Bhopal: "Whenever we saw people in uniform - forest department officials - coming, we would hide," says Kancheta Lal, a villager from Khatpura in the Sehore district of Madhya Pradesh. "What if they caught us? There really was no point talking to them."
The scenario Lal describes is part of a government-controlled forest management system which views local communities, mired in poverty, as thieves robbing the nation. Only recently has this system started creating space for Lal and people like him. Unfortunately, it still exists across much of India's forest area: forest communities disconnected from their heritage, and with little stake in conserving it.
Every Indian state has a forest department to administer its forest expanses. Recognised as the sole keeper of the land under its control, this department's expertise lies in putting a cost to the timber in its domain. Issues such as biological diversity and the cultural and economic circumstances of local communities living in and around forestland rarely register on the department's radar.
Managing a forest involves some amount of juggling. India's forests throw up a multiplicity of values, human, animal and ecological, that have to be juggled under ever-shifting ground conditions. Almost one in five persons in the world is an Indian, but only 1.8 per cent of the world's forest cover is in India. If the country's forests had to have a chance, a new approach was needed.
The community forestry model
In a small and extremely degraded portion of India's forest area, an interesting and vital experiment - backed by the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust - is evolving into what could be the template for forest protection and regeneration in the country. It's called community forestry.
Operating under the umbrella of the joint forest management (JFM) initiative, as spelled out in the 1988 Forest Policy of India, this experiment embraces multiple elements. It has in its fold forest protection committees (FPCs) and village forest committees (VFCs), comprising local villagers and officials as well as the forest department, and it also works with non-governmental organisations.
It is a structure that is open, where human interests and values are aligned to the goals of sustainable forest management. Meeting the subsistence and development needs of local communities is one of the goals of the new system. This means that forest preservation efforts are integrated with community development and poverty reduction endeavours.
Much of the conservation activity under this project - limiting the illegal use of the forest, regulating the extraction of non-timber forest products and grazing, using scientific techniques to assist in the natural regeneration of forests - is carried out by local villagers.
A change in attitude
The government still owns these forest lands, but there is a change in its attitude. In return for their forest protection efforts, local communities are given legal rights to profit from forest resources, provided the forest itself remains unharmed. The larger goal is to align the interests and values of local communities with that of the forest.
Employment is generated through the activities of the committees under the JFM initiative. Some of the income that accrues is used to buy tractors, threshers, and irrigation and distillation equipment, which is then offered on hire. Human demands for forest products and fodder are reduced by planting trees, grasses and other vegetation outside the forest area.
Ecological values are better served in the new system. An elaborately devised process of 'assisted natural regeneration' fights soil erosion and rejuvenates the biological diversity and density of large forest tracts. The results are encouraging. Community forestry has now been adopted across 22 states and covers about 10.2 million hectares of forestland. More than 36,000 JFM committees constitute the backbone of this endeavour.
As evidenced by remote sensing images, the new system has increased forest cover and helped ecological regeneration in many areas, while improving the lives of forest communities all over India.
"It is the answer," says Dr Ram Prasad, principal chief conservator of forests, Madhya Pradesh, and a former director of the Indian Institute of Forest Management (IIFM), Bhopal. Though he heads the bureaucracy of Madhya Pradesh's forest department, Prasad is extremely excited by the prospects of decentralisation. "The best systems are those that directly empower people. In such a world, community forestry is like a bulldozer breaking down mindsets - within forest departments and elsewhere."
No easy solutions
Clearly, devolving forest management to local communities is a much more sustainable, humane, fruitful and sensible strategy. But it is not an easy one.
To begin with, different forestry models are required in different areas. Moreover, designing and implementing such solutions is a multidisciplinary task that requires political, economic, ecological, cultural, sociological and technological expertise.
Given the complexity of the task, the new forest management structure needs not only separate nerve centres - community groups like the FPCs and the VFCs - but also some sort of a 'brain': to absorb information and experience, to convert disparate bits of data into systematic knowledge, and to translate this knowledge into a script for action.
Just such a brain is being developed by the IIFM with financial support from the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust. Called the International Centre for Community Forestry (ICCF), it has many functions.
It collates global experiences in community forestry and develops a knowledge base for researchers and practitioners. This knowledge would be useless if not applied, so the ICCF has chosen sites across the country where it trains local communities and practitioners to make use of it. The Centre currently has 10 sites in six states - Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Chhatisgarh and Orissa - where it is works with local JFM committees and non-governmental bodies.
The self-sustaining way
The solutions that work are institutionalised. "In the long term, these community initiatives have to be self-sustaining," says Dr Prodyut Bhattacharya, a coordinator at the Centre and an IIFM faculty member, "so one of the thrust areas is the creation and strengthening of institutions."
The centre has put together a network of major organisations and individuals working in the field of community forestry. Not only does this add to the knowledge base, it also becomes a means to transmit the experience that is being captured at the Centre.
Promising as its inception has been, there is a lot of work yet to be done to extend and improve the community forestry movement. This will require a steady flow of funds. After the World Bank money that funded the first stage of this initiative started running out, there have been disturbing signs of the JFM partnerships losing steam, of the many-jointed structure weakening.
"Till such time as the villagers get a regular source of income, they won't be able to contribute substantially to the forest protection committee's funds, which means development work will suffer," says Sucha Singh, a retired Sikh army man who was given land in Khatpura by the government in the early 1970s. "We will have to depend on outside funds for now."
This is where the contributions made by institutions such as the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust are invaluable.
More than just money
According to Mukund Gorakshkar, programme officer at the Trust, its grant to the ICCF is designed to cover all of the new institute's functions. But the Trust's involvement in the initiative is not limited to providing money.
"The importance of the grant which the Trust has so generously provided us cannot be overemphasised, but the ICCF has also benefited from the Trust's close involvement with the institute, and from being linked to the network of organisations that the Trust has nurtured," says Bhattacharya.
Gorakshkar explains the Trust's approach: "As a philanthropic trust with a national coverage, we are trying to combine the inherent strengths of all our grantees to generate a little more impact from every grant that we make. We have grown to appreciate the advantages of a consortium of partners. We appreciate that the forest will not survive unless revenue lands and the common resources of villages are made regenerative." To achieve this, he says, organisations and people from a variety of fields need to work together.
India's community forestry movement needs more benefactors like the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust. Without resources and other inputs from the outside, the country's forests could diminish much faster than now. We could end up missing the woods and the trees.