India’s ghost plantations in which millions of rupees have been sunk

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: India

Publishing organisation: Scroll.in

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 2022-01-12

Language: English

Authors: Ishan Kukreti


Ishan is an environmental journalist based in India. He has written extensively on environmental and developmental issues ranging from forest governance to energy, within a framework of political ecology. His reporting adds a human lens to the broader debates around environmental policies and problems.

Project description:

India has been planting trees to offset forest loss for over two decades now. It has used these plantations to justify fund transfer from the develped world in global climate negotiations through programs like REDD+. However, an in-dept investgation shows that most of these plantations are non-existence and in some cases, the data shows, that the Indian state has claimed to have planted trees in the Arabina Sea and the Brahmaputra River.

The story raises bigger concerns over “nature based solutions” and afforestation activity as efforts to combat climate change.

Impact reached:

The story was used by an opposition parliamentarian to raise a question in the Indian Parliament. The story was used by name in the Indian Parliament to discuss plantations.

The story is being used as evidence in two separate court cases, one in National Green Tribunal of India (India’s environment tribunal) and in state level court of the west Indian state of Rajasthan.

An environmental non-profit based out of Delhi is using the methodology employed by me in the investigation and shared with them after the publication of the story, to generate more evidence on India’s “ghost plantations.”

The Global Investigative Journalism Network selected the story in its 2022’s Best Investigative Stories in India list.

Techniques/technologies used:

For this story, I have relied on India’s trnaparency law, the Right to Information Act, to get the data on the status of plantations. Then I used statistical sampling methods to identify a smaple of 2,000 kml files (uploded by Indian states to mark the GPS location of these plantations). For all of these 2,000 files, I used Google Earth to verify whether there was any vegetation on the ground. To improve the nature of this evidence I used Goolge Earth’s Historical Imegery feature to map the changes on the ground, as visible through time, to the timelines of the plnatation -example when was the plnatation done- mentioned in offical docuemnts.

Identifying these plnatations on the gorund was a challenge too, because most of them were in secluded areas without prominant land marks. More importantly, these plantations were on small areas, measuring in acres, it was important to make sure that what I was seeing on the gorund was actually the site of the plantations and not a nearby area. For this I used the lat-long data from the Google Earth, cooroborated it on Google Map, dropped pin on all of the locations, and used Maps to navigate to these areas.

Context about the project:

The research for this story proved to be more difficult than anticipated as the Indian ministry of environment, which was a source for a lot of the documents, kept stonewalling my requests for information, despite these requests being made using the national transparency law.

What can other journalists learn from this project?

In this story, I have not just relied on documents from the government to investigate an issue, but used GPS technology to generate evidence to support my investigation. If anything, the learning from this story is the use of appropriate digital technology to take one’s investigation one step further than what your paper trail of documents is hinting at.

Project links: