Over the last few years, debates around forests have centred global priorities like carbon sequestration to mitigate climate change, conservation of biological diversity to forestall the ongoing mass extinction, and the myriad ecosystem services that forests provide, such as regulating the water cycle. While all of these are important global and regional priorities, these debates have neglected the myriad contributions that forests can make to a carbon-neutral future. As the industry begins to search for substitutes to ingredients currently derived from fossil fuels, it is important to consider forests as an important source for the future supply of these substitutes. Here are a few illustrations of the ways in which forests will contribute to the economy in the near future.
Bamboo and pinecones over coal
The so-called hard-to-abate sectors, such as cement and steel, are committed to substituting coal with alternative fuels derived from biomass. While a lot of attention has been paid to agricultural residue such as Paddy straw, forest products such as bamboo and pinecones have much higher calorific values and are therefore more attractive as alternatives. Bamboo is a fast-growing species native to most of India. Growing bamboo as industrial fuel not only substitutes coal but also sequesters large amounts of carbon above and below ground in the areas where it is grown. Pinecones in Himalayan forests can be collected without harming the trees or the forests.
Pinecones over bubble wrap for e-commerce logistics
Pinecones are also an excellent substitute for carbon-intensive packing materials – bubble wraps, air-filled plastic, shredded paper, and Styrofoam balls. Pinecones are designed by nature to not just be light but also structured to maximize the volume per unit weight. They are unbreakable and can be compressed without compromising their structural integrity.
Mahua Flowers over maize and sugarcane for ethanol production
We have all heard of Mahua, the country liquor made from flowers of the Mahua tree. Liquor is nothing but ethyl alcohol, better known as ethanol. Recently the Government of India raised the ethanol mixing mandate from 5% to 20%. We should consider Mahua flowers as a far more practical alternative compared to maize and sugarcane, with the added benefit of avoiding trade-offs between food security and fuel supplies. The seeds of the Karanj or Pongamia tree contain oil that can be converted into biodiesel with very little processing. CSIR has already documented dozens of such species found in Indian forests. The vast expanse of our forest land can supply a significant fraction of our transportation energy.
Natural gums and lac over paraffin
Another significant opportunity is natural substitutes for paraffin, a substance that is derived from petroleum and is widespread in its presence in our lives. One of its uses is to coat high-value fruits and vegetables to reduce moisture loss and significantly increase shelf life. There are natural gums derived from common forest trees, like some Acacia species, that can be used as a substitute for paraffin. Lac, harvested from forest trees like Palash and Kusum and traditionally used to make bangles, is another natural substitute for use in coating fruits for moisture protection. Resin from the pine trees in the Himalayas can serve similar purposes with appropriate modifications in processing and refinement.
Forests already contribute to local livelihoods through incomes from the sale of seasonal forest products. Many of these products – Bamboo, Mahua flowers, Sal seeds, and pinecones are good candidates for a model of rural industrialisation to meet the demands of the low-carbon climate-smart economy. This future forest economy presents a triple-win opportunity; it is good for the planet, people, and profits.
Empower local communities
Such an economy must rest on sound forest governance to ensure sustainability. Forests will be protected when people who live in or near the forests benefit from them directly. These benefits can be reinforced by providing local communities with the right incentives for sustainable management. The Community Forest Resource rights provision of the Forest Rights Act presents us with such a mechanism. It allows for ownership and management authority to be devolved to local communities, allowing them to capture the benefits of better forest management. This not only incentivizes protection but also creates opportunities for forest restoration to increase these benefits.
Empower Indian entrepreneurs
The future industrial uses of forest products are ripe for investments in fostering entrepreneurship. The conversion of bamboo into fuel for cement kilns or distillation of mahua flowers into ethanol must be undertaken by entrepreneurs who step in to literally create this new economy. These will be individuals who understand the local context and culture in order to build a successful business through partnerships with local communities and their federations. These enterprises will comprise an important element linking rural communities with industrial value chains. The forests of the future will support such a model of distributed industrialization while also creating jobs in rural areas and fostering sustainable forest management. Such a vision is only possible if we reimagine forests as a space of production, beyond just protection and conservation.
The writer is Executive Director, Bharti Institute of Public Policy, ISB.