Excerpt from the Oxfam India report “We Belong to the Forest”, a compilation of 14 case studies from the central eastern tribal states of Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Jharkhand in an attempt to bring together practices and experiences of forest dependent communities of managing and governing their resources.
For generations, India’s forests have been inhabited by forest dwelling communities mostly tribals. They have largely lived in harmony with the forest and the wildlife for long. Forest conservation and management is their way of life and an integral part of their identity. But, modern laws and technical categories of forests distanced forest dependent communities from their forests. Communities never thought that they would require a paper-based title enshrining their rights over forest and forest resources. This is the fact that they are learning to deal with.
For them, they always belonged to the forest and depended on it for food, fodder and livelihood. Agriculture satisfies their hunger but incomes come from forest. An assessment done by Oxfam India across sixteen sample villages of these three states indicated that income from the sale of MFPs is about Rs.1.72 crores.
It can be assumed that with the potential gaps in data collection and the contribution of other MFPs, which have not been quantified, the total revenue earned from the MFPs is around Rs. 2 crores. The highest income is from the sale of hand stitched leaf plates, amounting to Rs. 78.5 lakh, followed by the income from the sale of Mahua flowers at Rs. 54.4 lakh, and Tendu leaves at Rs. 22.8 lakhs.19 Such is the dependence of communities over forest.
In this very context, tenurial security has emerged as a tool for assertion of rights. Therefore, recognition of forest rights, especially the CFRs, have specific importance in governing their forest. The CFRs confer the “right to protect, regenerate, conserve and manage any community forest resource which communities have been traditionally protecting and conserving for sustainable use.” This empowers the communities and also helps in building a narrative on conservation and management from their perspective.
While going through the CFR claiming processes, communities realised that verbal narrations and beliefs are important but they also need to be supported with documentary evidences to be presented to the state administration. Communities are, hence, taking trainings from NGOs like Oxfam India and its partner organisations on applications of technologies – GPS based mapping of customary boundary, CFR and IFR boundaries, counting tree diversity and density in CFR areas etc.
All these are time taking processes, however, an initiation has been made. These technical assessments will definitely help take community based conservation to the next level – for identifying different patches of forests, the threats and vulnerability of each zone from fire and grazing, and to arrive at informed decisions with regard to conservation and management.
In most villages, institutional mechanisms either have been put in place or have been revived (if they already existed in some form) after the recognition of rights. Community conservation and management rules have been largely framed to address the issues of sustainability and protection of the forest from felling by the outsiders and fire. Planning for regeneration of dwindling species, indigenous species and species on which their reliance is more, are important to the community.
They say –
- Forest conservation does not require felling of trees.
- Forest does not require plantation- regeneration through protection is enough.
- Species selection for gap plantation should be based on locally available species, which are useful for humans, birds and wildlife alike.
None other than forest dependent communities would ever know the art of co-existence with the wildlife. For them, there is no fight for survival with animals. Communities believe that if enough food is available in forest for wildlife, they would not stray into the villages. Therefore, while selecting the species for regeneration, they do not forget to include the ones that are food for the wildlife.
Communities see the forest much more than a source for grazing and firewood collection. The complexity and diversity of nurturing the forest is evident in their planning and narratives around conservation. Ironically, the larger debate on the FRA misses CFR rights recognition and its importance in forest governance. It is the Community Forest Rights (CFR) that truly empower the communities and is a potential tool for participatory conservation and management of the forest.
The Joint Forest Management (JFM) model did not succeed as it should have been because it only allowed for concession and benefit sharing pertaining to timber; it could not ensure participatory forest management and conservation. The CFR rights go beyond access and sharing – a participatory model for inclusive conservation and management.
State government, specially the Forest Department, should use this opportunity created by the FRA to engage constructively with the communities. State forest departments will never have enough field force who can monitor and manage the length and breadth of forested landscape. Communities who live deep inside forest can ably do this. From de-weeding to arresting forest fires to regenerating degraded forest patches – communities can function as the departments’ extended arms.
Department must tap community knowledge and skills for better conservation and management of forest ecosystem instead of the linear approach to conserve one species or the other. There are larger issues involved in the discourses associated with forest and wildlife conservation. Unfortunately, most often, these two conservational debates seem to be independent of each other. Importance of community-based conservation or inclusionary conservation is understood, but not practised the way it should have been.
A holistic approach to forest conservation without negating human presence will lead to better conservation not only of the forests, but also of the wildlife. While the various theories of conservation are struggling to compliment and supplement each other, communities are mindful of all these issues and, in their capacities, are also finding solutions.
- The definition and narratives of conservation and management emerging from the communities relate largely to sustenance and biodiversity. They call for a framework for democratisation of forests, which should guide the policy framework of forest governance in India
- Wider consultations and debates need to take place on the various models of conservation that promote isolated islands of fortification. Evidence needs to be built around alternative models of conservation, and determine if creation of inviolate spaces is contributing to biodiversity and landscape conservation
- The CFR rights are at the heart of the FRA implementation. The process of recognition of the CFR rights must be stepped up in all states. The area recognized cannot be limited to firewood and grazing purposes as communities have multiple associations with the forest, which often lead to sustainable management and conservation
- The CFR management plans developed by the Gram Sabha need to be adopted in the overall State Forest Management Plans. Mechanisms need to be designed to ensure that the roles of Gram Sabha and the forest department are identified and systems of checks and balances are established. • Plantation and timber management must give way to ecosystem protection and community institutions as crucial bodies for decision making of their resources.
- Sharing of information on forest and its conservation must be a two-way process to inform the decision- making process, both by the communities and the forest department
- Conservation is impossible without the recognition of communities’ rights. Dilution of conservation and management rights will not be able to sustain the forests in the long run
- A record of rights for CFR areas needs to be created