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Green credit rules to 'help' business-driven, environmental rights violators' activities

Counterview Desk 

Over 100 environmental and human rights organisations and 400 plus individuals have in a letter to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change demanded roll back of the Green Credit Rules 2023 and the methodology introduced under the Notification dated 22nd February 2024, which they say in effect provides incentive for forest diversion activities through green credit earnings, at huge cost to the environment, forest and climate and to the rights of forest dwelling communities.
According to the letter, while the Green Credit Programme (GCP) introduced under the Green Credit Rules, 2023 was perceived by many as an innovative market-based mechanism, there have been serious concerns regarding its unsustainable approach and reliance on market forces for the conservation, restoration, and management of these natural lands.
The latest notification issued in February 2024 has now confirmed the legitimate apprehensions of the environmental and forest rights activists, that such a profit-oriented green credit programme only seeks to further incentivise forest diversion and deforestation and trample upon the rights of the forest dwelling communities, instead of putting regulatory curbs on it to protect forests, it added.

Text:

We, the undersigned, submit this petition in response to the recent notification dated 22nd February 2024 published by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC / Ministry) on the methodology for calculation of green credits in respect of tree plantation, under the Green Credit Rules, 2023 notified on 12th October 2023. The methodology now notified under this notification allows for the exchange of green credits to meet compliance for compensatory afforestation. This directive issued in February 2024 mandates union and state forest departments to identify degraded land parcels for tree plantation, in the guise of promoting green cover expansion across India.
While the Green Credit Programme (GCP) introduced under the Green Credit Rules, 2023 was perceived by many as an innovative market-based mechanism, there have been serious concerns regarding its unsustainable approach and reliance on market forces for the conservation, restoration, and management of these natural lands. This latest notification issued in February 2024 has now confirmed the legitimate apprehensions of the environmental and forest rights activists, that such a profit-oriented green credit programme only seeks to further incentivise forest diversion and deforestation and trample upon the rights of the forest dwelling communities, instead of putting regulatory curbs on it to protect forests. Business-driven activities are admittedly the biggest violator of environmental rights and destroyer of forests today. In a time when there is a need to focus on strengthening the legal framework to ensure environmental protection, the GCP would only serve as another tool to enable the exploitation of natural resources.
As stakeholders, we urge careful consideration of the long-term implications of a programme such as this on the vulnerable ecosystems of our country. We bring to the Ministry's attention, the problematic premise of the notifications and set out the flaws that need immediate correction.

List of problems:

  1. The GCP introduces the concept of tradable green credits, which was claimed to be promising for incentivising sustainable practices. However, far from its stated objective, the law introduced by the government instead serves to incentivise the diversion of forests and the commercial exploitation of natural resources. The approach behind the final methodology notified under the GCP is a cause of concern. The methodology outlines that union and state forest departments will identify and allocate “degraded” land parcels including open forests, scrublands, wastelands, and catchment areas, under their administrative control and management, for extensive tree planting. The tree plantation activity conducted by the applicant shall generate green credits. The tradable green credits can then be utilised by the applicant for meeting compliance of compensatory afforestation in case of diversion of forest land for non-forestry purposes under the Van (Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan) Adhiniyam, 1980 (Forest Conservation Act, 1980).
  2. At the outset, tree plantation done under GCP cannot and must not be contemplated as a replacement for the primary forest cover and natural ecosystem of our country, which provide protection to wildlife, biodiversity and local knowledge of local communities. Ad-hoc, unscientific and arbitrary tree-planting measures cannot be used as ‘credits’ to compensate for the destruction of old-growth trees and priceless forest ecosystems, which have immense economic, social and environmental value. Regeneration, compensation and restoration of the forest ecosystem being lost due to diversion for non-forestry activities, would require specific consideration on a case-to-case basis so that the project proponents are held liable for the actual ecological loss and commensurate compensatory measures are directed. Even as compensation can never be adequate to cover the loss of invaluable forests, in any event, mandatory compensatory measures cannot possibly be traded with ‘voluntary environmental actions’. This is an even greater dilution of the existing law on compensatory afforestation, which is itself problematic in its approach. The system now being proposed through the GCP further renders invaluable natural ecosystems as a commodity, instead of being safeguarded for their role as the ultimate protector from environmental and climate changes.
  3. Most importantly, this methodology lacks a basic scientific understanding of the ecological significance of natural lands like scrubland, open forests, wastelands and catchment areas irresponsibly termed as “degraded” land parcels under the rules, and violates the rights of forest-dwelling and local communities over these lands. Natural environments like savanna grasslands, marshes, scrub forests, wastelands etc. play an important ecological role, preserving soil quality, conserving unique biodiversity and supporting the local ecosystem. These old-grown natural areas have a special significance in maintaining the ecological balance and play an important role in protection from adverse climate change events. Studies indicate that open forests like grasslands, scrublands possess higher carbon sequestration potential compared to forests. Most importantly, they form part of the commons. They are a source of livelihood and hold a deep sense of cultural value among indigenous communities. Not only are these natural areas being wrongly categorised and considered as unproductive or marginal areas, but they are also now under threat of habitat destruction for putting up profit-motivated unscientific plantations under these rules. Such important natural areas cannot be substituted or replaced with industrial- level plantations, which will consist of monocultures and will also reduce their value as effective carbon sinks. Moreover, the law completely fails to acknowledge, let alone protect the rights of indigenous communities over such natural lands, including the community forest rights under Forest Rights Act, 2006 and the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996. It was reported on 12th April 2024 that over 10,000 hectares of degraded forest land have been identified across 13 states for tree plantation under the GCP. However, while a land inventory has been put up online listing out ‘degraded land forest’ land parcels identified by the states, the specific details of the land have not yet been released and no process has been undertaken for free prior informed consent of the affected local communities and indigenous peoples. This shows that without even addressing these important concerns, a damaging programme such as the GCP is being pushed with urgency, in this ad hoc, unlawful and non-transparent manner.
  4. In any event, a critical assessment of large-scale tree-plantation initiatives raises concerns about their implementation and outcomes. Issues like high mortality rates of such plantations, poor sustained care and monitoring efforts, inefficient resource allocation, and unclear benefits for local communities, render such initiatives largely inefficient. Consequently, such plantations would do more harm than good. Such plantations require close oversight and need to be examined for their long-term sustainability, along with their dismal success rates. Large-scale plantation programmes overseen by state forest departments have a history of inadequate monitoring and compliance. With this attitude, the invaluable existing natural areas will be converted into a graveyard of trees and will actually be rendered degraded! The methodology introduced for the GCP fails entirely to address the issue of accountability in case of plantation failures. There is no clarification on who will bear the risk associated with unsuccessful plantations or how credits will be revoked if necessary. It is imperative for the methodology to clearly outline the party responsible for assuming the risks involved.
  5. The final version of the methodology lacks specific criteria for plantation approval, blatantly stipulating a density of 1100 trees per hectare which applies across all natural habitats. Given the significant ecological variations among tree species, the rationale behind awarding 'credits' solely based on tree numbers lacks clarity, is unscientific and will only increase environmental degradation. Additionally, concerns persist regarding the absence of guidelines on phased credit issuance based on plant survivability and maturation evidence. Also, the lack of consideration for rainfall zones and appropriate plant species in the final version, clearly indicates that there is no serious thought put into rehabilitating forests or really increasing forest cover using this method, but the only intended use is to “ease doing business” of forest diversion. Moreover, ecological nuances related to habitat, including soil quality, water availability and other topographical features, are completely missing.
  6. The exclusion of the methodology from the draft version of the GCP Rules and also the final Rules that were notified raises serious concern about the intentions behind these Rules. No public consultation was held prior to developing and releasing the methodology, which is not merely a subordinate legislation but a crucial document determining the implementation and purpose of the Rules. Local communities and indigenous peoples whose lives and livelihoods will be affected by both the incentivised forest diversion activities and the irreversible destruction and damage to natural areas have not been consulted. Forest and land rights community, climate change activists, environmentalists and other expert stakeholders have also been left out of the process.
  7. While reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is crucial for meeting India’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and addressing the climate crisis, we hold reservations regarding the current reliance on market-based mechanisms like the GCP. There is a lack of empirical evidence supporting the effectiveness of such mechanisms in reducing emissions. Instead, these markets often perpetuate greenwashing practices using conventional metrics that sustain business-as-usual approaches and further exacerbate the crisis.
  8. The GCP lacks a socio-ecological perspective, which calls for a departure from a rigid tree-centric model towards embracing restoration practices like assisted natural regeneration and rewilding of natural ecosystems, tailored to diverse biogeographic zones, thus avoiding any further disruptions to lives and livelihoods dependent on these ecosystems. As per a news report published on 17th April 2024, it appears that in its reactionary attitude, the Ministry has issued new guidelines on 12th April 2024, which provides for method to calculate costs for restoration activity. While acknowledging that not all degraded forests can support high density tree plantation, it appears that the mandatory requirement for the same has been removed and it has been left to the state to decide what kind of plantation would be supported in the degraded forest land. This only exposes the Ministry’s singular objective of awarding green credits to project proponents without any serious plan for restoration and adds to the existing ambiguity around the GCP. It fails to address the fundamental issues with the methodology. Addressing these concerns is paramount to fostering a comprehensive and inclusive framework for introducing any programmes with a true intention to promote environmental actions. Prioritising vested interests over conservation requirements will lead to ecological degradation and injustice to larger communities dependent on these natural habitats, thereby undermining the country's environmental integrity.
We, accordingly, strongly oppose the completely unscientific and unsustainable methodology recently notified in February 2024 under the Green Credit Programme, which aims to incentivise forest diversions at the cost of ecological concerns. We call upon the government to forthwith halt all its attempts to implement the same.
We urge the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change to immediately withdraw the Green Credit Rules, 2023 and the methodology notified in February 2024 and all notifications / orders issued in pursuance of the same, and further demand that no such programme be introduced without wider consultation with affected communities and experts.
We call upon the government to protect and restore forests, open forests and natural areas over any further warped schemes for investment in afforestation programmes at the cost of the country’s threatened natural forest cover.
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