What’s forest governance without local hand

Multilayered governance and involvement of forest dwellers in the decision making processes can go a long way in managing our forests better.
Mangar Bani, a green patch between Faridabad and Gurgaon (Image: Pradip Krishen, Facebook) Mangar Bani, a green patch between Faridabad and Gurgaon (Image: Pradip Krishen, Facebook)

The recent news on the forced eviction of more than 1,000,000 tribal and other forest-dwelling households from 16 states by a Supreme Court order has again brought the long-debated issue of the role of the state and the community in forest governance to the forefront. The order comes in response to a case filed by wildlife groups questioning the validity of the Forest Rights Act (FRA).

The issue first emerged with the colonial takeover of India’s forests when abundant forest wealth was diverted to meet the economic needs of the colonial rulers. Although procedures for the settlement of rights existed under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, these were hardly followed. The forest dwellers continued to be marginalised, even after independence. The symbiotic relationship between forests and forest-dwelling communities was first recognised in the National Forest Policy, 1988, which led to the Joint Forest Management Programme that recognised the importance of involving local communities in the protection, regeneration and development of forests. However, all these measures proved to be incomplete or even misdirected.

The paper Forest governance: From co-option and conflict to multilayered governance? in the Economic and Political Weekly talks about the current challenges and issues regarding understanding forest governance in India and traces its evolution from colonial times to the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006.

Forest governance presents many challenges

Although governance basically includes questions such as “who decides and who implements, through what process,” its application in the context of forests presents a number of challenges.

This is because forests generate multiple benefits that cannot be maximised at the same time. Forests not only produce timber, bamboo, fodder, wild honey and other such products, but they also regulate the hydrological cycle, provide habitat for wildlife and sequester carbon dioxide (CO2). Maximising one of the benefits can reduce some other goods and services provided by forests. For example, maximising timber production can lead to the reduction of green cover and flora and fauna of the region, while managing forests for wildlife conservation means timber harvesting has to be curtailed drastically. Therefore finding a straightforward solution is difficult.

Forests benefit a range of stakeholders. While bamboo, fodder, honey etc may benefit local villagers or logging contractors, hydrological regulation helps downstream water users. On the other hand, climate change mitigation due to CO2 sequestration benefits the entire world.

The distribution of forest benefits is shaped socially. For example, timber harvesting may help local communities, logging contractors, or the state, depending on how rights are allocated. Social norms determine whether wildlife is seen as local benefit or a global benefit. Thus, decisions about which benefit to maximise depend on who stands to gain from them.

Forests stand the threat of being exploited by outsiders. Local communities too can modify the forest and thereby affect regional or global stakeholders. Just as forest lands vary in benefits they provide, non-forest lands also provide benefits and vary in their environmental impacts, making it very difficult to separate forest and non-forest areas.

The forest conservation rules too have to be decided meticulously considering various factors like how should forests be managed, for which/whose benefit and how should the boundary between forest and non-forest be defined and regulated.

Forest governance thus raises crucial questions like “Who should decide on these dilemmas and through what process? And who should manage the forests on a day-today basis and within what limits?”

Local communities have for long been ignored in forest governance

The important role of forest dwellers in forest governance has been ignored for a long time. For example, during the colonial times, the state had a stake in revenue generation and once the forest was demarcated, the decisions were undertaken by the forest department in each province.

This continued till a long time following independence and even after the Chipko movement, the focus remained limited to restricting timber oriented forestry and conservation, without paying attention to local needs or granting them a stake in managing forests. Focus on wildlife conservation and creation of wildlife sanctuaries and national parks also led to sidelining of local communities and their rights.

Even the joint forest management (JFM) programme that recognised the important role of local communities in managing the forests did not help and forest officials continued to control the whole process and there was no separation of operational and regulatory roles.

How is the FRA different?

The FRA, triggered originally by protests over the eviction of historically settled adivasis from forests, is the first comprehensive legislative response in independent India to forest governance. The FRA recognises the forest dwellers’ rights to live and cultivate. It states that all non-timber forest produce belongs to forest dwellers. It supports the forest dwellers’ rights to manage their forests and only imposes a broad requirement of sustainable use on them. Protected areas too are a part of this process.

The FRA also deals with the question of when the management of a forested area should be shifted from meeting local livelihood needs to conserving biodiversity in the national interest. It lays down a process for identifying Critical Wildlife Habitats and also for finding out if specific conservation needs require shifting out of the forest dwellers. The FRA also supports forest dwellers in the conversion of their forests to non-forestry activities under the FCA, a concept which was upheld by the Supreme Court in the Niyamgiri case.

However, resistance from existing bureaucratic structures and a lack of clarity on its implementation have led to the undermining of its key provisions. Questions continue to be raised on certain gaps and weaknesses in the FRA. For example, while the procedures for recording individual cultivation or settlement rights are fairly clear, the institutional structure for a post-CFR landscape is not spelt out in the FRA. The FRA also does not explain how the voices of the regional and global stakeholders in wildlife, climate, or hydrological regulation will be heard.

What can be the way out

The paper argues that it is time the idea of multilayered forest governance is accepted where the day-to-day operations, regulation, and policymaking need to be separated and carried out at different levels by different actors/organisations. Local communities need to have a better say in all decisions and processes related to forest governance and can be in the best position to make operational decisions about their forests.

At the same time, credible and impartial processes need to be put in place beyond the local level to operationalise the concepts of sustainable use and conservation. The process of defining sustainable use and conservation should also involve non-foresters or local communities, and be consultative, transparent, context-specific, and learning-oriented rather than penalty-oriented.

Separation of roles is also required in areas such as funding where foresters in the central ministry have been formulating funding programmes through state forest departments or forester– controlled district-level Forest Development Agencies. The newly formulated Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) decision-making bodies now need to be decentralised and include non-foresters in the decision making processes.

The process of dialogue between all the players involved in forest governance needs to start urgently, before it is too late, warns the paper.

A copy of the paper can be downloaded from below:

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