Home Magazines Conservation World Forestry Day – March 21, 2013

World Forestry Day – March 21, 2013

World Forestry Day – March 21, 2013

The rupees 446 crore, seven-year loan to fund the Odisha (Orissa) Forest Sector Development Project (OFSDP) from the Japanese government ended in March 2013. Its legacy, says the author, will not be easy to understand.

Without effective protection, this tusker, photographed by Aditya Panda in Similipal, Odisha, has little chance of surviving the rapid encroachment and habitat degradation that is rife all across India today. Photograph by Aditya Panda.

Despite the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) having strict new monitoring guidelines for overseas development assistance (ODA) loans, a lack of any provision for ecological monitoring is a worrying indicator that all is not well. The plummeting tiger population in Odisha over the period of the loan is further evidence of a stark situation for biodiversity following the project’s rapid drive to commercialise the forest. The author elaborates on how his independent study about the project has been stonewalled by authorities and how World Bank-inspired policies of the past continue to dog forestry projects in India.

I had become interested in the loan while researching for my Master’s thesis at a Japanese university. I was studying advances in social responsibility policy for Japanese development assistance, and this seemed an excellent test of the strict new guidelines implemented by the Japanese government in 2003. It was an interesting case study, as the loan is in a region that has been ravaged by World Bank-inspired policies that hold Odisha up as a poster child for “successful development” while managing to ignore unrest caused by the rapid development of the mining industry. If I could show that the OFSDP represented an advance in implementation of ODA safeguards in these circumstances, it could be an example for other countries to follow, potentially acting as a brake on the worst excesses of the neoliberal economic fundamentalism that the World Bank has come to champion.

Still, an immediate question arose as one of my university courses on sustainable forestry had emphasised that good tropical forestry operates on a much longer time frame, normally a 30-40 year rotation. How could this be reconciled with the unrelenting demands for repayment with interest of such a large loan for a project that only lasted seven years? In addition, this was not the first such loan for the Odisha Forest Department, but followed a Rs. 167 crore Social Forestry Project funded by the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) that ended in 1996. A 2001 evaluation report commissioned by SIDA criticises the Odisha Forest Department for its hierarchical structure and attitude to the forests as its “own property.” Only 10 years later, the Odisha Forest Department had found it necessary to seek another large loan from the Japanese government. Something seemed out of place.

In order to assess the situation, I knew it was essential to go there myself and interview people. I applied for a Japanese research grant to carry out a field study and made my initial contacts with the Odisha Forest Department. At the same time, I made plans to meet with NGOs and learn what they had to say. The grant was approved, and I approached the Indian Embassy in Tokyo for a research visa, to be told by them that a letter of approval was required from the OFSDP. Dutifully, I approached the OFSDP Project Director, Vinod Kumar, to be told in turn that without a letter from JICA and an introduction from my thesis supervisor, no letter from him would be forthcoming. In other words, only assessments actually commissioned by the Japanese government, which had granted the loan, were to be sanctioned and OFSDP would not cooperate with an independent study of a Japanese loan by a Japanese university. To confirm whether this was indeed the case, I explained by e-mail that it was to be an independent study, and had my supervisor send a letter to Mr. Kumar asking for his cooperation. I managed to reach him on the phone, but still no clearance letter was forthcoming.

Perhaps his reluctance is understandable. There had been strong opposition to the massive loan prior to its approval in 2006. The Japan Center for Sustainable Environment and Society (JACSES), a Tokyo-based NGO, noted in 2005 that insufficient information was being provided to local people about the loan; they were not being consulted, and many were against it. India’s Business Standard also reported the controversy in March 2006, saying that Odisha government officials strongly lobbied for the loan, which represented major funding for the Rs. 574 crore project. According to the Business Standard, local NGO Odisha Jangal Manch was particularly opposed, saying that “money cannot manage forests” and threatening non-cooperation with the Odisha Forest Department if the loan money was targeted at forests under their protection.

Thus, perhaps the Odisha Forest Department was nervous about what I might report if I made contact with Jangal Manch. I would not be limiting myself to what the department wished to show me, although I intended to report that also. Finding myself barred from entering India due to my independent status, I decided to proceed as best I could using research and interviews carried out from Japan.

Contradictions galore

To this end, I contacted Odisha activist Mamata Dash, who observed in a telephone interview that the OFSDP loan period coincided with the Forest Rights Act (FRA), introduced in 2006 and enacted into law in 2008. Dash said that it was contradictory for the government to be signing a loan to strengthen the Joint Forest Management (JFM) regime as the FRA’s provisions for individual land titles call into question the legality of JFM. Dash referred to JFM in scathing terms, saying that the programme “was brought in to re-emphasise and re-strengthen the role of the Forest Department, and ensure that the colonial regime continues.” A particularly contentious issue alluded to by Dash is what she describes as “the suppression of the preferences of local peoples for tree species to be planted.” In place, she states that eucalyptus, an exotic species preferred by the pulp and paper industry, was selected for plantation.

Biswajit Mohanty, Secretary of the Wildlife Society of Odisha, echoed this, stating in an interview by e-mail that “biodiversity has been the biggest casualty as monoculture plantations of eucalyptus, teak, etc. were taken up. Mixed degraded forests, which should have been protected for regeneration, were foolishly hacked down to make way for these monocultures.” He also raised questions about how independent the mid-term evaluation really was, saying “As there is no independent external evaluation of performance of any scheme, including that of the OFSDP, the State Forest Department gets away with zero accountability for the huge sums of money spent. The current evaluation system employs retired forest officers, which compromises independence. It is common knowledge that plantations are the fountainhead of corruption for most officers who make money by preparing false vouchers not supported by actual expenditure.”

Regarding the environmental effects of the project, Mohanty said: “Even the assisted natural regeneration (ANR) activities, which actually call for very little expenditure, are highly ecologically damaging as they burn standing forests, which are habitat for ground-dwelling fauna and cut creepers and undergrowth that are food for elephants and other wildlife.”

Mohanty also points to the Odisha Forest Department’s closed approach on tiger and elephant conservation, stating: “The department officers always steadfastly refuse to accept external monitoring or evaluation measures which often results in failures of schemes in spite of high expenditures of public funds. A recent example is the monitoring committee set up by the Central Government to look into protection of tigers and elephants in Simlipal following the disastrous deaths of 12 elephants in 2010, which was subverted by the state Forest Department, who refused to allow it to function. Unfortunately, this led to a repetition of elephant poaching in 2011 and 2012. The Odisha Forest Department has always functioned in a closed and colonial style, refusing external inputs.”

The mid-term assessment

A mandatory mid-term assessment of the OFSDP carried out under Japanese guidelines has stark words to say about the project’s monitoring. The report, compiled by Delhi-based Sambhodi Research & Communications Pvt., states that “on-time information on indicators for ecological outputs is not available” and there is an “immediate need of designing and implementing comprehensive monitoring protocols” to cover this. It observes that forest management plans are limited to ANR, as well as to the duration of the loan and goes on to say that there is a “need to go beyond the project period as well as plan for forest management in a long-term perspective going beyond ANR activities.”

Thus, given that the project has effectively come to an end, with the flow of money ceasing this year, there is little prospect for any ecological monitoring to be carried out, leaving the dwindling numbers of tigers, an indicator species, as one way to gauge the health of the ecosystem. According to the National Tiger Census, the number of tigers in Odisha fell from 45 in 2006, when the loan started, to 32 tigers in 2010. What could be the reason for such a glaring oversight, given the scientific expertise and foreign funding available to the Odisha Forest Department? The comments in the preface to Sambhodi’s assessment are essentially a disclaimer, saying the project was designed from the beginning to make it impossible for the independent mid-term assessment to gauge the effects of the rapid establishment of plantations on biodiversity.

The mid-term evaluation by Sambodhi makes no mention of eucalyptus, the planting of which would be against the project guidelines that call for native species only. Instead it focuses on the commercial plantations of native species such as teak and bamboo that are the main purpose of ANR activities. With independent activists such as Mohanty and Dash stating that eucalyptus may have been widely planted, and the Odisha Forest Department denying it but refusing independent assessment, the question cannot be answered. There is precedent for planting of eucalyptus under previous World Bank-funded JFM projects in India. However, the fact that the Sambhodi report was forthright enough to criticise the ecological monitoring may indicate that their assessment is accurate and eucalyptus was not included in plantations.

The decimation of Odisha’s forests, in favour of monoculture plantations that support the paper and pulp industry, is just one example of the attitude of state officials who believe that forests are only worth the monetary profits they earn. Photograph by Arabinda Majhi.

The climate cover

During my research I also found strong criticism of the loan by Subrat Kumar Sahu, an independent writer based in New Delhi who writes that the loan will be used for plantations, and will lead to the Forest Department increasing its control over the forests at the expense of existing community management committees. In addition, Sahu believes that carbon trading under the United Nations’ programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD) initiative is a major goal of the loan that will lead to the loss of community ownership of forests, although the Forest Rights Act aims to protect community rights.

In response, Vinod Kumar, the OFSDP director, said by e-mail that he was unable to comment on reports of eucalyptus being planted or on mechanisms in place to prevent corruption. He said that the OFSDP has “no issues” regarding eucalyptus plantations or the Forest Rights Act but did not elaborate. Kumar also said by e-mail that an open-house meeting had been held in early 2006 in Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odisha, to address concerns raised by NGOs from Japan and Odisha. He said that these concerns were no longer an issue, adding that the NGOs were basing their concerns on the past “without updating themselves with developments” of the OFSDP. Regarding future developments about REDD, he said that “for the JFM area in Odisha, benefit sharing of 50 per cent of final harvest of forest production and 100 per cent sharing of intermediary productions in favour of the community is presently in vogue in government policy resolutions.” However, he also remarked that until government guidelines on revenue sharing for REDD are communicated, he could not answer with any certainty.

The solutions to the problems facing India’s forests are likely to lie in harnessing the scientific knowledge of Forest Department experts, while not dismissing local expertise and opinions. Large-scale monocultures, likewise, are not likely to be good news for the long-term survival of biodiversity. What is the truth of the situation? With the Odisha Forest Department blocking independent research by myself in the course of my study at a Japanese university regarding a Japanese loan, and with the project having been planned to prevent ecological impact from being covered in the mandatory assessment, it is not possible to say.

In an age where large amounts of “development assistance” money are transferred around the world to support projects of various kinds, the ability to carry out independent assessments is critical. Even strict new guidelines for loans are not sufficient to prevent problems if the local authorities are determined to avoid scrutiny. The decades-long rhythms of the living forest do not conform to pressure to make foreign loans rapidly “perform” by being paid back with interest. Sustainable tropical forestry requires long-term perspective and planning in order to maintain biodiversity. The situation must be addressed before the Odisha government seeks yet another large foreign loan that will result in further conversion of forest to plantations, with attendant negative effects for both biodiversity and forest communities.

The author, Philip Carter (www.goldeneagleviews.com), recently completed his M.Sc. degree at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan, with a scholarship from the Ritsumeikan Trust.

Author: Phil Carter, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIII, No. 2, April 2013.


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