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India’s first REDD project in the East Khasi Hills: “When you say that I need permission to cut my own tree, I have lost my right to my land!”

A watershed conservation project in the East Khasi Hills district of Meghalaya in northeast India is set to become the country’s first REDD project. The project is discussed at length in an article by Soumitra Ghosh in the most recent issue of Mausam, an Indian climate justice publication.

The project is a watershed conservation project that started in 2005. It is run by Community Forestry International (CFI) with a Mawphlang tribal community and covers an area of 8,379 hectares. The project aims to preserve sacred groves and other forest areas and to re-plant surrounding land. The community has established ownership rights over the forest. In May 2011, Down to Earth reported that, “the tribal community is looking for funding from agencies like the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility to make the watershed project a REDD pilot.”

UPDATE – 1 December 2011: Mark Poffenberger, Executive Director of Community Forestry International has written a response to this post, available here.

Soumitra Ghosh’s article, titled “REDD+ in India, and India’s first REDD+ project: a critical examination” (pdf file 3.9 MB), starts on page 32 of Mausam Vol. 3, Issue 1.

In February 2011, the first meeting of the Asia REDD+ Working Group took place in Delhi, hosted by Community Forestry International. CFI has another REDD pilot project in the Naga Hills of Manipur, also in northeast India. Ghosh notes that the minutes of the meeting state that AWRF will “set up sales deals for the carbon credits coming from projects in the voluntary offset market”. Communities will learn how to measure the carbon stored in their forests.

But in a note submitted this year to the UNFCCC, India’s Ministry of of Environment and Forests explains that it has set up a “REDD+ Cell” that will “guide formulation, development, funding, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of REDD+ activities in the States.” In other words, the state forestry bureaucracy is in charge of REDD – including carbon accounting.

In June 2011, Soumitra Ghosh visited the sacred forest of Mawphlong. He travelled with T Lyngdoh, the secretary of the Mawphlong Hima (the Khasi term for a self-governed elaka [state] consisting of several groups of villages). Lyngdoh told Ghosh that,

“The project is just starting and people don’t know anything about REDD etc yet. All they know is that we need to conserve our forests, and we have been doing that for so many years.”

Lyngdoh didn’t take Ghosh to the villages in his Hima, instead taking him to a largely deforested area, which the project plans to replant. When Ghosh asked him about where the carbon credits from the Mawphlong project will go, Lyngdoh replied, “The preservation of our forests should not be an excuse for developed countries in maintaining their current levels of pollution.” As Ghosh points out, that’s exactly what REDD is all about.

A Project Idea Note for the Khasi Hills Community REDD Project was submitted to Plan Vivo (a certification system for community-based payments for ecosystem services projects) in May 2011, and Plan Vivo approved it two months later.

In his article, Ghosh questions the restrictions that will be placed on villagers and asks how villagers will be compensated:

All available forest-based livelihoods will dry up: firewood collection and sale (reduction and ban), work in stone mines (ban), livestock rearing (ban), and of course charcoal making because it means both felling trees and fire setting.

Given the fact that the project area is community-governed, Ghosh questions the additionality of the project, calling it “dubious, if not outright nonsense”. He lists the different types of protected forests under customary laws and points out that the weakening of customary management practices is not because of a lack of money. The project admits that the government is spending enough money in the region. In fact, Ghosh notes, the income-generation activities that the project lists are all covered by existing government shcemes for tribal area development.

Ghosh also questions the legality of the project and asks whether the real legal owners of the forests have given their consent to the REDD+ project. He also questions who owns the carbon stored in the forests of the East Khasi Hills.

Ghosh acknowledges that there is a serious deforestation problem in the East Khasi Hills:

As one travels along the highways radiating from Shillong, the hillsides, heavily quarried and mined, look like huge raw wounds. Neither customary governance nor more official government feats could halt rampant limestone and coal mining in the entire region. Where there is no limestone or coal, the hills are scooped up for construction material like stone chips. Added to mining, there’s unrestricted and wholesale clearing of forests for various purposes.

The project anticipates generating 13,761 carbon credits each year, which it hopes to sell for between US$42,000 and US$80,000. “Not a great sum of money, by any standard,” as Ghosh points out. Especially once consultants’ fees and validating agency’s charges are taken out.

Ghosh interviewed John Kharsing, one of the most influential leaders of the region (Kharsing is the chairman of the Assembly of Hynniewtrep – as the Khasi were once known). Extracts from the interview follow:

John Kharsing: Our tradition has sustained … even after 150 years of British Rule. But there are conflicts over so many issues … yes we are concerned about International treaties and agreements which might affect our traditional rights, even well-intended ratifications at the international level may not be applicable at the ground level … such treaties sometimes undermine the independence, sovereignty, liberty and the autonomy that the Constitution of India provided for while notifying these areas under its 6th schedule … But, well, big countries like to implement their own agenda, but ultimately people in the ground decide how the work is done … There are indigenous people’s forums in the international level, but not much is done … sometimes wrong people represent the indigenous peoples, you see? A process takes
time … people come with projects but get stuck at the ground level … the GoI came with the JFM [Joint Forest Management] project …

Soumitra Ghosh: People own the land here, what’s the government doing? JFM is government.

John Kharsing: Yes, we told them to give us the money. They said, no we need to have forest guards in the committees and the money will come to them … sometimes law-making is so ridiculous . . . I represented a case in National Commission for Scheduled tribes .. the chairperson was from Jharkhand and he was surprised that we have a treaty … are yaar, you are lucky, said he. They have taken everything away from us … the need is to reframe the land laws of the country … how to balance the poor and the rich? So if the Govt comes up with all those crazy ideas, then …

Soumitra Ghosh: They may not come directly … it’s important to know what you are entering into: people may come and say, here’s a big deal, a beautiful deal, you just preserve your forests … when a person like you is not sufficiently aware of what’s happening, how can you expect the people, the regular users of the forest, to know and understand the intricacies of REDD and such international processes?

John Kharsing: … I happened to attend some conferences here and there, in Delhi … I understood it’s about climate change … I asked a stupid question in one meeting: when the FCA [Forest Conservation Act, 1980] came, hundreds and hundreds of people were thrown into the street, and I had to go to so many village durbars because the chiefs were asking desperately for my intervention … they banned the felling of timber, how can we make charcoal … if you stop that, you choke his livelihood … what’ll he do … no gas here … he has to cut trees … on the other hand you are also setting up industries that need charcoal …

REDD is not final, and we are watching.

Soumitra Ghosh: This project is treated as a pilot REDD project. I want to know how?

John Kharsing: I don’t know the aspect of carbon sequestration. I haven’t been informed … all I know is that it’s a developmental-climate mitigation-project, and the chief wants to extend the sacred forest area … in the areas adjoining the sacred forest … I’ll crosscheck with the chief … all I know that people are being benefitted and they are being encouraged to grow more trees, but if you tell me this has been notified as a REDD project.

Soumitra Ghosh: No notifications yet. REDD is all about trees storing carbon which you assess, price and sell in the market, international markets, after a validating agency validates your project.

John Kharsing: … carbon credits? When the German gentleman came … he is from a bank … I think he is from REDD … I asked him why are they talking with the forest department? This land is private. So I am keeping a watch over things you know. I’ll check how much info they have on REDD … even if it’s a pilot project, it’ll be good to know … who’s the end user and all that? The clans control 60 percent of the forest area … if JFM and such schemes are not modified to suit people’s needs, they won’t be successful. I have not yet seen the present proposal … the final offer, what are the infringements on my rights … if there’s any and then we’ll be hundred percent opposed…. For instance, mining … the Government of Meghalaya tries to create a mining policy, which is essentially a process to implement the country’s mining laws and rules here … otherwise these are not applicable. Here again all the mining landowners came together to oppose the mining laws … since they have not been modified to suit local conditions and land tenure systems … there was something called ‘mining concessions’ … what is a concession? How can somebody give me a concession to do something in my own land? FCA also, why do I need permission to cut my own tree? I understand environment and climate change and all that agenda, but when you say that I need permission to cut my own tree … I have lost my right to my land!

Soumitra Ghosh: When REDD becomes official, these concerns will be more profound. There is no guarantee that they will let you cut trees in any REDD forest.

John Kharsing: … The Constitution has been amended before … and recently the government refused to sign the nuclear treaty … the same has to happen here … the government must apply pressure so that the existing treaty is amended to include the country’s needs. The opinion makers and public leaders have to be active …

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  1. The Project Idea Note for the Khasi Hills REDD project was approved by the Plan Vivo Foundation in July 2011. The Foundation views the project as a genuine effort to develop a pro-poor, community-focused project that is designed to strengthen communities’ rights and share benefits equally – through Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES); and to restore and protect native and naturalised ecosystems.

    The Plan Vivo Foundation is registered as a charity in Scotland and provides not-for-profit certification services to Plan Vivo projects, and develops the Plan Vivo System in line with legally defined charitable objectives. As such, we endeavour to keep the cost of project registration and certification to a minimum, and ensure that carbon finance is always equitably shared with communities. We are the only carbon standard that continuously assesses projects to ensure that funds reach the grassroots level.

    This project should be considered as a pioneer in its approach to forest conservation via Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) in India. Whilst debate and uncertainty surrounds REDD at a government and UN policy level, the Khasi Hills project is generating lessons and experience from action on the ground; and this should be commended.

  2. The contents of the project sounds well founded. In fact Umiong stream flowing to Umiew/Umiam has the largest diversity in plants, soils and geology as well. In this kind of project real fieldworkers are needed but not desk-job babus and NEHU academicians or politicians.

  3. Our company has 7 years of experience working with the voluntary carbon offsetting market, which is the market this project targets. Our experience is that the following statement in the article is completely false: “The preservation of our forests should not be an excuse for developed countries in maintaining their current levels of pollution. As Ghosh points out, that’s exactly what REDD is all about.”

    Our experience is the opposite. Organizations that measure and offset their footprints are also the ones reducing their footprints the most. Not only because they have measured the footprint, but also because of the cost of offsetting acting as a driving force behind e.g. efficiency improvements and switch to renewable fuels.

    Let me point out, REDD on the compliance market is a completely different topic that I won’t go into here.

    Thus, voluntary REDD projects and other types of offsetting projects can reduce emissions and/or sequester CO2 both in the developing countries and at home creating a win-win situation. Representatives from our organisation have visited several Plan Vivo projects, and we are always very impressed by them. We have yet to visit the REDD+ project in East Khasi Hills, but I am certain that it, by putting a price on valuable ecosystem services, can help decrease pressures on the remaining forests and support communities at the same time.

  4. The reporter seems to be biased on the entire REDD+ program as he/she does not seem to actually know what REDD+ is all about. First and foremost a standard is ensured when certain standards are met. For example any body wanting to buy Carbon Credits have to fall under this standard also. So when you offset you basically buy time to clean up yourself. Secondly there are companies that go beyond their call of duty meaning that they get them selves certified as ‘zero’ carbon companies for marketing. These companies have already rigorously followed their standards to reduce their carbon emissions. Unfortunately when we dont understand some thing we always cry foul.
    What the reporter should do is to find out how much money has been spent by the Government to preserve how much forest?? in India. That will be a wake up call for these Forest Bureaucrats. These Bureaucrats will oppose anything that will expose their inefficiency.