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For every dollar that goes into tree plantation programmes, at least half is wasted, according to an analysis of tree planting data in India’s Himachal Pradesh. The study sheds light on the trend of planting the wrong trees in the wrong places. Researchers say that for India to achieve climate goals through forest restoration, “substantial changes” in the design and implementation of forest restoration programmes are needed.

“Many of the tree plantings we studied in this paper in Himachal are poorly designed for meeting India’s climate mitigation goals. Our analysis also indicates that in Himachal, the forest department is not able to locate favourable sites for tree planting,” US-based study co-author Forrest Fleischman, Department of Forest Resources, University of Minnesota, told Mongabay-India.

“While there may be a number of reasons for this, one important reason may simply be that land that is not currently forested is often not suitable for the kinds of forest restoration envisioned when large-scale tree planting programmes are designed. Put in other words, there may not be space in Himachal for all the trees that the government wants to plant there,” adds Fleischman.

The projections are based on a machine learning model that factors in location data and detailed budgetary records of 2024 plantations for 2016–2019 in the Himalayan state. The projections also estimate that in the next 10 years, Himachal in a business-as-usual scenario, will spend $100 million (approximately Rs. 75 crores) on trees that are unlikely to survive, said Fleischman.

A closer look by study co-authors reveals the gaps in afforestation programmes that need to be plugged in India to make them cost-effective and sustainable: sites that are not suited to growing more trees, lack of engagement with forest-dependent communities, and a programme design that isn’t amenable to local biophysical (living and non-living components in the surroundings) and social contexts.

“On the ground, you find several such examples of wasteful expenditures and ghost plantations. There are several documented instances of wasteful expenditures and low survival rates of plantations in compensatory afforestation, including the 2013 report by the Indian government’s Comptroller and Auditor General which strongly said plantations do not survive in unsuitable sites (example: teak plantations in Chhattisgarh’s Hardi),” explained forests rights activist and researcher Tushar Dash, who was not associated with the Himachal Pradesh study.

The CAG report also mentions “substandard plantations” in Bihar’s Jamui division, where the survival rate of the plantation was 50% compared to the desired 80% rate in the first year, which was mainly attributed to insurgency-related challenges and bushes covering the new plants in the site, leading to a futile exercise carried out at an expense of Rs. 2.3 million.

An assessment of carbon claims of two forest carbon projects in Himachal (financially supported by the World Bank) and Haryana (jointly funded by the European Union and the state forest department) by Ashish Aggarwal, an associate professor of business sustainability at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), finds that both projects had sequestered only 37% (Haryana) and 3% (Himachal) of the estimated amounts of carbon. Only the Himachal project could earn 38% of the projected credits.

Costs related to the projects were very high as well, indicating that forest carbon projects give mixed results and a nuanced understanding is needed as opposed to the ‘big and cheap’ narrative. Poor survival and growth of plantations contribute to the mixed results. “There are many reasons for poor survival and growth such as wrong selection of land parcels (using community pastures for plantations) and species (pine being the species of choice which local people don’t like as it does not let grass grow), lack of community participation, poor management etc.,” Aggarwal told Mongabay-India.

“Forest carbon projects in their current form are not socially and economically viable as these have high transaction costs and adversely impact the livelihood of local people. These need to be reconsidered and redesigned,” Aggarwal added.

Gaddi community people with their sheep herd in Kasauli, Himachal Pradesh. Some experts opine that forest carbon projects in their current form are not socially and economically viable as these adversely impact local livelihoods. Photo by Harvinder Chandigarh/Wikimedia Commons.

Where does the money go?

In Himachal’s case, as the study points out, currently nearly 40% of afforestation spending ($2.6 million) of the total $5.67 million of tree plantation budget, was going to places that already had moderate or high tree density, such as Chargati. “This would have made sense if the goal was to enhance biodiversity and you would need more tree species but most of the plantations had trees of a few species,” said study co-author and a serving Indian Forest Service officer Pushpendra Rana.

About 48% of spending to plant trees ($2.7 million), focused on non-forest unproductive areas such as Killar on the gorge of the Chenab river. “In the Himalayan context, these areas are snow mountains and desert areas where the environmental conditions act as natural barriers to growing trees,” said Rana.

Another chunk of the tree plantation budget (33% or $1.86 million) was dedicated to forests with extensive southern exposure, such as in Behnota, where dryness is likely to limit growth. “These areas receive direct sun through most of the year and these areas are dry. The shadow area in contrast has moisture for trees to grow,” he adds.

As much as 28.9% of spending ($1.64 million) was directed at undemarcated forests where land tenure is particularly contested. Contested land tenure is likely to lead to conflicts with local communities that may lead to tree cover loss.  “It is not clear if there is community buy-in, by contrast, only about 1% of spending went to established community-managed forests.” In contrast, only 14.1% of spending is likely to yield results because these were in areas of low-density forest (density between 10 and 40%), which are likely to be degraded forests having high reforestation potential.

India’s Nationally Determined Contribution to the Paris Agreement targets creating an additional carbon sink of 2.5-3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent by boosting forest and tree cover. India aims to bring 33% of its geographical area under forest cover by 2030 to fulfill its international commitments.

However, there is skepticism about the pathways to the targets. For example, a recent study said that climate mitigation, by creating additional carbon sinks through forest restoration and agroforestry, would meet less than a quarter of India’s Paris Agreement 2015 goals in the land-use, land-use change and forestry category (LULUCF).

“The target which is the sole claim now for climate mitigation is not based on science. The so-called nature-based solutions which inform the NDCs and on the basis of which India has made commitments at the Glasgow conference and even the Paris Agreement, have no scientific basis. And the massive plantations that are going on now are leading to wasteful spending and introducing socio-economic and rights-related conflicts in tribal and forest dwellers,” Dash explained, citing his research with colleagues which proposes a Forests Rights Act-based climate action plan with the recognition of rights of forest-dwelling communities and community-led governance as an integral part of action plans and strategies to address climate change.

Noting the Indian government’s increased reliance on the LULUCF category for climate mitigation (15% of overall mitigation action), Dash pointed out that this indicates that the government doesn’t want to mitigate in the coal and other mining sectors but it is trying to shift the entire climate mitigation model to land and forest sector using the approach of tree plantations which is flawed and this model creates problems for the indigenous and forest-based communities.

IFS officer Mohan Chandra Pargaien, who was not associated with the studies, told Mongabay-India that though all tree planting programmes help to meet the challenges of carbon sequestration and climate change, any massive programme needs careful analysis of local ecological and social aspects and formulation of suitable strategies accordingly for its successful implementation.

“In case any programme is lacking in these essential prerequisites we need to take corrective actions duly incorporating desired interventions,” Pargaien said.

A pine forest in Darjeeling. Selection of unsuitable land parcels and species such as pine that local communities people don’t prefer as it does not let grasses grow, leads to poor community involvement and survival of trees in afforestation programmes. Photo by Yoghya/Wikimedia Commons.

Verifying afforestation potential

Asked about a checklist on tree plantations that forest managers could use to verify afforestation potential, Fleischman says, if a plot of land is not currently forested, or if the forest quality is poor or inappropriate, the first thing the forest manager needs to ask is what is the reason why there is no forest here.

“Once the reason for the lack of forest is identified, the second question to ask is whether this condition leading to a site not being a forest can be addressed without causing undue harm. Some sites lack forests because they are ecologically inappropriate (for example, natural grasslands) and should not be planted. Other sites lack forests because people are using the land as farmland or grazing land, or simply harvesting wood products intensively,” he observed.

On these sites, it is likely necessary to first understand how these demands for land use can be decreased (for example, by providing alternative grazing land) in order to ensure that the site can be reforested.

“Once the social and ecological drivers of a lack of forest are understood, we need to ask what the goal or desired future condition of the site is. Is there a desire to produce commercial or subsistence-oriented forest products or restore natural vegetation? Is the objective to improve hydrologic functions or provide wildlife habitat?”

Once the goal is identified, forest managers should identify the lowest cost way to achieve this goal.

Some sites lack forests because they are ecologically inappropriate (for example, natural grasslands) and should not be planted, state experts. Photo by Raj Palgun/Wikimedia Commons.

“Oftentimes tree planting will be necessary, for example, if a specific species of tree is needed, or if seeds aren’t present in the area. However, just as often it may turn out that local seeds are present on the site, and what is needed to achieve the goal is not tree planting but protecting those seedlings from grazing or fire through fencing or other means of protection. Since tree planting is expensive, it should be avoided whenever the expense is not necessary to achieve the desired future,” said Fleischman.

Apart from factors like quality seedlings and selection of planting site, selection of species, time of planting and post-planting care are equally important. In the Indian context having people depend on forests for their various needs and necessities; the active involvement of forest-dependent communities with adequate incentivisation is an additional aspect that helps to ensure the success of a plantation, added Pargaien.

There are robust systems of monitoring tree planting that exist in almost all state forest departments ranging from detailed documentation through plantation journals to locally modified technology-based systems followed by frequent field inspections by various officers. These mechanisms not only provide full data on expenditure but also provide insight into the growth of plantations,” Pargaien said.

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