Why we are seeing red over India’s National REDD+ Strategy
India is a surprisingly recent entrant into the REDD+ arena. Surprising because almost all the forest land is state controlled and it would have been easy for a centralised forest administration to have formulated a REDD+ programme early on. However, the first steps towards a REDD+ were initiated by a USAID programme called Forest Plus in collaboration with the Indian government aimed at strengthening REDD+ implementation in India. REDD+ is being crafted as one of a number of instruments employed under the National Action Plan for Climate Change (NAPCC) to offset carbon emissions. To guide the implementation of REDD+ in India, the Ministry of Environment and Forest and Climate Change released in August 2018 the National REDD+ Strategy (Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change , 2018); henceforth referred to as REDD+ Strategy.
We report here our initial analysis of the REDD+ Strategy, to identify who benefits and who loses from the programme and what the social and environmental costs might be. Our ongoing work on carbon forestry in India poses a series of critical questions: how does the dominant narrative of the drivers of forest degradation influence REDD+ implementation? What are local responses to the implementation of the programme? How are state and non-state actors assembled to design and implement carbon forestry projects? We raise these questions in the context of the growing discontent with REDD+ particularly its funding, implementation, and in delivering stated outcomes across the globe (Fletcher et al., 2016). We argue here that REDD+ centralises state control of the forest and is, therefore, an important political tool to make forests legible and investable even though actual financial flows are small.
A problematic conception of drivers of deforestation and degradation of forest
Forest policy in India has always been premised on the local user as the main threat to forests. The British identified fire, grazing and cultivation as the main drivers of forest loss and this continues to dictate forest administration today. The REDD+ Strategy identifies two types of drivers of forest degradation: Planned and Unplanned. The ‘planned drivers’ include developmental activities (dams, road, cities and town expansion including biomass removals from the forest as silviculture requirements) carried out by the State. ‘Unplanned drivers’ on the other hand are collection of fodder and fuelwood by the local households, small timber and non-timber based forest products (NTFP), illegal logging and uncontrolled felling; agriculture and housing; unregulated livestock grazing and fodder collection. With such a classification of drivers it is nobody’s guess who will lose when REDD+ programmes identify what practices will need to be avoided. While the REDD+ Strategy identifies the need to manage ‘unplanned drivers, and activities’ the Strategy is silent on managing the more environmentally damaging ‘planned activities’ consisting mostly of development and infrastructural activities implemented by the State. This is a problematic assumption for two reasons that leads to strong biases against local users.
First, the use of the binary ‘planned and unplanned’ is highly problematic identifying the practices of local people as unplanned (meaning random and not reasonable), while that of the State as planned (reasonable and particular). There is enough evidence that development projects are socially and environmentally disastrous and therefore labelling developmental activities as ‘rational planned actions’ is like sanctioning the destruction of the environment carried out by the State in the name of development. Second, by explicitly identifying local people and their practices as the main drivers of forest degradation and the target of attention under REDD+ the Strategy misses a significant opportunity of building shared platforms with local people.
A dogma of Community participation and Joint Forest Management (JFM)
‘Community participation’ appears as a crucial factor in the implementation of the programme. The REDD+ Strategy claims that a large number of JFM groups across the villages are effectively functioning and efficiently managing the forest.
We need to understand that the emphasis on the role of communities in the effective management of forest is not new. The idea of ‘community’ as a homogenous entity has been a cornerstone of most of the forest conservation and regeneration programmes across the regions including programmes such as social forestry and eco-development. The JFM approach was floated in 1990s and involved the formation of Village Forest Committees (VFC) consisting of a group of villagers selected by the forest department looking after the local forest. The JFM, consisting of members chosen and not elected, functioning under the supervision of a forest officer, makes it an extended arm of the forest department as well as a den of local elites completely marginalising the voice of the poor and marginalised people in the village (Lele, 2014).
Despite the intense criticism of JFM by scholars and activists, the state continues to promote the village forest committees as the preferred institutional arrangement under all their programmes, including as they do in the REDD+ strategy. This undermines decentralisation and devolution of forest governance. Rather than the VFC, the state should be devolving authority to the Gram Sabha, which is a legally sanctioned and democratically inclusive local body consisting of all villagers. The two progressive legislations enacted to grant rights to forest dwellers and Adivasi namely the Forest Rights Act of 2006 (FRA) and the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas Act -1996 (PESA) recognise Gram Sabhas as the main institution to exercise the rights of the people over the forest and forest land. The identification of VFCs as the village institution violates several provisions of FRA and PESA. REDD+ resurrects the JFM approach and breathes fresh life into a centralised system of forest management.
Carbon enhancement and degraded forest
The REDD+ Strategy reflects the growing global concern for increasing carbon stock in forests. It defines ‘enhancement of the carbon stocks’ as “conversion of non-forest or degraded forest to forest through afforestation, reforestation, restoration forestry and forest management practices leading to enhancement of carbon stocks” (REDD+ Strategy p.20). The critical question left unanswered is who decides what a forest is and what constitutes a degraded forest. In the past, there have been instances of forest land that were used by local people, which were converted to plantations or diverted to development projects by the state by labelling it as ‘degraded forest land’ (Gadgil and Prasad, 1978; Chandrashekhar et al., 1987).
Feasibility of Carbon Markets as Dependable Income Source
The REDD+ Strategy indicates that funds will be sought from multiple platforms consisting of bilateral sources, private corporations, and the green climate fund (GCF). However, the funding scenario for REDD+ does not appear to be very positive. Even though GCF is seeking annual funding of US$ 100 billion, the actual amount that has been received since establishment in 2010 has been US$ 6.9 billion. This is an enormous gap in funding and says a lot about the lack of commitment of the developed economies and international organisations towards REDD+ (Sunderlin et al. 2015). Secondly, the global carbon credit market has not turned out to be a profitable venture and some have argued that REDD might be dead (Fletcher et al., 2016). In light of unpredictable funding and a volatile carbon market, the important question is what purpose does REDD+ serve if all indications are that it will fail? We believe that REDD+ helps the state to centralise control of the forest. The institutional arrangements and technologies associated with monitoring of forest carbon and biomass makes the forest legible and investable and helps the state wrest control of the forest from local actors.
In all, India REDD+ National Strategy (2018) raises a raft of concerns regarding the role of people, the actual drivers of deforestation, the reliability of the carbon market and the State’s willingness to recognise and safeguard the rights of people. The REDD+ Strategy as presented is not a path-breaking document, but merely a continuation of earlier policies and programmes. The REDD+ Strategy helps to keep alive the interest of the State at a time of increasing calls for the devolution of state powers over forest land. The Strategy demonstrates the coercive nature of the Indian state which, in its drive to meet carbon sequestration targets is adversely affecting people’s well-being and thereby the sustainability of the forest. The implementation of REDD+ and incentivising the avoidance of forest use reinforces the historical injustice to the forest dependent people of India.
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