A New Era in Forest Management?

State, people and forests

Significant changes in the interaction between rural communities and forests have occurred over the last twenty years, which have been seen to both drive policy change, as illustrated in the 'Arabari experience' and be impacted by it, such as the rapid spread of JFM. The distinct paradigm shift encapsulated in the 1988 Forest Act lays the policy foundations for a greater legitimacy of rural communities' biomass rights; a significant departure from policies that expressly failed to acknowledge subsistence claims, inherited from colonial times and enlarged upon in the early post colonial era. That rural communities' claims were not addressed has no doubt contributed to the degradation of India's forests, through unorganised and 'illegal' harvesting. However, as discussed earlier, many other competing claims such as industry, business, development, significantly reduced forest stock, and reduced availability of forest resources, creating additional pressure on remaining forests.

In response to resource scarcity groups organised around principles of forest protection and management have effectively claimed areas upon which access and use has been regulated. In Bihar, forest protection has been initiated as part of a wider political Jharkhand movement. In Orissa, as has been demonstrated, some of these groups are operating semi-legitimately with regard to the state. Both the Budhikhamari FPC and the Ranpur FPC, amongst many other similarly operating groups in Orissa, are not officially recognised by the government as established management groups. Further, they could even be described as operating outside the state, given their round rejection of being incorporated into the JFM structure and their demonstrated hostility towards the Forest Department in general. Areas taken over by CFM in Orissa are frequently designated as Reserved. Although they are often brought under CFM when in a degraded state and seemingly abandoned by the Forest Department, they are, nonetheless officially the preserve of the FD, and as such can legally be reclaimed at any time. Given this quasi-legal status, the future of community forest protection may be questionable.

However, as mentioned earlier, the formation and operation of village forest protection committees in Orissa can be seen as contesting the Reserved designation that has historically alienated communities from forest resources, and effectively criminalised them. The CFM movement, if it could be described in such terms, can also be understood as part of a longer struggle for rights of access to resources, a more subtle and subversive activism perhaps, since Chipko, and in this sense, as a successor to the environmental activism that was initiated in the earlier part of the century with incendiarism of colonial plantations. Here, the successful regeneration of forests, often from degraded Reserved forests owned by the state, is a subversive reminder of the failure of the Forest Department.

Currently, the relationship between forests, communities and the state appears to be in a state of uncertainty in Orissa, and after the hurried implementation of JFM and its consequent decline, the Orissa government, still committed to promoting peoples' participation in forest management, may well be in a position to negotiate. Perhaps CFM will carve itself out a viable role through dialogue with the government via local NGO's. The government has formed a steering committee, which, through the organisation of workshops and symposia, are attempting to sound out rural communities' needs regarding forest access in what appears to be a spirit of co-operation. Whether the government will accept CFM in its present form, however, is unlikely, due to the minimal role of the state, therefore some compromise may be necessary. Given the hostility of several of the communities in this study towards the Forest Department, a meeting point seems also unlikely, though villagers are adamant they do not want to be incorporated into the JFM measures. It may be worth briefly considering the differences between CFM and JFM, and the possible implications for long-term forest management.


CFM Vs JFM: How sustainable?

From the description of joint forest management given earlier, it is clear that the system is a partnership between communities and the state, for the regulated use and management of forests. Community forest management, however, from work undertaken in the field, appears to be a more informal system, towards similar ends, without input from the Forest Department.

As part of the relationship between communities and the state under JFM, local people are empowered to learn silvicultural techniques, and methods to monitor vegetative changes of plots under community protection, therefore, there is an aim to understand the tangible effects of management. However, no provisions exist under CFM. Similarly, no management plans existed for any of the community protected forests in Orissa under CFM, and management was undertaken when deemed to be necessary. Whether such an ad-hoc approach to forest management can form the basis of a sustainable system is open to question. Particularly as rural people have been 'officially' alienated from forests, they may not necessarily be well equipped to manage forests on a long term basis, contrary to popular opinion.

The social composition of committees may differ significantly between JFM and CFM. Guidelines drawn up for joint forest management attempt to create village committees that reflect the socio-economic composition of the community, with representations from each caste and tribe. Sometimes membership may recommend a member from each family. JFM stipulations also emphasise gender and actively promote the participation of women as executive members. CFM, however, tends to follow the existing village council structure, which is rarely representative of the broader community. Rather, village councils often serve the interests of a powerful minority (Sharma, 1991; Agarwal and Narain, 1990). In Orissa, some VFPC's do not allow women members. Some workers have noted the importance of charismatic leadership in the management of forests (Jewitt, 1995), however, in a more informal system such as CFM, the flip side of a strong leadership may be a potential abuse of power, with little redress.

JFM has spread quickly, like CFM, indicating the success of both. However, in some cases joint forest management has broken down, due to institutional problems associated with the committee, or lack of trust between community groups and the Forest Department. In some cases, under JFM in Orissa, the forests that have been carefully managed and protected are planned to be handed over to industry, against the locals' will, in a travesty of 'joint forest management' (Khan, 1998).

All the studies conducted by this candidate in Orissa regarding community forest management revealed considerable conflict; not just with other 'users', however legitimate or otherwise their claims, but, more seriously, conflict within communities, as an expression of inequity between castes. As discussed earlier, it is likely that the process of restricting access to 'outside' users and regulating forest use amongst a defined group of people will further marginalise vulnerable groups such as adivasis; a troubling prospect. Conflict may be a consequence of the autonomy of the management.

While the future of JFM appears strong, the very autonomy of CFM may undermine its viability. Operating semi-legitimately, VFPC's may render the long-term sustenance of forests vulnerable; subject to any power shifts or conflicts within the panchayat. There is also perhaps an increased possibility of 'carpet-bagging', where internal pressures to harvest regenerated forest may over ride more long-term objectives.

Overall, given the medium between state intervention and community management of forests, joint forest management may be the more realistic option for rural communities, though some NGO's comment that JFM may increase the power of the state over rural communities.


Forest management in the community

For all the criticisms discussed above, both JFM and CFM have been shown to be effective factors in the regeneration of forests. Case studies from West Bengal, and fieldwork conducted in Orissa, point to genuine efforts and achievements by rural communities to rehabilitate forests. In Budhikhamari, the Shorea robusta forest is young and forms a dense canopy, where twenty years ago, there was scrub little more than a metre high. Similarly, in Chaatipur, Bajrakot and Khairpally, management and protection has facilitated the growth of Tectona grandis and Madhuca indica, though perhaps for commerce rather than subsistence.

Interestingly, all the forests sampled in Orissa were found to be more species poor for tree species, than the forests of West Bengal under JFM. Differences were found to be most apparent in the canopy layer, with the teak, mahua, and the sal forests virtual monocultures. Ground flora, examined in the teak and mahua forests certainly indicate a greater tree species richness, which is stalled at a very early successional stage, to prevent competition with the prized species, by annual harvesting. Although the ground flora in Budhikhamari sal forest was not sampled, tree species were evident. (Interestingly, however, the highest diversity value of all sites sampled, was found to be the unmanaged, degraded forest of Maninag, and its value for equitability the second highest). A greater species richness in the sal forests of West Bengal may reflect the users; perhaps they are more subsistence-oriented. Certainly JFM guidelines emphasise species richness as an important factor of forests under joint management. While in some areas the equation between rural communities and species richness may work, in other areas, such as those forests under CFM, where there is perhaps a quasi-commercial dimension to forest management, it should not be assumed that management objectives always marry with species richness. A pertinent point to make is that rural villagers are not necessarily the custodians of biodiversity, despite the persistent persuasions of NGO's to the contrary.

Forest management in Budhikhamari is geared towards providing the village with its fuel and timber needs, while also supplying a surplus of leaves and seeds which can be usefully employed in generating an income. Ultimately forest protection may be more sustainable, under a scenario of income generation, rather than solely for subsistence, and the notion of upholding biodiversity.

Rural communities have shown, that without any support or assistance from the state, regeneration of degraded forest land has occurred under co-operative protection. Management, although appearing to provide for the villages, is rather ad-hoc, and may not necessarily form the basis of a sustainable regime. For areas of forest under CFM, the forest protection committees would probably benefit from learning silvicultural techniques, e.g., coppicing, pruning, thinning, as well as methods to assess the tangible impacts of management on the vegetation, such as sampling with quadrats, similar to the skills imparted to communities partaking in joint forest management.

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