One December morning, Lakshmi Baraskar woke up at dawn to go into the forest near her home in Madhya Pradesh’s Hoshangabad district to collect mahua flowers that she cooks as part of the meal for her six-member family. But though she walked for eight hours, skirting a plantation fence built around the jungle only six months before, she was able to gather only a handful.

“The flowers are shed before sunrise, so by the time I reached, the fresh ones had already been picked by others,” she explained.

Baraskar and her neighbors in Mandikhoh village fear that the situation is only going to get worse, “After this new plantation, I guess I won’t even get that,” she said.

Under a plan that they learned about in November 2022, the residents of Mandikhoh are set to lose access to most of the forest near their village because of a proposed plantation under the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority Act, or CAMPA. Afforestation projects under the act can come up in forest areas identified as having low to moderate tree cover.

Under the Forest Rights Act of 2006, forest dwellers such as Baraskar have rights over community forest resources even in protected forests, such as the one abutting Mandikhoh village. This allows Baraskar and her neighbours to use these lands to graze their cattle and collect firewood and minor produce.

But the new CAMPA plantations are completely barred to villagers. For Baraskar and her neighbours in Mandikhoh, this will mean that 25 hectares of the 31 hectares of the protected forest near their village will be restricted.

This is a matter of enormous concern to the Gond and Korku Adivasi communities who live in Mandikhoh and the surrounding villages because they make their living collecting forest produce such as mahua and tendu leaves – both for home use, and to sell in the nearby market in Itarsi. This income supplements the wheat and gram crops they grow on their tiny plots, which are four hectares on average.

Lakshmi Baraskar, a member of the Gond community, goes into the forest frequently to collect mahua for cooking, along with tendu leaves that will be used to wrap bidis and the harra fruit that is believed to have medicinal properties.

Fencing near Mandikhoh for the 2020 Green India Mission plantation. Credit: Geetanjali Sharma.

Researchers say this problem is not unique to Baraskar’s village. “The CAMPA Act is flawed because it assumes the availability of free land to create new forests,” said Dr Nitin Rai, a political ecologist working on the impact of conservation on local communities. “That’s not true in India anymore – most land is already in use by different communities. Even the grasslands that the forest department sees as ‘degraded’ are used by pastoralists.”

The Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority Act programme is especially relevant as India and other parts of the world face the threat of climate change. The afforestation programme could help India achieve its Nationally Determined Contribution of “sequestering” 2.5-3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2030. India committed to this at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, in Glasgow.

But the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority Act was passed even before this, in 2016. It aimed to create a National Fund for states to use for programmes related to compensatory afforestation, regeneration, conservation, and wildlife protection.

It works in tandem with the National Mission for a Green India, or GIM, which was launched in 2014 as a part of India’s National Action Plan for Climate Change. With a state Green India Missionbudget of Rs 28.44 crore for 2021-’22, the Madhya Pradesh government targeted an area of 22,523 hectares for afforestation and restoration.

For the year 2022-’23, the Madhya Pradesh government has allocated a sum of Rs 727 crore for its state CAMPA.

But these large-scale environmental projects in areas inhabited by indigenous communities are causing significant problems for residents. “First, you take away their land for development projects, and now you take it away to compensate for your development,” said Rai. “The ultimate loss is theirs.”

The areas outlined in green are Green India Mission plantations in the Sukhtawa range and comprise over 590 hectares. Credit: MP Forest Department website.

This is clear from the experience of Baraskar and her neighbours in Mandikhoh. The CAMPA plantations mark the second time in only three decades that a government programme has disrupted the lives of Baraskar and her neighbours. In 1977, their families were displaced from their homes in Kookra with the construction of the Tawa reservoir, a part of the Narmada Valley Project.

Baraskar’s husband Suku makes his living as a fisherman in the Tawa river and reservoir, 4 km away from their village. For a decade from 1997, he was a member of a tribal fishing cooperative called the Tawa Matsya Sangh that had wrested commercial rights to fish on the reservoir. But those rights were withdrawn when the reservoir became part of the newly-created Satpura Tiger Reserve.

“He is selling fish independently to traders, but we’re not too lucky with our catch,” said Baraskar. “This is why we depend more on forest produce but it looks like we’re out of luck there too.”

Suku Baraskar making fishing nets at home. Credit: Geetanjali Sharma.

This is the third plantation to come up near the village in the past three years. In 2020, under the Green India Mission, 24 hectares of Mandikhoh’s reserved forests were cordoned off. In 2022, another 12 hectares were barred to the community.

“Three sides of our village are flanked by the reservoir, and one by the forest,” explained Sabbulal, another resident and a former leader of the Tawa Matsya Sangh. “Yahi apna jeevan hai.” This is our life.

When Sabbulal was ten, he remembers how his village along with 40 other settlements had been displaced for the construction of the Tawa Dam. His grandfather and father, who were farmers, lost their homes and farms to the dam in 1977. These villages then took up fishing as an alternate source of livelihood and asked the Madhya Pradesh Fishing Federation for commercial fishing rights in the reservoir that was built on their submerged homes.

“Our fathers had to rebuild their lives from scratch – they taught themselves how to fish, and worked honestly,” said Sabbulal. “It was their hard work that made TMS [Tawa Matsya Sangh] successful.”

When commercial fishing was banned on the reservoir, the cooperative slowly disintegrated. “With the TMS, we had a platform to stand against the injustices of the state, but now our people are left to battle it alone,” said Fagram, a former leader of the cooperative. “This is why we’re slowly losing our forests also, just like we lost our water.”

Old boats, tools, and fishing nets stored at Tawa Matsya Sangh’s office in Kesla. Credit: Geetanjali Sharma.

Impact of National Afforestation Campaigns

Like other afforestation campaigns, Green India Mission and CAMPA are facing difficulties as they are being implemented. They are also facing criticism from scholars.

According to Sharachchandra Lele, a Distinguished Fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, better known as ATREE, instead of looking at the carbon sequestration capacity of forests as a co-benefit of India’s afforestation campaigns, it has become the main objective. “How can we expect to involve forest communities when they’re not a priority in the process?” he asked.

Rai agreed. “They do not involve local communities in the planning of these goals,” he said. “Why should these communities face the burden of implementing the campaigns they were not a part of creating?”

Despite the obvious problems, the Forest Department has been trying to convince residents about the advantages of the project. For instance, at a meeting of the Mandikhoh gram sabha or village committee, last year, Rishi Kulparia, deputy forest ranger, said that the villagers should agree to the plantation because “it is for their own benefit”.

“They will get employment for the construction of the fence around the forest, and also for planting the saplings,” he said. “They can work with us on this project.”

The villagers did not see it the same way. “We agreed to the previous plantations and cooperated with the department,” said Sabbulal. “ Our villagers helped build the fence. But they are now slowly chipping away at all our forests. How much of our livelihood can we surrender for 20 days of work with minimum wage?”

He was referring to the fact that the authorities employ villagers to build fences and plant saplings for the plantation at a wage of between Rs 200 and Rs 250 a day. However, villagers say that this amounts to only 15-20 days during the monsoon each year.

Fishermen selling their catch near the Tawa reservoir to traders from Itarsi. Credit: Geetanjali Sharma.

As they protest the plantations, the residents of Mandikhoh, are citing two pieces of legislation – the Forest Rights Act 2006, and the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas Act, 1996. The Forest Rights Act recognises the customary rights of forest dwellers over community forest resources. The Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas Act allows areas under the Fifth Schedule (tribal villages) the right to constitute gram sabhas in their villages and exercise governance at the local level.

The Forest Department in Mandikhoh said that it obtained the approval of the Van Suraksha Samiti, or Joint Forest Management Committee, for the plantation. These Joint Forest Management Committees are created by the Madhya Pradesh forest department in villages that live within 5 km of protected forests and consist of villagers as well as the local Forest Range officer.

But the villagers do not think it is enough. “They got a few people in the village to sign off on it without even explaining properly how the plantation would leave us with no land,” protested Ram Bharose Baraskar, a 52-year-old resident of the village.

Technically, the forest department has followed the provisions of the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas Act requiring that the gram sabha be consulted about the project. However, the process of consultation requires to be redefined, said land rights lawyer Shomona Khanna.

“Most often consultation is taken to mean one-time consent when it should mean active participation in decision making – at every step of the way,” Khanna said.

The forest officials, on the other hand, assert that while they have followed protocol, it is the villagers who did not participate in the process initially. “The Van Suraksha Samiti meetings are for them to raise concerns, but the villagers were silent then,” said Neeraj Srivastav, the forest guard of Mandikhoh. “Why are they protesting now, after work has been approved and begun?”

Joint Forest Management committee signatures approving the plantation in 2020. Credit: MP Forest Department.

In the regional office of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, the Deputy Director General of Forests Ashok Kumar Sinha said that the Green India Mission and CAMPA plantations are geared to help the local communities too. “We take into account local ecology while deciding plantations,” he said. “And the Adivasi communities need to understand that if we only take from the forests and don’t give back, there will be nothing left for the future generations”

About the local communities protesting against the plantation, he said, “The forests are dying. We all need to make some sacrifices to save them. At the end of the day we’re saving them for the Adivasis, not just for us.”

Back in Mandikhoh, Lakshmi Baraskar packed dinner while Suku repaired his fishing net before setting off for the reservoir in the evening.

Most of the income of her family comes from collecting and selling mahua. “My daughters have grown up doing this work,” she said. “Even a child in this village would know the way to the mahua trees – that is how much we depend on the forest.”

This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.