Bridging local and global concerns, promoting equity and passionate stakeholders, are crucial for fostering the conservation of forests
Forests are vital ecosystems that maintain the balance of our planet and provide numerous resources and ecological services indispensable for human survival. Numerous research studies underscore the paramount importance of biodiverse natural forests in both climate change mitigation and adaptation.
In today’s world, democracy stands as a beacon of hope, a principle that is both popular and attractive. However, the conundrum of choice between ‘decision by merit’ and ‘decision by majority’ presents a unique challenge in the context of the sustainability of forests and natural resources.
Historically people lived off natural resources while forests, producing more than what was extracted, sustained themselves. Communities often followed customary rules and norms related to grazing, firewood collection and more, demonstrating a profound respect for nature. Later the Zamindars and Chieftains formalised rules for exploitation of forest-produce. Management of forests using silvicultural principles started during British time and continued thereafter. Village Panchayats in central India, for example, had a say in the exercise of ‘nistar’ rights indicated in ‘Nistar Patraks’ and ‘wazib ul arz’ and also in ‘Du-chand’ areas that were twice the ‘cultivated area’ of the village. However, the relentless tide of rising populations and development pressures led to such area’s overexploitation and abuse resulting in a loss of productivity, encroachment, and also diversion.
The National Forest Policy 1988 heralded an era of community-led management practices in forestry. The Joint Forest Management in the 1990s and the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act 1996, made villagers participants in the domain of forestry. However, with Panchayats saddled with the responsibility of working as the grass-root level governance units for a multitude of social and financial resource-rich sectors and with the emergence of newer livelihood options and development strategies, forestry-related activities had, de facto, a low priority within Panchayats.
In 2006, the Forest Rights Act (FRA) was passed to redress the ‘historical injustice’ allegedly done to the ‘forest-dwelling scheduled tribes’ (FDSTs) and ‘other traditional forest dwellers’ (OTFDs) and recognize forest rights in their favour. FRA, a unique instrument heralding democratization of the forest right claims’ scrutiny at the village level provided for vesting of management rights into the eligible communities of FDSTs and OTFDs. Democratization is supposed to equip the management framework with the relevant traditional knowledge and local communities’ wisdom. It allows recognition of the interest of communities in preserving forest resources and securing a collective commitment towards their sustainability. While it fosters a sense of ownership and responsibility and the creation of an equitable and just system, it must ensure that marginalized communities are not left behind. India attempted the democratisation of forestry using the paradigm of traditional Gram Sabha/ Panchayats. In the past selection of Panchas was based on local customs, traditions, and community consensus. The system was deeply rooted in the principles of inclusivity and collective decision-making where well-respected individuals with leadership qualities, integrity, wisdom, fairness, competence, and knowledge of local issues were selected. Village dynamics, however, have undergone a seismic shift with political leaders gaining influence. The impact of the political system on the village-level psyche; already fractured by caste, class, and economic considerations; is a complex and multifaceted issue today. While the political system does foster awareness and civic participation, state or national politics often eclipses local concerns. Interestingly, however, global prioritization of forest conservation seldom trickles down to the village through political leaders and in instances of damage to forests, they tend to favour their electorate. Political expediency becoming the order of the day, and transforming mindsets to favour forest conservation irrespective of political affiliations is a formidable challenge. Further, convincing people to protect and conserve for the sake of stakeholders beyond their village limits is yet another challenging task.
The journey towards the democratization of forestry has been fraught with challenges and limitations. A fundamental obstacle is the persistence of power asymmetry within local communities. This became glaringly evident during FRA’s implementation when powerful elites and interest groups attempted to manipulate amendments to its rules and guidelines. The influence on decision-making led to widespread illegal recognition of non-admissible individual and community forest rights, to the disadvantage of genuine beneficiaries. Such instances of ‘elite capture’ hurt the sustainability of forests and natural resources. The 2021 Status of Forest Report by the Forest Survey of India (FSI) reveals that Maharashtra's Gadchiroli district; with management rights on the majority of forest areas vested, albeit in violation of provisions, in Gram Sabhas; witnessed maximum forest fires in the previous three years.
Effective forest management in today’s context necessitates specialised knowledge in areas like ecology, silviculture, and their interdisciplinary linkages. With the availability of new livelihood options and increased migrations, villages do experience an erosion of traditional knowledge and competencies. Preparation of biodiversity registers under the Biological Diversity Act 2002 by hiring outsiders in many villages is a case in point. Further, a lack of technical knowledge becomes a significant limitation. The case of Mendha Lekha village in Maharashtra serves as a poignant example. Here, a bamboo coupe was clear-felled in 2012 by violating silvicultural prescriptions. The area is yet to regain its productivity creating difficulties for the exercise of forest rights.
The desire for quick economic gain may lead to the prioritisation of short-term gains over long-term sustainability undermining conservation-oriented practices. Bamboo over-harvesting as also neglecting the sanitary felling operations is reported in many villages. In this context, the FSI’s 2021 report regarding the loss of about 10,500 sq. km of bamboo-bearing area in the country deserves field-level scrutiny. On the economic front, because of the scale of operation, village-level incomes suffer due to market dynamics and inadequate value chains. The position of the genuine beneficiaries of FRA in the case of the ‘tendu leaves’ trade controlled by village elites in many villages of Maharashtra is worth examining.
Legal frameworks and implementations with sectoral biases harm community interests and jeopardize the sustainability of resources. In this context, the exclusion of foresters from the FRA's micro-plan preparation committees in Maharashtra warrants a reevaluation. Ministry of Tribal Affairs, GOI issued guidelines for the supersession of existing landscape-based Working Plans by all village-level micro-plans. While the guidelines have far-reaching implications for the ecosystem continuum vital for biodiversity’s survival, they disregard the National Working Plan Code of the MOEFCC, Government of India as well as the Supreme Court’s order mandating the sanction of all management plans by the Central Government. Tribal department being the nodal agency for FRA, there is a conspicuous lack of urgency in addressing the mandated issue of sustainability of forests and forest resources which is a non-negotiable precondition for the sustainability of forest rights itself. Exercising effective control on corruption and misgovernance at various levels including that at the panchayat level is yet another serious concern. In the absence of cognizance of violations, FRA’s implementation has largely been ignoring the proverb ‘Charity beyond law is an injustice to others’.
Duly accepting the fact that contextuality will determine its success, democratization may be adopted carefully as a strategy for sustainable resource management. The development of appropriate institutional capacity, trained workforce, and availability of resources within an appropriately designed legislative framework must become a precondition. Recognizing the limitations and learning from past experiences is essential. Addressing power imbalances bridging local and global concerns, and promoting equity and collaboration among stakeholders, for fostering conservation approaches are crucial. The need for a nuanced understanding and adaptive strategies being paramount, the selection of the most appropriate strategy will be a testament to our commitment to a sustainable and equitable future. The stakes are high, and the time to act is now!
(The writers are Former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, UP and Maharashtra, views are personal)