Greenwashing: On amendments and the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023

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    Greenwashing: On amendments and the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023

    Syllabus: GS2/ Government Policies & Interventions; GS3/Conservation

    In Context

    • The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023 introduced by the Government, signals the complex challenges involved in balancing industrial development and the conservation of forests.  

    What Is Greenwashing?

    • Greenwashing is the process of conveying a false impression or misleading information about how a company’s products are environmentally sound. 
    • Greenwashing involves making an unsubstantiated claim to deceive consumers into believing that a company’s products are environmentally friendly or have a greater positive environmental impact than they actually do.

    State of India’s forest cover

    • India’s forest cover has seen only marginal increases, as biennial reports of the Forest Survey of India illustrate. 
    • Growth in forest cover inside officially recorded forests is stagnant, or at best incremental. 
    • It is tree cover in orchards, plantations and village homesteads that has been on the rise and supplementing India’s claim that 24% of its area is under forest and tree cover. 
    • India has committed to increasing this number to 33% and adding a carbon sink of 2.5 billion to 3 billion tons of carbon dioxide this way, by 2030, as part of its international climate commitments.

    Legislations for the Forests in India

    • Apex Court’s suspension order, 1996:
      • In 1996, the Supreme Court suspended the felling of trees across the country, and ruled that the FC Act would apply to all land parcels that were either recorded as ‘forest’ or resembled the dictionary meaning of forest.
        • This sweeping order helped check rampant deforestation on land not recorded as ‘forest’. 
        • But the order also came in the way of excluding from recorded forests vast areas that were already in use for agriculture or as homesteads.
    • Need for new legislations:
      • The existing Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 — in the Environment Ministry’s reckoning — was insufficient for these ends, as it did not incentivise private agro-forestry and tree plantation activities
        • From 2019 to 2021, India added 1,540 square kilometres of forest cover of which 1,509 sq. km was outside recorded forest area. 
      • The new amendments to the Forest Act gave such incentives by clearly defining the limits of the 1996 judgment.

    The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023

    • Restrictions on activities in forest: 
      • The Act restricts the de-reservation of forest or use of forest land for non-forest purposes
      • Such restrictions may be lifted with the prior approval of the central government.  
        • Non-forest purposes include use of land for cultivating horticultural crops or for any purpose other than reafforestation.  
    • Assigning of land through a lease or otherwise: 
      • Under the Act, state government or any authority requires prior approval of the central government to direct the assigning of forest land through a lease or otherwise to any organisation (such as private person, agency, authority, corporation) not owned by the government.
    • Building forest carbon stock & improving livelihood:
      • The predominant idea of the proposed changes is to build forest carbon stock by raising plantations
        • The Bill talks about keeping up with “dynamic changes in the ecological, strategic and economic aspirations of the country” and “improvement of livelihoods for forest-dependent communities.” 
        • The scope of the amendments boils down to pushing plantations to achieve carbon neutrality by limiting the scope of the Act.
    • Compensatory afforestation:
      • The Bill also seeks to make land available for developers to meet their legal obligation towards compensatory afforestation in lieu of forest land diverted for development projects.
      • How?
        • If the scope of the FC Act is restricted, fewer projects will be required to obtain forest clearance, which is considered a ‘hurdle’ by most developers in and outside the government. 
        • But it will also help developers secure forest clearance when they need it.
        • A key condition for forest clearance is that a developer must carry out compensatory afforestation on equivalent non-forest land or, if non-forest land is not available, on degraded forest land twice the extent of the forest area diverted. 

    Why the amendments are a Greenwash? (Issues & criticisms)

    • No contribution to “regeneration’ of Natural forests:
      • The amendments effectively mean States can no longer classify unclassified forest land, or patches of trees with forest-like characteristics as ‘forest land’. 
      • The amendments also allow forest land, up to 100 km near India’s borders, to be appropriated, without central approval, for “strategic and security” purposes
      • The primary criticism is that these amendments do not really contribute to regenerating natural forest, but rather incentivise afforestation for commercial ends.
    • Issues of carbon stock:
      • Grooming private forests might look good in theory but expecting them to be a permanent carbon stock is wishful thinking given that strong market incentives exist to use them as ‘carbon credits’. 
    • No specific conditions for denying:
      • There are no specific conditions laid by the environment ministry for outrightly denying permission for deforestation for development projects.
    • Affecting indigenous communities:
      • Any review of the FC Act is an opportunity to make suitable concessions for land that has traditionally been under the control of indigenous and forest communities. 
        • Even after the enactment of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, the scope for their consent has eroded incrementally when it came to the diversion of forest land for development projects
      • Now, they may have no say on the extensive plantations that are envisaged on land on which they depend as communities.
    • Choosing plantation over forests:
      • Forests are a lot more than a sum of trees. Unlike man-made plantations, natural forests perform a range of ecosystem services that are key to the survival and well-being of the millions of species that they support, and also provide direct livelihood and subsistence to crores of people.

    Way ahead

    • While new climate realities might necessitate changes to the way conservation laws are interpreted, these must be backed by rigorous scientific evidence.
    • The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report also stated that not degrading existing ecosystems in the first place will do more to lower the impact of the climate crisis than restoring ecosystems that have been destroyed.

     

    Daily Mains Question

    [Q] What is the significance of introduction of the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023? Why is it difficult to balance industrial development and the conservation of forests?