The livelihoods of Indians dependent on forests for survival are being threatened as the government considers the approval of the construction of plant and steel mills by large corporations. In efforts to create balance between forest preservation and resource extraction however, it has also introduced the Green India Mission, which seeks to “improve five million hectares of existing forest and plant five million new hectares of over the next ten years.” Grant Milne, author of a World Bank report on forest-dependent people in India, explains that local communities could realize more gains from resource extraction if they were more involved in managing the forests and had better linkages with the market for forest resources. “In India, forest is a major source of livelihoods. One hundred million people directly depend on it, while another 250 million [depend on it] indirectly.”

Richard Mahapatra is a senior editor for the Indian Center for Science and Environment. The center has been active in the fight over two industrial development projects that would clear forest land in Orissa. He says the Indian government believes in economic growth, but that growth can also come through ecological preservation.

“Ecology is a big economy for the poor here,” Mahapatra says. “In India, forests are government property and the forest department controls it. Unjust forest management solely leads to poverty.”

Fights over Orissa’s forest land

The green Nyamgiri hills of Orissa were the backdrop for a historic environmental victory in 2010. The small tribal community of Dongria Kondh convinced the Indian government to refuse an open-pit mining project in the area.

Three hundred kilometers to the east, another fight over forest land is underway. Last month, South Korean steel giant POSCO got government approval for a nine billion euro mining and steel plant project. The local community is still protesting the decision.

Both projects could bring economic development to the eastern state of Orissa. Both would mean clearing hundreds of hectares of forest land for industrial use, which is specifically banned under India’s Forest Conservation Act.

The forests that would be cleared by POSCO and Vedanta are very different. Nyamgiri’s forest is dense and relatively undisturbed. In Jagatsinghpur, though listed as forest, the land is predominantly scrubby or barren.

“In the case of Vedanta and POSCO, it’s not the quality, but the severity of [people’s] dependence on it that matters,” Mahapatra says.

The Dongria Kondh forage and farm in the Nyamgiri forests. As a so-called “primitive” tribal group, they are specially protected under the constitution and the Forest Rights Act. Primarily on these grounds, the Dongria and their civil society partners successfully stalled the project.

The majority of the residents around the POSCO sight are fishing or farming families who depend on the land for at least a portion of their livelihood. There are debates about whether “traditional forest dwellers” also depend on the POSCO site land. If so, the government must give them similar protections to tribal groups.

Forest preservation as livelihood preservation

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Environment and Forests is preparing to unveil a new forest plan, the Green India Mission. It aims to improve five million hectares of existing forest and plant five million new hectares of over the next ten years.

“Reforestation and conservation are different; they should be undertaken together,” says Grant Milne. He authored a 2006 World Bank report on forest-dependant people in India. Milne says the new mission could be good news for forests and the communities that rely on them.

In the past, Indian law erred on the side of forest preservation. Milne says there is great economic potential in balancing preservation with resource extraction. He says local people need to be more involved in forest management, and they need better systems for marketing wood and other forest products.

“Forest communities are among the poorest in the country,” he says. “These communities do protect the forests. They could get so much out of it if they were properly empowered.”

Benefits from forests, old and new

“India’s tribals are chronically poor, despite 60 years of targeted development programmes,” says Richard Mahapatra. “This is because we have never ensured their rights to their livelihood sources, the forests.”

Forests cover approximately 24 percent of India, according to the government’s 2009 forest survey. The forest cover has grown steadily in recent years, thanks in part to previous government reforestry projects. Much of that new tree cover has come from monoculture tree plantations; more forests does not necessarily mean healthy natural forests.

“While we’re planting trees for economic development, we need to watch how other forests are doing,” says Sanjay Upadhyay, an environmental lawyer in Delhi.  He says that protecting existing forests is different than creating tree plantations, and conservation and reforestation programs should be synchronized.

“We also have to make sure that ministries’ mandates are synchronized for conservation, economic development and protecting people’s rights,” he says.

According to Upadhyay, the Forest Rights Act that helped the Dongria Kondh push for denial of the Vedanta proposal is the first statute to synergize community rights and environmental concerns. He says more of the country’s laws should be synchronized to ensure that economic development and environmental protection go hand in hand.