As the world seeks strategies to combat climate change and biodiversity loss, forest restoration has emerged as a key approach. However, a closer look at global efforts reveals a significant reliance on fast-growing tree plantations. The allure of quick results often guides such choices, but the history of forest restoration in India offers vital insights into the potential pitfalls of this approach. While tree planting can yield immediate outcomes, the long-term consequences for ecosystems and communities require thoughtful consideration.

India’s experience with tree plantations stretches back over 200 years, providing valuable lessons for today’s foresters. During British colonial rule, forests became crucial resources for timber, driven by the demand for railway sleepers and ships. The Indian Forest Act of 1865 placed high-yield timber trees under state control, limiting local access to resources and sparking tensions. Planting initiatives introduced species like teak, eucalyptus, and pine, transforming landscapes into monocultures and endangering native ecosystems.

Exotic species introduced from other regions, such as wattle and pine, swiftly spread and disrupted native ecosystems. These plantations displaced indigenous hardwood trees, like oak and sal, which held multiple values for local communities. Loss of these trees and grazing land led to impoverishment, highlighting the complexities of restoration efforts.

Today, India’s ambitious Bonn Challenge commitment aims to restore around 21 million hectares of forest by 2030. However, focusing solely on expanding tree cover can lead to unintended consequences. Plantations of fast-growing species often replace grasslands and natural ecosystems, affecting rural and indigenous communities that rely on these areas. The ongoing introduction of exotic trees risks new invasive species, similar to historical cases like wattle.

While challenges abound, there are encouraging examples of successful restoration efforts. The Forest Rights Act of 2006 empowered local assemblies to manage forests sustainably. In the Gadchiroli district, degraded forests were restored by indigenous communities, sustaining a source of tendu leaves for bidi (Indian tobacco). Likewise, in the Kachchh grasslands, communities removed invasive species, revealing the potential of grassroots-led restoration.

The true success of forest restoration transcends mere tree cover statistics. India’s current definition of “forest” encompasses single-species plantations, orchards, and even bamboo, obscuring the distinction between natural forests and commercial plantations. This overlooks the displacement of native species and the invasion of grasslands, both of which hinder genuine restoration.

Balancing natural forest regeneration and targeted plantations requires careful consideration of local ecosystems and livelihoods. The choice of plantation species should prioritize non-invasiveness. Beyond quantitative measures, assessing the impact on forest rights, local communities, biodiversity, and carbon storage is essential. The best practices exemplified by community-led efforts, like those in Gadchiroli, should serve as models for scaling up restoration.

The journey to restore forests is more than a matter of tree planting—it’s about safeguarding ecosystems, supporting communities, and nurturing biodiversity. Rather than merely assessing tree cover from above, a holistic approach that considers local well-being and environmental integrity is the true indicator of successful restoration.

By Impact Lab