The bare essentials

To make community forest management a success

By P K Biswas
Published: Sunday 15 February 2004

The bare essentials

-- Madhya Pradesh started its Joint Forest Management (jfm) programme in the early 1990s. Its stated intentions were quite noble: village-level institutions were to be involved in forest management; elaborate benefit sharing mechanisms were outlined; non-governmental organisations (ngos) were identified to provide an interface between forest departments and village communities. These lofty ideals have remained on paper while biological, technical and macro-economic considerations were accorded overriding priority by jfm.
Change forestry's orientation Recently the World Bank, that is funding Madhya Pradesh's forestry programme, called for a shift from jfm to Community Forest Management (cfm). Essentially it means more empowerment of communities. For that to happen, forestry must shed its traditional orientation towards protecting trees alone. Foresters must understand that about 300 million tribals in India depend on forests for sustenance and livelihood. In many parts of the country, tribal communities derive as much as 30 per cent of their diet from forests. For many indigenous groups, forests are sources of cash income from fuelwood and non-timber forest produce. Besides they are also valuable repositories of medicinal plants for many communities, who have sophisticated systems of medicine.

Moreover, forests have significant inter-relationships with agricultural, pastoral and other economic systems. Forests protect important catchments of water, conserve soil and combat global warming and desertification. About 70 per cent of our rural population depends on forests for their domestic energy needs. Forest-based small enterprises can also help in rural employment generation.

A traditional protectionist approach will not ensure appreciation of all this. Foresters should be acquainted with the rudiments of subjects such as sociology, anthropology, economics, law, environmental sciences and communication sciences.

Since the days of social forestry, there have been plans of involving sociologists, anthropologists and economists. But all that has remained on paper, while enormous funds have been spent on foreign consultants who have very little knowledge of our social conditions. This obsession with anything foreign is just not compatible with cfm.
Devolve management A sustainable alliance needs to be forged between the government, ngos and local institutions to make communities self-reliant. Today these agencies do not trust each other. This is probably because there is hardly any transparency in project preparation and implementation. This state of affairs cannot persist if cfm has to succeed; there should be consultation and participation among stakeholders at every level.

In Madhya Pradesh, jfm devolved very little decision-making powers upon communities. Capacity building of communities and lower functionaries of forest departments (who really implement jfm at the grassroot level) has also been minimal. Only foresters above the rank of Deputy Forest Officer have derived any benefit of systematic training in social sciences. Even here there has been an unnecessary rush to consult foreign universities. Somehow we tend to miss the point that training in foreign universities is not essential to understand Indian social conditions; the country has excellent institutions and experts to impart such training.

Clearly, a lot needs to be done if the proposed cfm in Madhya Pradesh has to succeed. A sincere effort is needed to draw lessons from the experiences of social forestry and jfm. There has to be a good balance between conservation of forests and development of communities; only then can cfm succeed.

P K Biswas is a professor of sociology and social anthropology at the Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal. The views expressed in this article are his alone

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