Inadequate compensation of villagers for ecosystem services weakens conservation efforts

Situation of villagers in Palampur village, Himachal Pradesh is a good case study 

By Rahul Banerjee
Published: Friday 17 June 2022
Inadequate compensation of villagers for ecosystem services weakens conservation efforts Photo: iStock

Palampur town in the foothills of the Dhauladhar mountain ranges in Himachal Pradesh depends primarily on the Neugal river for its water supply. The river, at present, has an extremely depleted flow in summer. 

This is because there has been heavy deforestation in the catchment area of the river. Consequently, apart from the snowmelt from the Dhauladhar range, there is very little base flow from the lower forested regions of the 7,000-hectare watershed above Palalmur.

Some of its water, however, is sourced from a spring in Bohal village about 4 kilometres from the town in the Dhauladhar range. The catchment area of this spring is about 286 ha, called the Bheerni forest. 

This catchment was heavily deforested by the early 1990s due to the extraction of firewood and timber by the villagers. The forest department had then formed a village forest development committee (VFDC) as part of a joint forest management programme to revive and protect the forest, according to Dagguramji, the chairperson of VFDC in Bohal.

Ban trees were planted, which provide fodder for cattle, along with some Chir and Deodar. The villagers of Bohal and adjoining villages of Mandai and Odi, who are mostly livestock herders of the Gaddi caste, benefited from this. They appointed a chowkidar from among themselves to protect some 45 hectares of the forest by making a monetary contribution (currently Rs 12, 000 cumulatively per year). 

Over the years, along with the help of forest guards, most of the catchment of the Bohal spring had been revived with crown cover exceeding 40 per cent and, in some areas, reaching close to 80 per cent.

Then in 2010, the Palampur municipality in collaboration with the Bandla Panchayat, of which these villages are a part, and the forest department formed a new committee for further protection of the forest and contributed another Rs 10,000 per year to strengthen the forest conservation effort of the villagers. 

This has now been publicised widely as the country’s first project of payment for ecosystem services rendered by villagers living in close proximity with the forests.

There are several problems with this kind of characterisation. The first and foremost is that the payment by the municipality is laughably small. Not only is it less than what the villagers are contributing, but it is far less than the value of the services provided. 

Typically, a well conserved forest provides the following services:

  1. Provisioning services: Timber, non-timber forest produce, firewood, fodder, mulch, which mainly benefit the villagers themselves
  2. Regulation services: Soil and water conservation and carbon sequestration which benefit the whole country and in this particular case the town of Palampur
  3. Cultural services: Aesthetics, recreation and scientific research are furthered by forest conservation. This is especially important in the case of Palampur, which is a hill station that earns considerable income from tourism and also has several biodiversity research stations and an agricultural university.
  4. Supporting services: Habitat regeneration and biodiversity conservation, which provide long-term sustainability to human existence

Thus, even if we exclude the provisioning services, which are being consumed by the villagers themselves, a very large proportion of all the other three services is benefiting the Palampur town and the country at large. It is not only a question of the water being provided to the town. 

The annual goods and services being given by a forest with 40 per cent crown cover can be valued at Rs 1 lakh per hectare per year, according to  conservative estimates of the Indian Institute of Forest Managment, Bhopal. 

Let us assume that half of these services are being received by the villagers and the other half is being consumed by the residents of Palampur and the rest of the country. The total value of the ecosystem services annually provided by the 286 hectares of the Bheerni forest is Rs 2.86 crore (286 x Rs 1 lakh). Thus, the value of the services being provided to Palampur and the rest of the country would be Rs 1.43 crore. 

Even if we assume a very low 1 per cent of this value as fair compensation to the villagers of Bohal for providing this service, they are entitled to be paid Rs 1.43 lakh annually at the least, instead of the measly Rs 10,000 with which they are being palmed off. 

Ideally, the villagers should cumulatively be paid 5 per cent or Rs 7 lakh annually, or about Rs 1,750 per hectare. Indeed, in the ecosystem restoration work being done by the non-profit Mahila Jagat Lihaaz Samiti in Alirajpur district of Madhya Pradesh, the villagers are paid Rs 2,000 per hectare for soil, water and forest conservation work.    

Over and above this, a new and much bigger water collection and treatment plant has been constructed in Bohal. It has a much bigger catchment of over a thousand hectares that will require considerable investment in soil, water and forest conservation as it is much more degraded than the forest being currently protected by the villagers of Bohal. 

Finally, the springs in Bohal supply a very small fraction of the total water of Palampur, which is mostly drawn from the Neugal river and from groundwater aquifers in the town. 

So, a much more widespread soil, water and forest conservation programme has to be implemented over the whole catchment of the river. This should involve many more villages spread over an area of 7,000 hectares, than just the catchment of the Bohal spring if water security is to be sustainably ensured for Palampur town. 

The Himachal Pradesh government has received hundreds of crores worth of funds for ecosystem restoration from the central government. But instead of designing and implementing appropriate projects with these funds, it is publicising a grossly inadequate project. 

It is unjust towards compensating the villagers for the ecosystem services they are providing, as a successful example of payment for ecosystem services. 

Such under-payment not only demeans the efforts of the villagers but also jeopardises the possibilities of ensuring better conservation of natural resources.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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