India needs to rethink joint forest management, says expert

“Participation is not the panacea,” explains a leading scientist.

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Photo courtesy of Meena Kadri/flickr.

BOGOR, Indonesia (9 January, 2012)_India’s forestry authorities need to rethink joint management efforts with local communities after a new research shows that indigenous peoples participating in such programs have developed negative perceptions about state forests, says one of the study’s authors.

“This is completely novel in forestry literature — the notion that people’s participation in management negatively affects their perception of forests,” says Claude Garcia, a scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research. “It demonstrates that something’s clearly not working in the old way of doing joint forestry management, and it needs to be completely rethought.”

The study, conducted in partnership with CIRAD, the French Institute of Pondicherry and Victoria Reyes Garcia from the Autonomous University of Barcelona, interviewed 247 indigenous people on the slopes of the Western Ghats mountain range in the state of Karnataka, in southwest India. Thirty-four individuals participated with the state forestry department in joint management committees, set up as part of a 1988 federal law devolving decision making to local communities. The law aimed to break down a long-standing tension between conservation areas and their tribal neighbors, a situation known in India as “Tiger vs. Tribal.”

But a significant number of the tribal joint management participants had soured on the process. Garcia says they felt they weren’t being listened to and were sacrificing time and wages to join the committee meetings. And there was no apparent long-term benefit for participants who joined the committees.

“Participation is not the panacea,” Garcia says. “It needs to be accompanied by a real devolution of power and duties.”

The state forest department could go a long way toward improving peoples’ benefit from forests by fully implementing India’s Forest Rights Act of 2006, which grants indigenous communities access to forest resources. Other studies have documented forestry officials’ reluctance to open protected areas to indigenous peoples’ use, for fear of losing control over the resources.  Forest managers also fear forest conversion if land is ceded back to forest dwellers: many beneficiaries of the Forest Rights Act are admittedly only concerned with obtaining title deeds to forest lands in order to start agricultural development.

Forest communities have also shown little interest in engaging in sustainable forest management. That’s due in part to the fact that timber and non-timber forest resources aren’t available to villagers in the first place, even though the Forest Rights Act grants rights to those resources. Villagers used to working in a wage-geared, 21st century economy also have raised expectations about the level of livelihood they want to earn from forest lands.

To with cope with these realities, Garcia suggests looking to new management models that would accommodate a range of community interests in managing forests. Mexico’s ejido model offers a good example: some communal ejido lands are managed by for-profit enterprises, while others are geared toward more community-oriented subsistence activities.

A similar model in India could accommodate tribal demands to earn livelihoods from forests. And it would another step toward reinvigorating the process of engaging forest communities.

“The ideas about community control need to be reinvented in India,” Garcia says.

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Topic(s) :   Community forestry Rights