India will spend $6.2 billion to realize a forest cover goal it’s been pursuing for over 50 years. The investment illustrates the critical role that markets for forest products play in maintaining forest inventories in North America, and offering an economic return when environmental services can’t.
The Indian government says it will invest over $6 billion to reforest roughly 12 percent of the country. India is roughly one-third the size of the United States but home to nearly four times as many people (1.2 billion). India has 300,000 square miles of forests landing it in the number 10 spot globally. On that same list, the United States ranks fourth, boasting roughly four times the forested area as India.
India’s government intends to fund this massive effort to create a vast carbon sink. While the motivation for the effort may be new, the goal is not. In the early 1950’s, India’s government established a goal to increase the percentage of forest cover in the country to 33 percent. Current forest cover estimates for the country range from 21 to 25 percent, suggesting that India’s approach for over 50 years has not yielded the desired results. Conversely, forest inventories in the United States have held steady at very nearly the percentage the Indian government has been pursuing for nearly a century largely without massive, government funded reforestation efforts. A review of Indian policy surrounding forests illustrates that for decades the government has sought to limit the production and use of domestic forest products. In 1988, a new Forest Policy reiterated the goal of 33 percent forest cover and called for the greater substitution of non-forest materials for forest products whenever and wherever possible (concrete and steel). Since the policy was established, the gains in forest cover have been modest and have failed to achieve the gains the government has been working toward for five decades.
Now, desperate to capture growing carbon dioxide emissions, the country will pay to reforest 96 million acres of land. To put this into perspective, imagine sprinkling the forest cover in Georgia over India, four times over. The carbon storing properties of forest inventories are well understood, but India’s means to this long-prized goal illustrates the critical importance of robust forest product markets to maintaining and growing forest inventories. Simply put, demand for forests products keeps working forests working, healthy and providing numerous societal environmental benefits with little government subsidization.
The simple truth is that the economic incentive to practice and deploy modern forestry practices aren’t in place in India. The country’s forests are too often converted to grazing or used for heating fuel without anyone being paid or compensated for its use, removing a key ingredient to modern, sustainable forest practices. Robust forest products markets that introduce an economic incentive to keep forests as forests pay the way for these vital environmental services that we’re all now realizing we cannot do without.
When forests and the products they produce are valued and generate an economic opportunity for their owners, a portion of those returns is invested in planting new trees and other modern forest management practices. India’s struggle to achieve a goal they’ve had for nearly six decades makes this clear. Now, the government is injecting more than $6 billion as a substitute for the value forests enjoy in other parts of world because of established and robust forest products industries.
The United States has the kind of forest cover percentages India covets. India’s hopes for increased forest cover are easy to understand, but the means by which they are now hoping to achieve this goal speaks volumes about the vital role that robust markets for forest products play in creating real, long-term and sustainable value for forests.