Movement to Save Aarey forest: Effects of climate change need nuanced interventions, afforestation isn't enough

  • It is not just the case of Aarey, natural forests across India have been subjected to large-scale species conversion over past several decades

  • Vast stretches in the Himalayan foothills have been converted to conifer monoculture, with species such as pines and cedars proliferating, during the colonial rule

  • Far from conducting an impact assessment of how climate change will affect Aarey in the absence of these thousands of trees, the state government highlights a static level of CO2 emissions that will be curbed with the Metro's arrival

  • It is a myth that forests grow by themselves. The role of indigenous communities in maintaining natural forests and protecting them has become only too obvious

"Can you believe that citizens were arrested for wanting to save nature?" asked members of the Adivasi community living in Mumbai's Aarey forest during a condolence meeting on 8 October organised to mourn the axing of approximately 2,000 trees for the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited's (MMRCL's) Metro 3 car-shed. On the other hand, Rishav Ranjan — the law student whose letter to the Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi was converted into a suo motu writ petition — has requested MMRCL Managing Director Ashwini Bhide to desist from any construction work in the area until the next Supreme Court hearing on 21 October.

In response to Ranjan's letter, the Supreme Court on 7 October stayed further felling of trees in Aarey Colony and ordered maintenance of the status quo until the next hearing. However, the Solicitor General Tushar Mehta informed the court, "There is nothing more to be cut now" and that SC can decide later on the "legality or illegality of the trees cut."

Aarey, a unique urban forest

Aarey Colony, or simply Aarey, is located adjacent to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), the only national park in the world within the city limits of a metropolis. In 1963, a research study conducted by a student of St. Xavier's College, Mumbai, under the guidance of Father Santapau (the first Director of the Botanical Survey of India) indicated that 530 species of flowering plants can be found in Aarey. Not only is this forest rich in biodiversity, it is also home to the Warli Adivasi community who have been living here for generations. This community has borne the brunt of development projects which ended up displacing them and packing them into matchbox-sized, inconvenient Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) buildings. First came the Aarey Dairy, established in the 1950s — it eventually ran into losses. Subsequently, parts of the land were given to the State Reserve Police Force (SRPF), Force One (Mumbai Police) and Film City, among others, leading to the division of forest land into smaller fragments. The latest in this series of onslaughts is the Metro car-shed project.

The movement to Save Aarey

By now, the battle to save Mumbai's green lungs has grown into one of the most prominent environmental campaigns in urban India in recent times. The movement has seen the involvement of city dwellers, environmentalists, students and even political parties. After the Bombay High Court dismissed several petitions, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) authorities, in an inexplicable haste, started felling trees on the night of 4 October. This was countered by strong protests in the course of which officials of the Mumbai Police lathi-charged protestors and detained many of them for several hours in various police stations across Mumbai over the weekend. The protestors were charged with serious sections of the IPC such as Sections 353, 332, 143, 149, etc.

 Movement to Save Aarey forest: Effects of climate change need nuanced interventions, afforestation isnt enough

By now, the battle to save Mumbai's green lungs has grown into one of the most prominent environmental campaigns in urban India in recent times. Getty Images

"Will plant more trees"

Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis' standard response to this has been, "We will plant more trees", after declaring earlier that trees will be cut since "development is important". Meanwhile, Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar backed the proposal to build the Metro car-shed saying that development and environmental protection should be done together. Interestingly, the minister drew parallels between Delhi Metro and Mumbai Metro and even went to the extent of saying, "But metro has planted five trees for every single tree that it has taken down. Now, there are 271 stations. Forest undercover [sic] area has increased in Delhi. 30 lakh people are using the metro as public transport. This is the mantra of development and protecting the environment. Both should go together". Moreover, in a recently released video, editor-in-chief of The Print Shekhar Gupta highlighted that for each tree to be cut, seven will be transplanted.

Is afforestation the way forward?

South Asian countries today are at a delicate threshold facing severe extreme weather conditions. A Global Climate Risk Index released at the Katowice summit in Katowice, Poland, in 2018 showed that intense cyclones, excessive rainfall, and severe floods could make India and its neighbours among the worst affected countries in the world.

Complex climate change situations necessitate nuanced interventions. However, for the most part, India has resorted to afforestation without consulting local communities or conducting serious impact assessment studies. As the Adivasi activist from Aarey Prakash Bhoir says, "The way most of these afforestation drives work is illogical and unscientific. How can you plant twenty-five trees at a mere spacing of a foot or less. What happens to the trees when they grow up? This proves that the approach is incorrect. Most of the saplings planted during afforestation projects die in this manner." Talking about the procedure of tree transplants for he says, "They dig out trees from one place and plant them to another. So many trees have died like this."

A remains of cut trees logs at Mumbai Metro Carshed at Aarey Colony. Getty Images

A remains of cut trees logs at Mumbai Metro Carshed at Aarey Colony. Getty Images

Moreover, there is evidence now that afforestation programs may not be either necessary or sufficient to mitigate the climate crisis.

China's "The Sloping Land Conversion" program, one of the largest reforestation programs in the world aimed at "protecting biodiversity and improving environmental conditions", had a negative impact on the natural forests in the area after 13 years of implementation, according to this study. Researchers used GIS data to investigate changes to different land use types, especially the conversion of natural forests, shrubs, grasslands and open areas to other vegetation, in order to understand this peculiar phenomenon. Astonishingly, they found that rubber and pulpwood plantations had replaced natural forests on sloping lands. With the sharp increase in these plantations, the natural forests, shrubs and bushes decreased and were converted into pulpwood plantations. There is danger of carbon stock increasing if natural forests are replaced in this manner.

In another instance, researchers who examined 260 years of changes in European forest management found that despite a 10 percent increase in wooded land, the continent's forests have actually caused a slight increase in regional temperatures since 1750. This was attributed specifically to a shift from broad-leaved tree species like oak to more economically valuable conifer species like spruce and pine, which absorb more sunlight. Environmental scientist Kim Naudts says, "By changing the forest, we also make changes to the amount of radiation, water, and energy that the forest releases".

Scientists across the world say, "The fact that not all land-use and land-cover change policies may contribute to climate change mitigation is not something new."

It is not just the case of Aarey — natural forests across India have been subjected to large-scale species conversion over past several decades. Vast stretches in the Himalayan foothills have been converted to conifer monoculture, with species such as pines and cedars proliferating, during the colonial rule. These species are exotic, provide fewer non-timber forest products (NTFPs) and, in essence, are a burden on indigenous communities which have known and utilised the Minor Forest Produce (MFP) for their survival and livelihood needs. Worse, these plantations have also been found to be ineffective in soil and moisture conservation.

However, India's governments are far from recognising these challenges and continue to encourage monocultures and plantations of exotic species in natural forests. In 2016, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) issued guidelines which proposed handing over of open forests and natural scrub areas of the country for captive plantations by wood-based industries. It is anticipated that monoculture plantations over these forestlands will create large-scale ecological, economic, and social problems while frequent commercial harvests of unnatural species will further reduce the climate effectiveness of our forests.

In any project that aspires to increase the green cover of a place, planting a sapling is the easiest part. The real challenge is the maintenance of the newly-planted saplings and ensuring that the saplings become robust trees. Most studies have found that survival rate of saplings is never 100 percent. Researches in Indianapolis and Philadelphia, which looked at street trees in America's Detroit, found that high survival rates are critical during the first three years in order to maximise the benefits over their lifetime.

Moreover, it is a myth that forests grow by themselves. The role of indigenous communities in maintaining natural forests and protecting them has become only too obvious. Communities residing within forests root out unnecessary weeds and shrubs which drain the nourishment from more useful trees. Any plan to deplete forests can never be in the interest of the people and is likely to cause irreversible damages to the climate.

Opening doors for further destruction?

In Aarey, too, several residents have highlighted the problems with the car-shed project, which is likely to open the doors for several other such projects — like the plan to construct a Metro station within Aarey. Moreover, the car-shed is expected to consume an estimated 50,000 litres of groundwater every day for washing. "We are not getting basic facilities here, and now metro authorities want to take away the jungle which belongs to us too," says Asha Bhoye, who belongs to the Konkani tribe and lives in one of the 29 padas, orAdivasi hamlets.

An excavator is pictured next to cut down trees at the construction site of a metro train car shed in the Aarey colony. Getty Images

An excavator is pictured next to cut down trees at the construction site of a metro train car shed in the Aarey colony. Getty Images

Bhoir asks, "What does development mean? People should have electricity and water, right? But when Adivasis try to get the NOC (No Objection Certificate) for any kind of water supply, they don't get it." According to Bhoir, the multiple development projects in the area have impacted the Adivasis' farming, their cattle, as well as the wildlife. "We are the people responsible for the green cover of Mumbai. With our expertise we help nourish the trees, which in turn give oxygen to the environment. Can you say that our existence is futile? We are giving the city its oxygen."

Aarey not a forest?

Far from conducting an impact assessment of how climate change will affect Aarey in the absence of these thousands of trees, the state government highlights a static level of CO2 emissions that will be curbed with the Metro's arrival. It has not considered how this forest has been giving back oxygen, or helped in mitigating high temperatures, or that removing these trees may exacerbate flooding from the Mithi river. Additionally, the government keeps claiming that Aarey is not a forest.

Is Aarey a forest? It appears that the state has deliberately left the issue vague. In the Bombay HC, petitioners opposing the tree felling argued that a survey to determine the area's 'forest status' was conducted "through a view from a hillock in 1997 and was not completed due to insufficient maps and inaccessibility during the monsoons." Senior Counsel Gayatri Singh posited that "no earnest effort was made by Maharashtra government to physically survey the city and identify its forests." On this important aspect, Chief Justice Pradeep Nandrajog commented, "If a country can't survey itself for 20 years then what can I say."

The crucial Supreme Court judgment in TN Godavarman Thirumulpad versus the Union of India, delivered on 12 December, 1996, said, "The Forest Conservation Act, 1980, was enacted with a view to check further deforestation which ultimately results in ecological imbalance; and therefore, the provisions made therein for the conservation of forests and for matters connected therewith, must apply to all forests irrespective of the nature of ownership or classification thereof."

The court also observed that the word "forest must be understood to its dictionary meaning". However, many states haven't complied with this order and the confusion over what constitutes a forest continues.

Not only that, our experience shows that, even in declared or classified forests, afforestation projects replace indigenous or natural woods with commercial wood based trees, thereby disturbing the delicate balance between the forests and the environment. Moreover, afforestation projects have also become the escape route to shrug off accountability and displace communities by perpetuating atrocities on them when governments want to usher in new development projects.

It is urgently the need of the hour to emphasise on solid, ground-level studies in India in order to assess the exact relevance of tree planting and afforestation initiatives and their role in mitigating climate change. Moreover, it is high time that governments stopped being lackadaisical in their policymaking regarding every aspect of nature, whether forests, woodlands, wetlands, natural scrub, or even natural parks and sanctuaries. With the climate crisis looming, it is alarming that those tasked with managing natural spaces have minimal understanding of the interplay of natural spaces and human development.

The author is a researcher with International Institute of Social Studies, University of Erasmus, Rotterdam

The Great Diwali Discount!
Unlock 75% more savings this festive season. Get Moneycontrol Pro for a year for Rs 289 only.
Coupon code: DIWALI. Offer valid till 10th November, 2019 .

Updated Date: Oct 10, 2019 15:45:52 IST