How Much Is A 50-Year-Old Tree Worth?

Will ascribing an economic value to natural capital such as forests help us conserve them? The TEEB study, commissioned by the UNEP, believes it will.

 

Here’s a quick question: Just how many rupees do you think a 50-year-old tree is worth?

For starters, the oxygen it has provided thus far could be estimated at Rs 3.5 lakh, the water recycling it facilitated all its life worth Rs 4.5 lakh, soil conserved Rs 3.75 lakh. Its pollution-control service alone could be worth Rs 7.5 lakh and add Rs 3.75 lakh for being a shelter for animals and birds. In other words, a good Rs 23 lakh.

But when you chop that same tree, all it could fetch you would be about Rs 50,000 for its timber…

            These figures are neither imaginary nor borne out of the author’s math skills; they are borrowed from the government data that are reportedly based on scientific assessments.

And it is this ‘Economic Valuation of Natural Capital’, inspired by a study group of the United Nations Environment Programme, that is the latest approach of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) towards conservation. As its high-profile minister Jairam Ramesh likes to say often, “What you cannot measure, you cannot monitor. What you cannot monitor, you cannot manage.”

That argument seems logical. All along, forget measuring, we, like most of the world, have taken nature’s services for granted. Flowing river water? Feel free to turn it into a sewer. Free oxygen? Well, there is plenty of carbon and other toxic stuff we can add from our side. Forests? Sorry, clear them, we need more land for our use. We don’t seem to realise that this unchecked abuse of resources will soon show up like a bounced cheque at our nature banks, simply because there will be nothing left to withdraw. But this year, the focus of the world’s environment programme is on forests. With the United Nations proclaiming 2011 as the International year of Forests, the theme this World Environment Day has been ‘Forests: Nature at your service.’

Economic assets

To quote an example, here is a concept that is gaining currency among governments. ‘The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity’ (TEEB) is a study commissioned by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), based on the principle that “Natural resources are economic assets, whether or not they enter the marketplace.” The 500-plus TEEB team of economists, ecologists and researchers works to put a money-value to the ‘services’ that forests and ecosystems offer us, if we had to pay for them every time we use them.

While an agency as credible as TEEB has put out the actual price of resources considered invaluable, there is no market or ‘buyer’ who can pay for these services. The countries and governments who mostly ‘own’ these forests therefore have no ‘profit’ to show against their forest cover on their balancesheet. Which is why, most often, they have no incentive to let forests stay as forests.

On the other hand, changing the land use pattern, ie converting forest land into, say, agricultural land or real estate, gives them far more tangible wealth. And therein lies the story of why across the world, forests have been simply disappearing.

The Indian government has an ambitious plan of adding 5 million hectares of forests every year. At present, India has 70 million hectares of forest cover. But 40% of that cover is sadly, ‘open degraded forest’.

Now what that term means was explained by Jairam Ramesh at a meeting organised by the UNEP to mark World Environment Day in New Delhi: “Very dense forest is one where you stand and look up, but cannot see the sun. Medium dense forest is that where you can see half the sun above. And open degraded forest is where you stand and look above, and you can’t see anything but the sun.”

Thorny issues

Indeed, the saga of forest use in our country is hardly a sunshine story. A staggering 250 million Indians make their living in some form from the forests. Unlike some countries in the West, forests in India are not merely preserved sanctuaries or tourist circuits. They are a hotbed of thorny issues: Tribal rights, illegal trade of animals, pilfering and smuggling of forest produce, man-animal conflict, encroachment of animal habitat, threat to endangered species, biodiversity loss…each of these issues threatens the very existence of the life and livelihood-giving forests.

While the government’s ‘5-million-hectares of forest addition per annum plan’ sounds grand, the flaw lies in its afforestation policy. Compensatory afforestation has often meant bad quality afforestation.

The recent road-widening and multi-laning drive in Bangalore for instance has meant cutting down of thousands of trees. If that cutting down was inevitable for a city looking for drastic traffic solutions, its ‘compensation’ has angered activists and citizens. Says Vinay of Hasiru Usiru, “If you cut an 80year-old tree on Bangalore’s Seshadri Road, and plant a bougainvillea somewhere else, what kind of compensation is that? Rain trees that were in plenty are not planted anywhere now. The city corporation plants only those trees that grow straight and not too tall and don’t give much canopy.”

And then there is the killer monoculture that has been the bane of Indian forestry policies. Acres of oil palm/eucalyptus plantations do nothing to improve the biodiversity of the area or the capacity to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, but get a ‘tick-mark’ on paper to fill the local officers’ quota of ‘green cover’ to take government grants.

Even as India hosts the World Environment Day for the first time in the 38 years since its inception, Indian forests need another chance to thrive. If nature needs to continue “being at our service”, we better turn from being exploiters, to conservers. If not, we would be doing disservice not to nature, but our own future.

Infochange

By Vasanthi Hariprakash

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