Roundtable Series: Technology for Sustainable Forest Economy

‘Technology for sustainable forest economy’ was the topic of the second of four roundtables (RTs) held in November 2022 to move further towards the vision for the Bharti Institute of Public Policy’s (BIPP), Indian School of Business’s (ISB) Initiative on the Forest Economy (IoFE). Senior scientists and faculty from prominent research and technology institutions came together for the closed group discussion, where Prof. Ashwini Chhatre shared his vision for a thriving forest economy and the potential that the forest economy model, anchored in secure tenure, holds for the industry, the macro economy, the communities, and the sustainable management of forest resources. Prof. Chhatre said, “Technological innovations, both digital and mechanical, will be key to the success of the proposed forest economy model.” 

Prof. Ashwini Chhatre began the discussion by sharing his vision of a “vibrant forest economy grounded in Community Forest Rights.” It holds tremendous potential for the industries, the macro economy, the communities, and the sustainable management of forest resources. Digital and mechanical technical advancements are crucial to the success of this proposed forest economy. 

He spoke about the different aspects of the model, such as the fundamental need to have a vision that focuses on forest-based communities and forests in India. Secondly, he elaborated on the existing and potential market for forest-based products. One of the significant sectors associated with forests for raw materials is the paper and pulp industry. Over the decades, the paper and pulp business has consistently evolved to suit different facets of our daily lives. The rise in paper use over the years has prompted us to explore technological and digital solutions for the sustainable management of forest resources. The forest economy is invisible and highly seasonal, but this seasonality persists throughout the year and accounts for a significant portion of non-farm income for particularly vulnerable and destitute individuals. The intersection between forests and poverty presents us with the opportunity to merge divergent aspects into a prosperous forest economy. He believes that formalizing this first mile of the forest products supply chain through stronger market linkages will generate stable income for communities. 

Prof. Chhatre spoke about the business model being developed at ISB. He said that it should be functional for the benefit of forest-dependent people, forests, industries, and the government. The model operates on three functional pillars: tenure security, economies of aggregation, and market linkages. In collaboration with other educational and technological institutions, our team is developing digital, mechanical, and technological wealth-creating solutions. By adopting and applying innovative process optimization solutions, we endeavour to maximize the value of the forest products at the source. Aggregating forest products while customizing mechanical, digital, and technological solutions to increase efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and value increases the likelihood of selling seasonal forest products (SFP) as raw material to industries. 

The representative from the Centre for Excellence in Fiscal Policy and Taxation (CEFT) agreed with the professor’s vision of the forest economy. He was positive about digital technology’s facilitation of accessibility, first-mile sourcing and processing, transportation costs, forest management, and demand and supply planning. He emphasized a balanced approach to forest economy and forest protection, among other topics. Remote sensing technologies, geographic data collection, and high-frequency satellite photos must be utilized to locate viable plants and trees as well as raw materials for diverse industrial products. 

Representatives from the National Innovation Foundation shared their learnings about the rich knowledge of herbs and medicines the natives possess. They elaborated on ways of cultivation and conservation practiced by communities, which include the creation of a database of their practices, supporting grassroots innovators, validating and adding value to their innovations, and assisting them with business development strategies. In addition, NIF stated its practice of facilitating the transformation of innovations into commercially viable products. 

Representatives from IIT Mumbai mentioned their work on the agricultural value chain, product value creation, and strategies they developed for optimizing biorefineries’ inputs. They emphasized the importance of understanding the type, origin, accessibility, and commercial feasibility of a forest-based raw material in order to make it a replacement for the conventional materials used by industries. They emphasized the challenges related to building a system for fabrication, maintenance, and tinkering. For instance, the integration of sensors and displays into a machine can minimize the constraints of achieving locally adaptable modifications that should be customized as per the needs of the community and ecology. 

Participants collectively agreed to collaborate on optimizing technologies for collection, scalability, and production using forest products as raw materials. Designing machines for processing and waste management requires the active participation of the government and other agencies, primarily for financial support and their cooperation in transporting and setting up the machines. 

The discussion on the inventory of forests by incorporating all stakeholders was a crucial part of the roundtable. Inventory data management, with the cooperation of the Forest Department, was suggested as a viable strategy. Additional points put forward for consideration were technological frameworks for the local communities to comprehend geotagging; infrastructure to analyze forest products; solutions for challenges in tribal inclusivity; collaboration between multiple stakeholders to experiment with unconventional solutions such as data capture at scale and leveraging drones; leveraging technology for innovative solutions; and technology applications for identifying raw material availability. 

Representatives discussed essential technologies, including mechanical and digital solutions. The conversation was steered toward a framework for implementation. Participants concurred that accurate inventories of forests and intervention gaps lay the foundation for creating relevant technological solutions. The use of digital technology to increase the transparency of data has emerged as an essential part of a successful forest economy model. The Round Table delegates agreed that the technology-enabled forest economy model has the potential to transform the landscape of community, forest, industry, and government welfare and benefits. 

Professor Ashwini Chhatre concluded the roundtable by highlighting the need for a well-defined strategy to achieve equality in the distribution of wealth. The tenure security of the forest communities will ensure continuous and long-term incentives for equitable wealth sharing as well as responsible harvesting and forest management. Women are the major collectors and actors in the invisible forest economy; nevertheless, the business model must support women in being at the forefront of the forest economy. 

Roundtable Delegates 

  • Mahesh Patel, Senior Principal Scientist, National Innovation Foundation, DST, Ahmedabad 
  • Subrata Kumar Mandal, Senior Principal Scientist, Central Mechanical Engineering Research Institute, Durgapur, WB  
  • Imran Shekh, Senior Scientist, Central Mechanical Engineering Research Institute, Durgapur, WB   
  • Abhijit P Deshpande, Head, RuTAG, Indian Institute of Technology, Madras   
  • Satish B. Agnihotri, Professor, Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay  
  • Amit Y. Arora, Professor, Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay  
  • Shaily Gandhi, Program Chair, Geomatics Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology, Ahmedabad 
  • Satyendra Rao, Head, Technology Transfer, Central Food Technology Research Institute, Mysore  
  • Neha Mudaliar, International Finance Corporation  

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