutions to development consequences

Traffic and trees have recently found a persistent presence in everyday discussions among people and newspapers in the city of Bangalore. In an attempt to tackle traffic, the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) has proposed building the widely contested steel flyover and other road widening projects which will result in cutting of several trees across the city. Cutting of trees is, of course, only one of several important reasons why these projects can be deemed featherbrained. In this article, I will stick with trees. BDA has defended that they will plant 60,000 saplings as compensatory afforestation which is much more than the trees that may be cut. This seems like a rational solution, or is it?

In 1980, the Central Government enacted the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) which tries to bring about a balance between development and conservation. The essence of the act is this: if 50 hectares of forest land is diverted for say a mining project, 50 hectares will be planted with trees elsewhere in the vicinity. This is the same logic the BDA has drawn upon to justify its proposed projects. But, what exactly does compensatory afforestation entail? What sort of land is it undertaken on? What kinds of trees are planted? And, what does it mean for the people that live in the area?

Shifting cultivation/ Pic: Parul Thapa

Shifting cultivation/ Pic: Parul Thapa

As part of my PhD research, I spent time unpacking answers to these questions in Kashipur block of Rayagada district in Odisha. Kashipur forms part of the lesser known Eastern Ghats, which are a discontinuous range of mountains extending from West Bengal to Tamil Nadu. The dongars or hills of Kashipur are distinct because of their unusual table or flat tops, on the slopes of which several communities practise shifting cultivation, locally known as dongar chaas. The population is heterogeneous, mostly comprising of different Scheduled Tribe and Scheduled Caste communities who are predominantly landless or have meagre agricultural land holdings. These hills tops have very little vegetation due to highly acidic red lateritic soils which are rich in bauxite, but there are also few dense forest patches in the area. Baphlimali, the longest and highest hill range in Kashipur is currently being mined for bauxite to supply ore to the alumina refinery located in its vicinity. Kashipur witnessed a long anti-mining struggle which eventually crumbled and gave way to this mining complex. The refinery was built over 1000 hectares of land displacing three villages and razed about 101 hectares of forest land.  This story is about the lost forest and its new compensated version.

In rural areas, land classification is a crucial component of the way people conduct their lives and, in most areas, the classification is ambiguous. The categorisation of landscape, a remnant of our colonial past, was developed based on how much 'value' land produced.  The two main land owners of the state are the revenue and forest departments. And communities are wedged in between. This wedging is clearly illustrated when compensatory afforestation is undertaken. There are two sites that are affected: the villages around the area where forests have been diverted and villages around the area where forests have been compensated.

Compensated teak forest

Compensated teak forest

In Kashipur, the forest that was diverted for the alumina refinery was classified as ‘village forest’ which is constituted for the benefit of surrounding village communities. It was predominantly a natural sal (Shorea robusta) forest which also had cashew (Anacardium occidental) trees which were harvested by the local communities. The forests were razed without dialogue and the voices of protest were unheard.

Alternatively, the compensatory afforestation was done over an equal area of revenue land classified as ‘uncultivable fallow land’. In reality, these lands were actually under shifting cultivation. Three villages lost dongar land to this afforestation programme and one village in particular has had severe consequences for its landless households.

Krishnachandra Jhodia, a landless resident of Mailiguda lost 5 acres of his shifting cultivation land to afforestation. This meant that he wouldn’t be able to grow Ragi, a staple. Ragi is generally cultivated as first crop during the shifting cultivation cycle as it grows best on the slopes. Shifting cultivation supports a diversity of cereals; in turn households are able to sustain without accessing the market for essentials. Like Jhodia, several other landless families have been displaced from their land and are now forced to look for other means of livelihood. Many of the younger boys migrate to urban centres as labourers, brick-making has intensified and these households are now compelled to take up sharecropping with those who have land. Jhodia worriedly told me, "My 16-year-old son has gone to Kerala to undertake coolie work; he doesn’t even have an ID card. I have started making more bricks during the dry season. And my wife now goes to distant forest areas to collect more firewood to fire the kilns. Before, we needed money only to buy salt, now we need money to buy even Ragi."

Krishnachandra Jhodia

Krishnachandra Jhodia

Their agricultural land has been planted with one species - Teak (Tectona grandis) to compensate for loss of a sal forest that supports more diversity. The condition of this 15-year-old plantation is poor. Many in the community echo, "Here, where we used to grow several cereals, now stands a single species – Teak. It doesn’t give us anything to eat. They (the government) could have at least planted fruit trees.” It was also evident that the trees are regularly cut. In Kashipur, trees are most often cut for preparing agricultural equipments, household repair works or as firewood. "The government doesn’t give us any money to protect these trees," they say.

The Kashipur story is illustrative of several other scenarios across the country where diverted forests have been compensated with trees on de-facto agricultural land. This ‘quick fix’ has only resulted in further marginalisation of poor communities and growing monocultures that are reported as 'increase in forest area'.

A cut tree in the compensated teak forest

A cut tree in the compensated teak forest

Coming back to Bangalore, the main lesson is not to take compensatory afforestation measures at face value. It is important to ask the same questions to the BDA. What are the trees that are going to be cut? It is not just enough to look at these trees as lungs of the city but it is imperative to understand what ecology these trees support. What species are going to be planted and on what kind of land? For how many years will they be protected so the saplings become trees? These ‘quick fix’ solutions have to be unpacked to understand the tradeoffs involved in (ill-planned) development. And unlike rural citizens, the voice of urban citizens is louder, so it is crucial to develop nuanced arguments to engage in meaningful dialogue with the state.

Featured image: Flickr CC/ Roshan Panjwani

Poorna is a PhD scholar at the Academy of Conservation Science and Sustainability Studies, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE). She is interested in using interdisciplinary approaches to understand environment-development conundrums with a focus on environmental justice.