A few months ago, the Indian government erected metal gates to encircle 100 hectares of forest in Pidikia, a village in the east Indian state of Odisha. Soon after, armed guards appeared to periodically patrol the perimeter. The community was left, suddenly, without access to their traditional way of life.
In India's heartland, indigenous people rely on forests for sustenance and survival, and have protected these ecosystems for centuries. But a new government policy mandates new trees to be planted when forests are cleared elsewhere in the country for development projects. Planting trees might sound like innocuous and progressive environmental restoration, but these plantations are usurping communities' lands, and further alienating many of India's 150 million forest dwelling people.
As I walked with the villagers in Pidikia they identified the bones of dead animals in front of the metal fence. "Our cattle do not have land to graze on and we are facing a scarcity of fodder to feed them. 25 livestock have died since the fencing of our forests," says Digamber Pradhan, a resident of the village.
By threatening natural forests and local livelihoods, compensatory afforestation, as this tree planting plan is called, risks reducing complex environmental landscapes to simplistic financial calculations. It places a generic monetary value on forests, without considering the social, economic, and environmental services that different forests provide.
Last July, the Indian parliament passed the Compensatory Afforestation Fund (CAF) Act, which will channel $7 billion to state forest departments for further afforestation. The law has been fiercely opposed by community groups and activists who see it as an attempt to entrench the authority of the forest department over local communities, while undermining India's emancipatory yet largely unimplemented Forest Rights Act (FRA).
The FRA acknowledges the "historical injustices" perpetuated against indigenous and other traditional forest communities in the creation and exploitation of India's forests under colonial and post-colonial rule. It recognizes the individual and collective property rights of forest dwellers to protect, manage, and conserve their forestlands. It also vests decision-making authority with the village council, meaning decisions regarding land use, including plantation, must be approved by the community.
Yet in Pidikia, community members emphatically state they never provided consent for plantation, despite receiving land titles through the FRA for the forest inside the fence.
With virtually no empty land in the country, these tree plantations are steadily becoming intensified sites of conflict as communities' traditional lands are targeted. And with the central government set to let loose a staggering amount of funds dedicated to compensatory afforestation, tensions are likely to escalate.
Women—who often collect valuable forest produce—have been particularly affected by the curtailment. "Before we used to harvest [food, medicinal plants, and seeds] from close by. Now we must go far and are unable to sell at the weekly market," says Malasena Pradhan, Pidkia resident. In total, Pidikia residents estimate a 60 percent reduction in income since the area was fenced off last year.
A two hour-drive west of the village are the traditional lands of the indigenous tribal group, the Kutia Kondhs. Residents here similarly describe how widespread plantation of commercial tree species— largely teak—has brought them into direct confrontation with authorities. Yet the forest department insists that while plantation occurs on community lands, it is done at the behest of residents.
"When it comes to plantation, there are absolutely no problems for communities. Plantation only happens where there is consent [from communities]," said Jitendra Kumar, Chief Conservator of Forests at the Odisha State Forest Department.
However, Kutia Kondhs told me the threat of arrest is routinely used to intimidate. In the village of Desughati, a postcard left by police is passed around listing the names of residents with criminal cases filed against them for accessing forests where plantation has been undertaken.
In 2016, Kutia Kondh communities submitted a petition to the National Human Rights Commission detailing how plantations were conducted on land formally titled or claimed through the FRA, thus violating their rights.
Critics say that instead of mitigating environmental damage, tree plantations aimed at compensating deforestation make matters worse. India's green irony lies in the fact that the program put in place to regenerate forests is targeting those communities that have historically protected and depended on forests, yet lack legal land rights for these very lands.
At the same time, the land utilized for plantation often already contains dense forests. Global evidence only reinforces the reality that local communities are the best protectors of forests.
A recent report from a neighboring district in Odisha found that natural forests were being cleared for plantation to meet targets for compensatory afforestation. The report warned that the CAF Act "will lead to ecologically counter-productive outcomes as perverse incentives are created for the bureaucracy to spend money on afforestation, by cutting natural forests or creating ghost plantations."
In Desughati, the depletion of forests has reduced viable trees and available millets, impacting food security. Previously villagers used to grow up to 70 different types of millets, but now say more than half of these species have been lost.
"We are worried because earlier we were self-sufficient. Now due to the loss of so many species we are being forced to become dependent on the market," says resident Rabindra Jani. "They have taken away all useful trees and planted teak which drains the water table and doesn't let smaller trees survive. How can they grow the forest this way? If we were supported we would plant trees that have value for our children."
With the rules that will operationalize compensatory afforestation spending set to be finalized this year, community advocates are suggesting that laws, such as the FRA, which recognize community land rights be implemented and funds for plantation be directly provided to forest communities. If villages are economically empowered, regeneration of forested landscapes can be led from the grassroots without causing upheaval.