The minister of state for environment, Kamal Nath, had some radical words to say in Rio. "I don't understand why people here are talking about forests being national or global resources. In my country, they are more community resources," he told an interviewer. Surely, that statement will gladden the hearts of many non-governmental organisations and environmental activists who have been pleading, for years, for greater community rights on forests.
The minister's responsibility now is to move towards implementing the words he used in Rio to ward off the threat posed by the northern countries proposing the forest convention, which would have globalised the country's forests. When and if the idea of the convention gets revived, he will not be able to use the same words again unless he has indeed made an effort to bring his country's forests under greater community management.
The June 1, 1990 circular of the ministry of environment and forests asking state governments to involve village communities and NGOs in afforestation activities has been tardily implemented. Few agencies have had access to forest lands because of the circular. The implementation of this circular, and much more, now requires some missionary zeal to live up to the spirit with which the minister had espoused the rights of village communities in Rio.
Poverty was another subject on which the minister had some strong words to use. "The removal of poverty," he said, "is the only viable environmental strategy for the world as a whole. Programmes for promoting sustainable development need to focus on sustainable livelihoods. The vast numbers of unemployed and underemployed in the developing countries provide the world with the opportunity to undertake a massive global initiative for ecological regeneration and restoration of the natural resource base on which the poor depend for their survival. Will international cooperation prove equal to this challenge?"
Well, Rio showed clearly that international cooperation is not prepared to take up this challenge. But India has shown, through the work of its numerous voluntary and government agencies, that a holistic approach to managing village natural resources is possible and yields excellent ecological and economic returns. Why don't we, therefore, take a few steps further in this direction ourselves and lead the world? Let us employ our poor countrypeople, village by village, integrating forest and grassland development and small-scale soil and water conservation programmes. We will generate employment by the millions and create a basis for sustainable livelihoods.
And for the support that is needed to carry out this task, the minister only needs to read his own speech in Rio to find the answer. In it, he said, ".... sustainable development.... is a task that calls for the participation of all. We have over a thousand NGOs directly involved in environmental action. These organisations have been instrumental in India, as elsewhere, in creating environmental awareness at the grassroots level and in the implementation of numerous projects for forestry, wastelands development and ecoregeneration.... Finally, and most importantly, the success of ecological restoration and conservation lies in garnering the widespread support of the people, both rural and urban, most of whom are poor and deprived."
We hope the minister's words in Rio will constitute his manifesto back home.