Tuesday, March 9, 2021
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Growing Trees, Saving Forests

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Forest dwellers and marginal farmers in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh are benefitting from a unique program in collaboration with industry to promote responsible forestry
By Murali Krishnan in Hyderabad

In a non-descript village in Rajiv Nagar, about 400 km from Hyderabad, an indigenous community called Koya is celebrating. Around 400 households in this village are happy that the harvest of eucalyptus trees they have felled has given them good returns this year. The wood of the fast-growing trees is used to produce paper.

Belonging to socially weaker sections, these farmers have, over the years, been able to organize and manage their forests, and earn better economic incentives resulting in imp-roved environmental outcomes for forests. This has been possible through the Forest Stewardship Council, an independent, non-governmental, not-for-profit organization, which ensures that forests and plantations are managed responsibly and in accordance with internationally recognized standards.

The farmers of Rajiv Nagar have been instrumental in managing the multi-business conglomerate—ITC Paperboards and Specialty Papers Division in accordance with Forest Stewardship Council or FSC standards.

ITC, which is FSC certified, pays an extra Rs 50 per ton of paper it manufactures to the farmers who strictly adhere to the rules of the FSC. The certification also gives ITC a competitive edge in an increasingly environment-conscious world. It is seen as a plus to have an FSC certification by many prospective buyers who are concerned about the environment.

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Wookay Badrayan, a 45-year-old farmer, is elated by his association with the tree-growing program. “I joined this social forestry scheme four years back. This scheme is rewarding and it has helped me in not only making profits but also in learning to multi-crop along with the eucalyptus trees,” he says.

The ITC unit located in the town of Bhadrachalam has provided thousands of farmers with a consolidated farm management plan to carry out their farm activities and provides financial aid from time to time to meet capital and operational expenditure.

At another corner of the village, women break out into a song and dance. It is their way of thanking the forests for supporting their livelihood. Varalaskshmi Devi, 39, is also active in the scheme and is part of a larger women’s collective. “This year, our family made a profit of `80,000 from every acre. I have also learnt to cultivate of chillis and other vegetables along with eucalyptus trees. What is good is that I don’t apply pesticides and depend on organic farming.”

Sanjay Singh, chief executive of ITC Paperboards, explains that the scheme has helped farmers get a higher price than market rates. “The farmers get all the benefits of research that we do in improving the productivity of their farmland. We give them the best clones that we develop in our R&D division. So the productivity is higher,” he says.

Kesari Bazaru, the village headman, takes a survey of his farm holding that contains thousands of eucalyptus trees. On it are also other trees to preserve the biodiversity such as mango trees and mahua, a tropical Indian tree, which attracts birds and bees.

Eucalyptus trees in a plantation can be cut every four years. “We get seedlings from the company and expertise through their CSR programs. They tell us how to grow them and in optimum conditions. We are clearly benefitting from the experience,” he maintains.

The FSC was set up internationally in 1993. With over 800 members in over 80 countries, the mechanism was created to allow corporate buyers and the public to identify products coming from responsibly managed forests, with the aim of redirecting the forest products industry towards more sustainable paths.

In India, FSC has certified about 8,15,000 hectares of forests in nine states including Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Tamil Nadu. The number of FSC certificates secured by Indian companies has increased from 5 in 2007 to over 300 in 2015 and several of them are currently in the process of obtaining certification. “We have to go a long way because FSC is already 20 years old. But the uptake of FSC in India is just happening,” says R T Manoharan, FSC’s India national representative.

The demand for FSC products has more than quadrupled, say market surveys, and it is now going to become a basic necessity for anybody to sell their products. Customers in many countries in North America and Europe increasingly insist upon importing certified wood and paper. Currently, seven per cent of the world’s forests area—around 180 million hectares which is roughly the same size as Indonesia, is FSC certified.

This could be one way to help stop ancient forest destruction and promote ecologically and socially responsible management of the world’s forests. As more and more consumers, particularly in the West, insist on buying certified wood and paper products, small-scale farmers in local communities, like this one, will benefit.

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