There is much more to a tree than wood, fruit and leaves. An Indian scientist estimates the worth of environmental services rendered by a tree over a 50 year lifespan to be IRs 1.57 million — four times the average Indian’s income over a similar period. Calculated into the figure is oxygen production worth IRs 2,50,000, soil conservation and fertility maintenance worth’ the same, water recycling and humidi ty control (IRs 300,000), and air pollution control (IRs 500,000).
These figures, contained and analysed in the latest publication of the New Delhi-based CSE may be fanciful, but nevertheless represent an attempt to de sig an environmental cost-benefit analysis which will help national planners decide “whether it (economic growth) is not being obtained today at the cost of discounting our future.”
A compilation of the proceedings of a seminar on the economics of the sustainable use of forest resources, the book is fittingly dedicated “to the firewood pickers of the the world who have to contend with the long and short term everyday.”
Sustainable development is oftendefined as meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”, but in the poor and mainly rural developing world, environmental damage hurts this generation itself, as, for example, villagers are forced to walk ever longer distances for their survival needs of fodder, fuel and timber.
The contributors discuss the methodology, data and policy implications involved in putting a price on nature. A significant finding is that not enough is known about the state of India’s natural resources, even in the supposedly well-researched field of forestry. R.V. Singh of the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education, Dehradun, points out the widely varying estimates of timber demand in the country, ranging from 19.52 million cubic metres (MCUM) by the Ministry of Agriculture, to 30.03 MCUM by the National Commission on Agriculture.
C.N. Krishnakutty of the Kerala Forest Research Institute explodes the myth of the disappearing forests in that state. The enormous gap in firewood demand and supply from state forests had made foresters and economists argue that there is largescale pilfering from Kerala forests. But Krishnakutty shows iii his paper that forests supply just five per cent of domestic fuelwood in the state and 80 per cent comes from homestead trees.
It is necessary to make users pay for their consumption of natural resources, hitherto treated as free. While this is primarily apolitical question, a good natural resource accounting system would be vital in efforts to make growth sustainable both at the macro and micro levels. Thus, J.B. Lal of the Forest Survey of India, Dehradun, assesses the value of goods and environmental services provided by Indian forests at IRs 795.55 billion, more than a quarter of the national gross domestic product. Official figures, however, have it that forests add just 1.2 per cent to the GDP.
A paper on the rural ecology of the Central Himalayan agroecosystems falling within the altitude range of 1000 -2000m examines aspects of the highly natural resource-intensive rural farming. If forests resources and village vegetation used in hill fanning is not valued, then every rupee spent is seen to yield six rupees. This is why, say the contributors, hill farming continues to be considered economically viable despite extensive degradation of forests and croplands. However, the output-input ratio plummets to 0.54 if a price is put on natural resource use. “Since about 12 energy units are exploited to support one energy unit of agricultural production, forest resources are far less valued than crops in term of money.”
The book also refutes the well-established notion that shifting (jhum) cultivation practiced by over half a million tribals in the north-east of India is ecologically and economically unsound. While large amounts are being spent by the government to wean the tribals away from the practice and towards terraced farming, says one paper, shifting agriculture may actually be much more energy efficient and ecologically sound. This is one more of the several unconventional and interesting ideas thrown up by this useful publication from the CSE, which for the first time attempts to make ecologists and economists look at each other rather than past each other. The book’s use is especially important with reference to sustainability of Himalayan forests, which are distinct from forests in the rest of the Subcontinent due to inaccessibility, fragility and diversity.
M.Uniyal is a Delhi-based correspondent for Inter Press Service (IPS).