Saving forests for Posterity

  • 14/04/1993

Saving forests for Posterity WHEN ALL the good-sized trees had vanished from the forest around Khudamunda hamlet in Sambalpur district, Orissa, a villager went into a reserve forest nearby in search of poles for his hut. He was caught and beaten by a forest guard, who then took a hefty sum and a goat before releasing him.

The incident shook the villagers who held a community meeting and decided to start protecting the village forest to ensure their needs are met. Subsequently, about 65 ha. of forest were entrusted to Khudamunda and other villages' access to this area was stopped.

The Khudamunda experience is an example of the now widespread movement, by forest, users in Orissa to preserve forests and assert locil rights to their resources. For many, forests are more than a source of livelihood: they are a means of survival. Efforts by Orissa villagers to protect their forests go back to the 1940s and intensified in the 1970s and 1980s.

There is no comprehensive information about the state-wide movement and a 1990 consultant's report is the only systematic attempt to count cases. It says 1,200 villages are protecting some 75,000 ha, but our field observations suggest more accurate figures would be 2,000 villages protecting about 150,000 ha.

Community initiatives for forest protection stem largely from a desire to save them for posterity and from an urge to assert village conInitiatives for trol in order to prevent them from being forest protection exploited by all and sundry. Generally, protection begins with patches that are seriously degraded but have rootstock intact. Such areas, when protected, regenerate rapidly. Regeneration activities were limited initially to areas outside reserve forests, but they are also included now.

Villagers insist the forest land which they have assumed responsibility had become so barren before they were con cerned that even ffianti-panti (twigs and litter) would be unavailable. Hardships arising from scarcity of forest produce are the main reason for increasing pressure for forest protection, but the environmental effects of degradation, such as loss of soil fertility and the drying up of streams, are also playing a significant role. In some cases, largescale farmers initiated protection measures after plots at the foot of denuded hillsides were found to be losing soil fertility.The Buddhgram Movement in the Nayagarh area of Puri deserves special mention. The movement was started in the 1970s and registered formally in 1982 as Brukshya 0' Jeevar Bandhu Parishad (Friends of Trees and Living Beings). More than 250 viltages associated with the movement reportedly protect 36,000 acres of forest.

Collective action
Traditional village-level organisations that still exist in many parts of Orissa provide a forum for discussing changes in the resource base and deciding collective action. As village organisations traditionally are responsible for other common areas such as ponds and temple lands, and resolving conflicts and organising religious and secular functions, it was relatively easy to extend the principle of community management to forests. Another factor facilitating collective action in forest protection is the ambiguous status in Orissa of nonreserve forests: Protected forest land belongs to the revenue department, but management is the responsibility of the forest department. However, as the latter usually lacks a management plan, protected forest areas are left unmanaged and become for all practical purposes village forests. The management vacuum in non-reserve forest areas, as a result of absence of government control, enables villagers to step in and exercise community management.

Local initiatives have proved most effective in areas of only moderate forest scarcity, with villagers able to meet their needs while also letting the protected patch regenerate. Community protection of a forest patch entails bringillg an unmanaged area under institutionalised protection with welldefined rules and penalties. Essentially, by protect- ing a patch and incurring the attendant costs, a community asserts its exclusive control over the area; surrounding villages, realising they are excluded from sharing the benefits of a regenerated patch, then take up protection on their own of other degraded forest areas. Once villagers decide to protect a forest area, they demarcate it either physically or through natural landmarks, and inform nearby villages of their intent almost as though they are declaring the patch to be "reserved ". In some tribal villages in Orissa's Phulbani district, the protection announcement is conveyed from village to village by the beating of drums, with dire warnings that potential encroachers will be smitten with leprosy.

At first, there is opposition from nearby villagers, who formerly had free access to the patch. Where the stakes are low -as for example, if the patch is severely degraded and if other forested areas are available -the Opposition is marginal; otherwise, cOnflicts can occur.

FOrest protection involves partial or total restraint from using the patch within the village and total denial of access to outsiders. Villages engage watchmen or practise thengapali, a voluntary patrolling system in which a wooden stick, thenga, is passed from one household to the next on the duty roster. Villagersdraw up their rules and penalties and in some instances they are written down and records maintained. The effectiveness of these forest protection arrangements stand in sharp contrast to the institutions, such as panchayats, set up by the state.

Often, grazing is banned in the initial years to allow young plants to grow. Removal of small timber is restricted and felling of green trees strictly prohibited. In some cases, even entering the forest without permission is prohibited. Contro1s vary, depending on scarcity of forest products, how the threat is perceived, forest conditions, village leadership and organisational abilities. For example, in Lapanga, Sambalpur district, there are elaborate rules and contro1s for the harvesting of trees, as the forest there is old and contains valuable timber.

Institutional arrangements are made by such community-level organisations as a youth club, an informal village forest protection committee or even the forest protection committee set up formally by the state forest department. These groups are not always equitable and may be controlled by a dominant social or caste interest. Regardless of the decision-making process, villagers are generally committed to forest protection because regenerating a forest provides a variety of produce that they can use for subsistence or exploit for cash. The poorer villagers, especially tribals, supplement their diet with roots, stems, leaves, berries and mushrooms from the forest and women collect grass to make brooms and leaves for thatching and to make leaf plates.

Landowners often take the initiative in forest protection because they are interested in small timber production. Another shortterm benefit is collecting fuel wood and brushwood from the forest floor, with the permission of the forest department. Sometimes the material collected is distributed among the villagers, but of late there has been a disturbing trend toward auctioning the material, in which the poor are the Some tribal villagers convey by the beating Of drums their intent to protect a forest area and issue dire warnings that encroachers will be smitten with losers.

In some villages, money raised from sale of material gathered from the forest floor is used for community development, such as roads, schools and even colleges. In such cases, even though the forest protection arrangements may not be equitable, everyone gains and so there is widespread community support.

Governrnent response
Responding to an organised postcard campaign, the Orissa government decided in 1988 to set up committees that would undertake protection of forest reserves in return for "concessions" - meeting their requirements for fuelwood and small timber from the reserves without paying royalties. In 1990, the state government put protected forests under the purview of community protection.

The 1988 resolution was not a forest department initiative and many in the department were apprehensive about assigning the task of protection to villagers, whom they held responsible for forest destruction. But giving in to political pressure, the department formed about 6,000 forest protection committees in just two months. Not surprisingly, many of I& committees exist only on paper. However, the government resolutions gave formal status to informal protection committees and in cases where forest officials took an interest, fresh protection efforts were initiated. Though the 1988 resolution lacked clarity and its implementation suffered from excessive politicisation, it was a pioneering move towards the involvement of local users in forest regeneration.

Policy emphasis is now gradually shifting to giving forest users a stronger voice in management, beginning with involving them in resource protection. But there is a long way to go before local genuinely involved in resource-users are management decisions.

In Orissa, where a large number of villages are actively protecting forests, the potential for bringing about natural regeneration by supporting their efforts is tremendous. Community-based management systems, some of which have stood the test of time, have shown they can effectively manage local resources, but they need support because well-established systems can resolve community conflicts and contradictions.

As with any group endeavour, forest protection by rural communities has its own problems. In many cases, the protection system breaks down after a few years due to conflicts wit4in and between communities. Once the forest grows and trees are larger, the temptation them down increases. In to cut a few instances, a cyclical 1p4rocess of protection has 4ccurred: clear-felling after six evInoyears, followed by a sew f protection.

Often conflicts arise because villagers with foresight take up large areas of the fbrest for protection. While the forest is still completely degraded, it might not attract attention, but once regeneration occurs, neighbouring villages demand a share, which the protecting village justifiably refuses. Such situations lead to conflict and raise the issue of equity.

Community management of forests has to be an integral part of overall forest management. Yet the simplistic assumption that merely handing over forests to communities will solve all problems does not hold good. Any number of issues can threaten community systems, particularly equity within and between villages and demand and supply for forest produce. Such issues have to resolved if community management is to become a sustainable forest management alternative.

---The authors are Bhubaneswar-based academicians who have done extensive work in communityforeshy. Under community prolectiorr. A regimerated sol forest.

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