BHUBANESWAR, India (AlertNet) - India faces a tough choice between preserving its forests and digging up the valuable minerals that lie beneath them. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Orissa State - home to 35 percent of India’s iron ore resources, which it is exploiting fast.
Orissa’s production of iron ore alone increased seven times in the decade to 2009, topping 77 million tonnes as global demand, particularly from China, drove export prices higher. The state is also rich in bauxite, chromites and coal, holding 55 percent, 95 percent and 24 percent of India's total deposits respectively.
Orissa has close to 600 mine leases, covering around 97,000 hectares. During a mineral rush from 2002 to 2008, the state signed 49 investment deals worth around $44 billion dollars (1,981 billion rupees). Last year, mining operations produced minerals worth $3.8 billion (171 billion rupees), according to the Federal Ministry of Mines.
This represents a rich haul for one of India’s poorest states. The problem is that the most valuable mineral reserves are found beneath and around the edge of Orissa’s ecologically sensitive forests, which cover nearly a third of its land area.
Some 40 percent of the state’s population depend partly or fully on these forests for their livelihood, subsisting on less than $2 a day. Around half that group are tribal communities who live in the forests, putting their way of life at risk from mining activities.
Launching an analysis of draft mining legislation this month, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a New Delhi-based research and advocacy organisation, said mining generates wealth, but at a substantial cost to development, the environment and marginalised groups, who find themselves excluded from its economic benefits. “A clear illustration of this can be seen in India’s major mining districts - some of which are in Orissa - which rank among its poorest and most polluted,” it said.
India aims to grow its GDP by around 9 percent year, meaning it needs to create 10 million job opportunities annually, including in the mining sector.
But the aggressive pursuit of energy-intensive mining, together with Orissa’s ambition to become a major coal-fired energy supplier to the national grid, is putting great pressure on the environment through changes in land use and forest degradation.
“It is a sad irony that tribal people who for centuries preserved forests and have contributed least to greenhouse gas (emissions) will bear some of the worst effects of not just loss of livelihoods, but with forests gone, that of climate change too,” said Badal Tah of Ankuran, an NGO that supports community rights in Rayagada, which has experienced prolonged conflict over bauxite mining.
In the past decade, Orissa has suffered extreme heat waves, unpredictable rainfall patterns, floods and cyclonic systems sweeping in from the Bay of Bengal – which scientists increasingly link to global warming.
“The climate impact aspect of mining has until now been swept under the carpet, to be dealt with later,” India’s Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh told journalists at a media workshop in Delhi organised by the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) to mark World Environment Day earlier this month.
“There is however no magic bullet to effect the balance between development, the aspiration of rural communities to a better lifestyle and growth of the mining industry in Orissa.”
Ramesh said decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis, but the biggest challenge is to transform the way people look at forests. “If 250 million people in India who depend on forests are not made partners … conserving our forests will become difficult,” he added.
Achim Steiner, UNEP executive director, said the world has yet to fully recognise the importance of forests, relying too heavily on technology to overcome economic constraints. Green growth should not be regarded as anti-industrial, but as a way to minimise industry’s harmful impacts, he added.
“Forests are at the centre of India’s rural economy, yet in terms of development we see no expansion of ecological infrastructure,” he told reporters at the workshop, which focused on the ecosystem services forests provide.
The battle to save India’s forests, particularly those sitting atop minerals, is becoming more intense. Judicial interventions have been used increasingly to prevent corporate exploitation through mining.
In a landmark 2002 ruling that ordered the closure of one of India largest mining entities, the Kudremukh Iron Ore Company Ltd (KIOCL) in Karnataka, for violation of forest and wildlife laws, Supreme Court Justice Arijit Pasayat said that “by destroying nature we are committing matricide, having in a way killed Mother Earth”. The court had faced a choice between “an eco-friendly approach” and “a dollar-friendly approach”, he said.
The federal government has since taken steps to make industrial growth in India greener, particularly the mining sector.
They include the introduction of a system to collect money from industrial user agencies, which mainly comprise mining companies that operate on forested land. They must pay compensation to the government based on the value of the standing forests, which is then used to replant trees of an equivalent value in a different area.
The funds - gathered centrally - should be disbursed to states on timely basis. But by January 2010, the 15.6 billion rupees ($347 million) deposited by user agencies in Orissa, the second highest amount among all states, had yet to translate into commensurate greening on the ground.
NEW VERSUS OLD FORESTS
While India’s forest cover has increased by more than 3 million hectares in the last decade, minister Ramesh admitted that “quality and not quantity is India’s biggest challenge”, adding that new plantations generate fewer ecological benefits than natural forest and should not be seen as the solution.
This is because monoculture and fast-growing species - which have lower ecological value and contribute less to offsetting climate change - remain the norm for industrial compensatory plantations and compulsory green belts.
“The carbon pools are largest in old primary forests; man-made forests cannot absorb as much carbon since they lack adequate biomass,” Niklas Hegelberg, a UNEP programme officer, told journalists at the workshop.
Forests store one quarter of all terrestrial carbon. Globally, deforestation accounts for 15 to 17 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, according to UNEP studies.
Brij Mohan Singh Rathore, joint secretary at the Ministry of Environment and Forests for the National Mission for a Green India, said that introducing strategic Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) for sensitive industries and geographical areas could be the key to making mining more sustainable.
“Larger, downstream and long-term implications must be factored in…before a forest-linked project begins,” he said.
The main focus of the Green India Mission should be on improving density of forest cover, biodiversity, water and improved biomass, he added.
Meanwhile India is making an effort to ensure that benefits from mining activities trickle down to the local level. The draft Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, which is ready to be presented to parliament, includes a provision that 26 percent of the net profits from mining must be shared with local communities.
But environmentalists question how far the proposed legislation will help preserve forests and limit climatic changes, because it does not set curbs on the amount of forested land that can be exploited for mining activities.
Manipadma Jena is a freelance development journalist based in Bhubaneswar, India.