Vanishing Tropical Forests

Last month, we discussed the slow but steady elimination of theaam aadmi, the common man from the thriving banking system in India, as it heads for new heights of globalization. That is not the only area he is to be eliminated from. There are more areas, apart from the demolitions of old properties and slums which mean that he will have to go to the back of beyond to live. A major area from which the aam aadmi is being eliminated, is the forests of India, which are increasingly falling into the 'global' kitty, out of the reach of the forest dwellers, the tribals and non tribals.

Today the overriding concern of global economists is the concept of 'economic returns'. It is under this light that they will view each and every economic, geographical and other factor; the economic returns factor is no doubt a powerful tool...at the macro level. At the micro level, the 'economic returns' factor has spelt doom to the poorest of the poor, urban, rural and forested.

Totally marginalized in the new economy, they are deprived of their indigenous resource bases which were hitherto free to them. This places a taxing burden on them; apart from damaging the sustainability of the natural resources base, it also forces on the poorest of the poor an unimaginable monetary burden for access to the basics of life: food, medicine, shelter.

It was a couple of decades ago that the world economic bodies, such as the World Bank, the World Resources Institute and the UNDP zeroed in on the flourishing tropical and other forests in the developing countries. The interest is not inexplicable. After all most of these countries are recent colonies, whose natural resources were being exploited to the hilt by the erstwhile colonizers. These colonial powers had, long ago, exhausted their own reserves of forests and had then turned to 'intelligent' forestry i.e. vast tracts of monoculture to feed the ever increasing demand for wood, for industrial purposes, for homes, for furniture and for a variety of other demands.

Now they eye the vast tracts of tropical forests in South America, in Africa, in Asia and Australia. While Australia has, by now, virtually lost all its natural tropical forests, and Africa remains mired in intercine warfare which make large scale logging dangerous and difficult, it is south America and Asia that took the brunt of the new international pirates who had come up with a grandiose plan calling for a plan of action on the remaining tropical forests.

In keeping with the usual World Bank style of operation, at the various environmental fora, the proposals to demolish tropical forests and replace them with commercial monocultures with an industrial and commercial bias which spells a death kiss to indigenous forest dwellers, were presented with the aid of pliant NGOs. The aim was to present the top down planning of the World Bank and its associates as a bottom up approach, indicating purportedly 'the will of the people'

Would the people want to cut themselves away from their homes and home stomping grounds, which provided them with food, medicines, shelter and fuel wood? For the proposals had no place for the indigenous peoples who had lived in forests since Time Immemorial. Apart from neglecting the intrinsic link between them and their forests, the proposals actually point fingers at these dwellers as the demolition brigade which damaged the forests which were being systematically culled by the forest wood lobbies. But the plans fall short of proposing any resettlement of the indigenous peoples who would be rendered homeless by commercialization of the forests, never mind the different names given to the process: agro-forestry, watershed development or industrial plantations.

One of India's leading environmental authorities, Ms. Vandana Shiva points out that ' from the image of being the imposer of capital-intensive, people-displacing, ecologically destructive plans, the world bank will acquire the new image of a benign money lender 'responding' to the requests of Third World governments and people.

There is yet another very sinister spin-off from this move from indigenous forests to commercial forestry. With the emphasis shifting to commercial forestry, even farmers would be encouraged to shift from other crops to forestry. This could, if carried unhindered, put paid to the hard won self sufficiency in food grains that India has achieved in recent times.

This of course, could be part of a long term game plan of the USA which has been resisting any downturn to its spiraling subsidization of its agricultural sector. Every year, hundreds of thousands of tons of grain are burnt to maintain the price level and often diseased grain is downloaded on desperate developing countries desperate for food grain after their own farmlands have turned desolates and unproductive, thanks to wrong policies.

If India too turns her productive lands to forestry, what a bonanza of a market for imported food grains she would present.

It is not as if this is mere conjecture. We imported thousands of tonnes of defective, infected wheat in the last decades of the last century, purportedly because we needed it. It is another story altogether that vigilante forces did not allow the defective wheat to land in north India where it would have infected the native stocks and the government was forced to offload it at southern ports where there is little demand for wheat, except from the bakery industry.

Perhaps the most extreme example of what could be in store is the state of Ethiopia and Somalia. Abundant forests were recklessly felled and the agricultural practices introduced so far alien to the natural environmental and geographical factors that the two countries have been reduced, from prime colonies, to basket cases of recurrent droughts and intercine warfare which never concludes.

Modern forestry abounds with a created myth

That the forest dwellers damage and desiccate forests. Logic indicates that they would do nothing to damage that which provides them with food, fruit, medicine, small timber and fuel wood from fallen branches and the like. It is in commercial forests that there is no room for the needs of the indigenous peoples and peasants, where the trees are culled wholesale and rate of re-plantation rarely keeps pace with the culling.

There are three divergent agencies competing for the forests, with their divergent needs. Nature needs humus to regenerate'this is generated by the fallen leaves and twigs left untouched'.not possible in commercial forestry. The poor forest dwellers and their peasant neighbors needs fodder, small twigs and branches for fuel, apart from the fruits and herbs for medicines, once again not possible from commercial monocultures; these are advocated by the pulpwood and paper factories lobbies, never mind that monocultures spell ecological ruin to the forested areas.

If Ethiopia and Somalia present examples from Africa, India too has tragic examples to present.

The tribals of Bastar had, for uncounted centuries, preserved their forests from 'foreigners' including the Indian masses. Their sustenance base from the forests included cane and bamboo which they wove into beautiful baskets etc, mangoes, tamarind, jackfruit, mahua and edible berries.

All these have been virtually destroyed by the switch to commercial forestry and even the harvesting of tendu leaves for bidi makers has not been sufficient to save most erstwhile forest dwellers from financial doom.

What was sought to be put into place were fast growing eucalyptus forests, which yield sturdy timber. What was rarely taken into account in that early World Bank social forestry experiment was the fact that eucalyptus guzzled so much water from so deep down that it emptied wells miles away from the actual plantation? While the rich kulak who put down wells to irrigate his 'forest' and held on long enough to reap the timber harvest could laugh all the way to the bank, his neighbors bore him deep grievances for empting their wells. It was only later that the kulak would realize that the sale of timber would hardly recompense for the ruination of his land, until after a complicated rejuvenation process.

Eucalyptus agri-forestry spelt doom in many swathes of land in Karnataka, Gujarat, Haryana and Punjab before it was abandoned. Gujarat today still shows off small stands of eucalyptus on the borders of its highways where they were planted under the social forestry project, but farmers, by and large, have grown wary of the plant.

If India survived eucalyptus, Africa and Brazil are still fighting. In Africa, sustenance agriculture and the clearing of the forests has been replaced by export oriented cash crops, sugar and cotton with their demands for water, pesticides and fertilizers has ruined the traditional farmlands bought over by multinationals for their plantations; the displaced had turned to the highlands where poor topsoil meant quick ruination of humans and environment.

Everywhere, the story remains the same: the indigenous forest dweller and his marginal farmer neighbor, the aam aadmi has no place in the story of globalization of agriculture, agro forestry, cash crop oriented or otherwise.


More by :  Kusum Choppra

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