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#WednesdaysForWater: Land conversion in Buxwaha to 'kill' forest, water system

Buxwaha forest 
By Manisha Sharma, Aryan Singh, Anmol Goyal, Dr Mansee Bal Bhargava* 
Sooner the correlation and co-dependency between forests and water is taken seriously by the decision makers, better it is for us to address climate induced rising water distresses. Forest (and deforestation) impacts the regional and local ecology and microclimate in particular, the water quantity and quality in the local rivers, wetlands and lakes. It is extremely difficult to restore the natural forests and thus, knowledge of forest is crucial to learn about water.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nation, “Approximately 75% of the world’s accessible freshwater for agricultural, domestic, industrial and environmental uses comes from forests and wetlands, with 90 percent of the world's cities relying on forested watersheds for their water supply. The global hydrosheds - major watersheds - have experienced 40 percent tree cover loss, resulting in increased risk to water stress, erosion and forest fires.”
The World Rainforest Day is observed globally on June 22 since 2017 after it was started by a collaboration of groups, called the Rainforest Partnership based in Austin, Texas. The first such day was observed in 2017 by The idea behind the established day is to raise awareness towards the natural resources, protect and regenerate the tropical rainforests, and support the rainforest dependent local economy.
To commemorate the interrelationship of forest and water, the team of Wednesdays for Water organized a webinar on the Wednesday, June 23 on the topic, ‘Forest and Water’. The focus of the session was on the positive nexus between forest and water that we, as local community, must not pretend for Development.
The speakers for the sessions were, Professor Om Prakash from The Indian Institute of Forest Management and Barna Bhaibaba Panda from the ngo Foundation for Ecological Security, Bhubaneshwar. The session was moderated by Dr. Krithi S from Tata Institute of Social Science Hyderabad and the discussant for the session was Soma Sarkar from Tata Institute of Social Sciences Mumbai.

The session started with a small video made up of views of the youth showing concerns on the proposed deforestation at the Buxwaha Forest for diamond mining. Several environmentalists, ngos, other groups and individuals are campaigning to save the Buxwaha forest.
The concerns expressed for the greenfield mining project within the Buxwaha forests in Chhatarpur district in Madhya Pradesh, which will require cutting of over 2 lakh trees for extracting diamond worth billions. The project is said to be spread across an area of 364 hectares in the Buxwaha forests and the mining lease area is part of the roughly 3,000 ha Buxwaha protected forest.
The water requirement is estimated for the diamond project is estimated at about 5.9 million cubic meters per day. To meet this demand, a seasonal nullah is planned to be diverted by constructing a dam with a storage of 17 million cubic metres of water in the reservoir.
Ironically, the Buxwaha block of Chhatarpur district is already declared under a semi-critical category by the Central Ground Water Board with the groundwater decline range of 0.10 to 0.20 m/year. Such projects will not only affect the water resources and biodiversity within the forests but also the livelihoods of millions of people depending upon them.
The fight to save Buxwaha forest has been going on since 2013, since it is suspected that the agencies are hiding the fact that it is not just 2 to 3 lakh but more than 5 lakh trees will be felled due to the mining project. A massive online campaign is also ongoing to save the forests. Compensatory afforestation is a usual reply given to all protesters in such matters but this compensation hardly sees reality.
Dr Krithi opened the conversation with the thought of interlinking of rivers and how they impact the forests. The National River Linking Project claim for generation of thousands of megawatt of power through several dams and hydro-electric projects is likely to reduce the flow in several rivers and their tributaries but may also drastically impact the delta formation, water salinity, flooding vulnerability and so on.
The interlinking project Ken-Betwa, required more than 50% of the forest land, out of which almost 90% was through the Panna National Park’s tiger reserve area. Similarly, when one thousand-megawatt power project through Tehri dam affected the entire Tehri town and more than 100 other neighbouring villages, one can imagine what can be the impact of a national level project at that scale, especially when the country is already facing many inter-state and also international water conflicts arising out of water related distresses.
When the river water meanders through the forests, and cultivated land parcels, it carries large amounts of silt, which is deposited along the way, enhancing the productivity of the surrounding lands, and finally of the coastal waters. This is one of the major reasons behind the rich agriculture in the plains and rich fisheries off the coasts.
The interlinking will impact lots of trees and forests coming its way. The government clearly is promoting more of water supply enhancement rather than popularising, through stringent acts and policies, water conservation and management at smaller watershed areas in a decentralised manner. Flooding in this interlinked river could just wash away the entire reserved area and create havoc.
Prof Omprakash started his talk with concerns about the increasing rate of mining and its impact on forests through deforestation. Forest landscape has high percolation and less soil erosion besides the water availability which directly impact the health of the forest.
The impact of mining on deforestation is humongous because the trees are cut not just for the mine area but for various other ancillary activities like housing, mobility, etc. and also the hydroelectric power generating dams that often provide energy for mining operations.
Further, when the mining ceases, the mining site which should ideally be returned to a condition that most resembles the pre-mining situation of the site are usually left deserted in the absence of stringent mining regulation monitoring. Therefore, the Environmental Impact Assessment for every proposed mining project must include a detailed discussion of the mine Reclamation and Closure Plan offered by the mining proponent.
Water is the most affected resource even long after the mining projects are finished. When certain underground mine surfaces get exposed to oxygen and water certain acids are formed. When this acid drains, toxic constituents percolate deep into the subsoil, leach the groundwater and get carried away for long unimaginable distances through water streams and affect aquatic life as well as humans who consume such contaminated water.
Further, the soil erosion and sedimentation can result in water contamination, increased run-off velocities can cause downstream flooding due to loss of tight topsoil which renders it unable to hold the sub-strata. The imbalance in the pH levels of water makes the vegetation and the habitation nearly impossible. Therefore, the Sediment and Erosion Control Plan should be a fundamental component of a Mine Site Water Management Plan.
Since we know that water is the most vital resource for life on the planet and the water quality, we need forests as they act as natural water filters. Trees are made up of more than 50% water and require water at a steady pace for their growth and health. A healthy 100-foot-tall tree can take up to 11,000 gallons of water from the soil and release it into the air again, as oxygen and water vapor, in a single growing season.
They “drink” in the water using their small, hair-like roots. Water from the soil enters their roots and is carried up the tree’s trunk all the way to the leaves (American Forests). Forest cover is like a huge sponge storing water beneath and naturally filtering out the pollutants through tree’s roots.
Forests are integral to the hydrological cycle as the water stored in forests’ soil gets filtered and used by plants, evaporating when the leaves transpire. This evaporated water adds moisture in the atmosphere, which further gets precipitated back to the earth.
Barna Panda brought in experience from the ground as he has been working with the local communities ranging from arid regions in Rajasthan to North-Eastern regions. He starts with reciting a play by Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Muktadhara’ from the early 1920s which sums up the relationship of forest and development with the invisible powers of the local communities.
'Muktadhara' is a story of a forested stream that the king wanted to dam, but the local communities opposed since it was the only source of irrigation water for them. The story revolves around how the local communities fight for their rights and get the dam demolished.
That India’s forest maps overlap with the maps of minerals and tribal maps for example, the parts of Chhattisgarh, Telangana, MP, AP, Orissa, Jharkhand, etc. Usually around 70-80% of minerals and tribes are found in the forested regions. The Global Forest Watch’s blog also endorses this fact along with several other interesting facts about India’s forests.
Barna shared another story of ‘three uncles’ to exemplify the human-nature connection. A harmony can be witnessed within a forest where from the same stream, a tiger and a deer drink water together. This harmony expresses an innate bond within the society and its interaction with the nature.
It is foolish to even think of destroying our own houses and habitats. If forests are gone, then water is gone, following which the farms are also gone and thus, the livelihoods are gone too. Local communities have their own way of conserving the forests and if the governments/educated do not understand that the least we can do it respect the local wisdom that has sustained the forests for centuries.
Local community centric aka a decentralised system is any day better than a bureaucratic system to conserve the forests. Nature takes its own time to heal, and communities should be organised to deal with the issues. Local communities have their own practices to protect the forests including rising against the developments that requires deforestation.
For example the, ‘Chipko’ movement (called Andolan) in the 1970s, where the rural villagers, particularly women, conducted nonviolent social and ecological movement towards saving trees and protecting the forest in Uttarakhand (then UP). It is important to lay out the path dependency of water, forest, farm, livelihood, and other ecological services that are intergenerational.
The usual planning process involves building an alien image of the water systems through engineering and imposing the colonization and capitalisation approach, whereas a more thoughtful and radical approach that is inclusive/participatory is required in forest and water conservation and management. The land conversion is killing forests, grass and shrublands whereas the forest restoration and conservation are the need of the hour to address the climate induced water distresses. 
Defining a clear land-use policy, integrating indigenous people along with their skills, encouraging mutual exchange between tribals and the outside world can help make the process of change easier for the indigenous folks and ultimately, benefit all who are directly and indirectly impacted.
We need special policies for the forested states to get additional economic packages/ benefits for restoring the forests. US, UK and EU practice providing incentives to local communities for restoring the natural ecosystems. Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom stressed on common forests and dual theory that support sharing of resources and the responsibilities with the users and not the central authorities.
Soma Sarkar chipped in as a discussant by summarising the speakers points and furthered her insight on the web of forest-water-social-ecology, and allied important domains of concern like the inter- generational equity, precipitation, evapo-transpiration, infiltration, etc. She suggests that apart from the macro level approach, indigenous wisdom of traditional water systems should be incorporated at micro levels.
The Acts and policies need orientation towards the social and ecological trade-off, value driven soft methods, riparian rights, sustainable water systems, etc. for a holistic approach. Each state or region has different natural and geographical settings and thus, multiple levels of local and state level government policies are needed.
For example, Arunachal Pradesh possesses more than 80% land under forest cover and states like Chhattisgarh, Telangana, MP, AP, Orissa, Jharkhand, also have substantial forest cover. Ironically, the more forest cover a state has, the economic status of the people is shown poor.
At the closing point, an interesting question was raised as why we do not have more institutional method against deforestation so that it is not imposing but more involved, especially when our country has one of the best forest policies written? Well, this is where we need to bring the democracy into the woods.
All the speakers promoted local level ‘community forest management’ instead of centralized forest management systems where local communities are empowered with ownership and management rights of the forests with equal footing, better knowledge base and involved more in the decision-making processes of the government.
To strengthen the point of inclusive and participation of the indigenous communities respecting multiple knowledge sets is also the need of the hour because a lot of discussions happen across the various tribes and other social groups. There are aplenty of examples where indigenous community knowledge system is used to manage a forest sustainably across the world.
For example, the Village Forest Management is a concept of participatory forest management firmly anchored in national policies, strategies and legal documents of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Further, the traditional Adat Institutions that plays a key role in the management of Grand Forest in Indonesia; the Community Forestry in Nepal has proved that communities are able to protect, manage and utilize forest resource sustainably.
In India, the Van Panchayat is a classic example of an autonomous local institution in Uttarakhand’s Garhwal region that is involved in sustainably managing and protecting forests and its natural resources. The first Van Panchayat was approved by the government in 1921 and now, the state and the communities are jointly managing around 4 lakh hectares of forests.
The Van Panchayats represent one of the largest and most diverse experiments in devolved common property management ever developed in collaboration with the State. However, the Forest Law (1927) Amendment recently by the MoEFCC threatens the powers and autonomy of the Van Panchayats of Uttarakhand. After a lot of opposition from the ngos, activists, tribal organizations to protect the rights of forest dwellers, the law was withdrawn by the government.
Learning from the Chipko Andolan and now the Save Buxwaha Movement started with the Harit Satyagrah, it seems the forest dwellers have a long fight ahead to be engaged in the democracy of the woods.
Harit Satyagrah at Buxwaha
In other words, community has to continue taking charge. Several examples are emerging of the same, like the local community from the National Capital Region (NCR) who realized the important connection between forests and water, recharge capacity of the Aravalli hill areas and the devastating rate of groundwater extraction that has put this area in the red zone.
On one ‘Raksha Bandhan’ morning, they took a sacred oath to protect the home of all the reptiles, birds, butterflies and mammals. Another example is the Odisha’s Crocodile Conservation Project that saw a success this May when a forest protection team of Satkosia wildlife division spotted a nest of a female gharial with 28 hatchlings on the banks of river Mahanadi in Odisha during their regular patrol duty.
It took almost 45 years for this achievement as the first efforts to create a conducive habitat for the natural breeding of the critically endangered species was first started in 1975 by the forest department in collaboration with the Nandankanan zoological park in Bhubaneswar, but worth the wait.
Both afforestation and deforestation are happening in India, but it is the speed at which either is happening that matters. The increase in the new plantations is usually not equivalent to the excessive felling of full-grown trees from the old forests. The cutting of trees or forests in the increasing climate change scenarios will have a huge impact on the water resources.
The climate change is altering forests’ role in regulating water flows and influencing the availability of water resources. Unless local communities take physical-psychological ownership of their natural resources like forests and water, movements like the Chipko and Buxwaha are an unfinished mission.
This discussion on forests and water is a reminder to us as local community about their interrelationship and about conserving the forests should we wish to address the rising climate induced water distresses.
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*Manisha Sharma is independent researcher and consultant at Auroville; Aryan Singh and Anmol Goyal are students at the Dept of Civil Engineering, IIT-BHU and interns at EDC Ahmedabad; and Dr Mansee Bal Bhargava Entrepreneur, Researcher, Educator. Environmental Design Consultants (EDC), Ahmedabad
Other team members of #WednesdaysForWater: Prof. Bibhu P Nayak (TISS-Hyd), Prof. Fawzia Tarannum (Teri-SAS), Ganesh Shankar (FluxGen-Blr), Megha Sanjaliwala, Vasantha Subbiah, Shrinivas M R, Jagpreet Singh, Pooja Choudhary, Gautamee Baviskar and counting. Click here, here, here, here and here to reach the WednesdaysForWater# team

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