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  • Can this save the forests?

    The Revised Forest Strategy for the World Bank Group, which was released recently, aims to contribute to forest protection, sustainable economic development and poverty alleviation. `Does it have what it takes to succeed,' asks PANKAJ SEKHSARIA, looking at some of the key issues that have implications in the Indian context.

    THE "Revised Forest Strategy of the World Bank Group" that was approved by its board of executive directors on October 31, 2002 makes some very significant admissions the first one on page two itself: "There is a close link between the livelihoods of the poor and forests, and `(it is a) largely false notion that the poor are the cause of deforestation in developing countries'."

    "The reality", it says on page 15, "is that the flow of funds into forests from donors and multilateral lenders into forests, for management and protection purposes, will continue to be dwarfed by investment in activities that may have damaging impacts upon forests". And on page 35: "The Bank must have an appreciation of how its action and investments in other sectors, or at the macroeconomic level, will impact on forests and forest peoples".

    At present, in the bank, the level of integration of major forest concerns in the design of larger adjustment and cross sectoral activities is relatively low. For many who have been working on issues of forests and forest peoples in the country, these admissions by the World Bank are likely to be a pleasant surprise. For long it has been argued, largely in vain though, that the responsibility for forest destruction and environmental degradation cannot be placed primarily at the door of the poor. It has also been pointed out that the new economics of the last decade or so in this country have not only further marginalised those on the margins, but also severely undermined the natural resource and survival base comprising forests, rivers, wetlands and coasts.

    Is it then that the bank, the key institution aggressively driving this process forward, actually changed track? What happened? What has prompted this change?

    The answer lies in a basic contradiction. The more things change, the more they are the same this is the fundamental message that comes across from the strategy, in ways that seem rather incongruous. The South Asia section of the document, for example, says, "The South Asian strategy also seeks the reorientation of public sector institutions in the agriculture, water, forestry, energy, health, education, finance and infrastructure sectors to achieve more effective delivery of services to the poor". If past policies have indeed impacted forests, which adversely impacts the poor, why prescribe the same route? Why link the forest strategy so explicitly with the goals of the free market and large scale policy reform, when, it is now accepted that these have negatively impacted forests? The agenda of free market liberalisation comes out loud and clear, albeit attempting a back-door entry here. This forest strategy plays itself out in many parts, but a central message that comes across is that money is the key to saving the forests of the world. Involvement of the private sector finds important mention as do other prominent partners of the World Bank group: the International Finance Corporation (IFC), that operates principally through support of the private sector and the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA), that provides guarantees against certain non-commercial (primarily political) risks to foreign investors or qualified investments in developing countries.

    The developments of markets and investments related to carbon and biodiversity are also other important measures that the strategy suggests.

    It also links up with respective National Forestry Action Plans (NFAPs). India's NFAP, which was prepared in 1999 by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), has projected that we need Rs. 1,34,000 crores to protect our forests. Where the money will come from is anybody's guess, but the serious question being asked is: Is a "money centric approach" the right one at all?

    In the decade of the 1990s alone, India borrowed nearly $350 million from the bank for Phase I of the Forestry Projects in Maharashtra, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh (A.P.), Madhya Pradesh (M.P.), Uttar Pradesh (U.P.) and Kerala. Has this actually helped in protecting and regenerating forests? Has livelihood security of forest-dependent people been ensured? Have the poor benefitted? Even the most optimistic of independent observers is unlikely to answer these in a hurry. In M.P. and A.P., in particular, there have been wide-scale concern and allegations that Phase I activities were not transparent, they alienated tribals from the forests, led to inter and intra-village conflicts and actually helped strengthen existing inequities and power structures that lie at the root of forest management and conservation issues. There is an urgent need to critically and comprehensively look at what actually happened within these projects.

    Meanwhile, Phase II of the Forestry Projects in A.P. and M.P., with outlays of $108 million (nearly Rs. 500 crores) each has been approved and the first instalment for A.P. has already been released. That brings us to the issue of poverty alleviation, which according to the bank, lies at the very heart of its revised forest strategy. There are fundamental contradictions here as well. At one place the document appears to accept the more recent definitions of poverty as something that amounts to a lack of assets (physical, financial, human and social) that are needed to generate an adequate and sustainable livelihood. But recurrently it is the "pop and shock" definition of poverty that finds usage "poverty remains a global problem of gigantic proportions. Of the world's six billion people, 2.8 billion, or almost half, live on less than $2 a day. Of them 1.2 billion live on less than $1 a day." Nothing nuanced here.

    No discussion on larger implication of what poverty is, what the real causes could be and what will have to be the long term solutions.

    What cries out for attention in this context is the section in the executive summary titled "Harnessing the potential of forests to reduce poverty". This strategy, it is explained here, "entails much more than increasing the average income of rural poor". It envisions improving the quality of rural life. The underlying concept (emphasis added) for this strategy is a developing world in which: Rural residents enjoy a standard of living and a quality of life that is not significantly below that available to urban residents; Rural communities offer equitable economic oppurtunities for all their residents regardless of income, status or gender; Rural communities become vibrant, sustainable and attractive places to live and work in; Rural areas contribute to national development and the overall economy and are dynamically linked to urban areas; Rural areas adapt to ongoing economic, social, cultural and technological change.

    It is an articulation that is shockingly out of touch with the world that we live in. Nothing could be further from the truth, particularly in a country like India which is more than 70 per cent rural and largely agricultural. There is no disputing that there is great poverty and deprivation in parts of rural India, that there is a great deal of inequity and exploitation and that a lot needs to be corrected there. There is also no denying that today's rural India is in a flux and that aspirations, values and existing systems are changing fast.

    But urban India today? It's collapsing under its own weight. Air and water pollution is rampant, the slums are sprawling, basic amenities like drinking water and sanitation are woefully inadequate, unemployment is high and so is the crime rate. Is this the good standard of living and quality of life that the WB wants for rural residents? And what does it mean to dynamically link rural areas to urban India? There clearly is no justification for the sweeping nature of the statements and inferences made in the bank's strategy because large parts of the rural world are even today extremely well endowed, rich and powerful.

    There are areas full of vigour and vitality, where communities have lived and continue to live in peace, happiness and in reasonable harmony with their environments. Thriving economies survive here, which, in a country like India actually drive national development. Here are some macro economic figures if proof is needed.

    According to the 1998 figures of the Planning Commission of India, while 37 per cent of the population was designated as poor in the rural areas, in urban areas it was only marginally lower at 32 per cent. The 1991 census says that 80 per cent of the 306 million strong labour force of the country was rural, with nearly 65 per cent being dependent on agriculture. In 1998-99, agriculture contributed about 30 per cent to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the country and in the same period, the Khadi and Village Industries alone notched up sales worth Rs. 5,600 crores, employing 58 lakh people and providing wages and earnings worth Rs. 1,800 crores.

    Rural India is far from being the dead world that the bank would have us believe.

    So what does one make of this revised strategy of the bank? For one, it puts a huge question mark on the credentials of the bank itself. The confusions are obvious, contradictions are stark and the underlying concept so flawed, that it's difficult to believe it's even been articulated. If the foundation itself is so shaky, one can only shudder to think of the edifice that it will support.

    Can this strategy then really contribute to saving forests and helping the poor? Answers can surely be attempted, but the moot question is, will anybody be listening?

    Pankaj Sekhsaria is a member of environmental action group, Kalpavriksh.


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