New Delhi: Activists are demanding the repeal of a law to increase forest cover by planting more trees, saying it is encouraging deforestation and depriving indigenous communities of their settlements and livelihoods.
The Compensatory Afforestation Fund (CAF) Bill, enacted in 2016, allocated Rs420 billion ($6.4 billion) to state forest departments to increase forest cover lost to mining and industries as demand for land increased.
Activists say the law has encouraged officials to cut down natural forests, replacing them with valuable commercial teak and eucalyptus plantations for sale, thereby denying access to indigenous communities.
"This law legitimises deforestation. It results not only in loss of forest land, but also in loss of biodiversity and loss of livelihood for communities," said Souparna Lahiri of the All India Forum of Forest Movements.
"It is crass commercialisation that encourages deforestation. The law must be repealed," he said at a meeting of campaigners and community leaders on Tuesday.
India has pledged to keep a third of its total land area under forest and tree cover but an expanding population and increasing demand for land for industrial projects has placed greater stress on these areas.
Community leaders at the meeting spoke of being evicted from their settlements, of forest lands being fenced off and guarded by armed men who denied them access to lands. Calls to forestry officials were not immediately returned.
The government has said that CAF has helped increase forest cover, although activists say this is only because government data includes commercial plantations created under CAF.
"The state is effectively creating land banks for commercial plantations," said Tushar Dash of conservation advocacy group Vasundhara. "Women are particularly affected, as they struggle to meet everyday needs when their access to the forests is curtailed," he said.
The 2006 Forest Rights Act aimed to improve the lives of impoverished tribes by recognising their right to inhabit and live off forests where their forefathers settled. Under the law, at least 150 million people could have their rights recognised to about 40 million hectares (154,400 sq miles) of forest land. But progress has been slow, with rights to only 3 percent of land recorded so far.
The CAF threatens to undo the gains of the Forest Rights Act and stall further progress, activists said. At least 22 of almost 500 conflicts related to land across the country are due to CAF plantations, affecting 38,000 forest dwellers and covering 110,000 hectares of land, according to research group Land Conflict Watch.