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Community Forest Resources

posted by Madhav Gadgil

In India today it is in the tribal lands that nature is most bountiful. Sadly, the human communities coexisting with this wealth of nature are often afflicted by poverty and malnutrition. Clearly we must transform the system that has created this equation of riches of nature with deprivation of human communities. Of course, we must conserve, and, indeed, rejuvenate nature; but surely not by treating our own people as enemies. The many different components of our own society and our system of governance are undoubtedly inflicting wounds on the natural world today. So, all of us must learn to deal with natural resources in a disciplined and prudent manner. But this cannot be achieved merely through imposing restrictions on communities living close to nature. After all, such communities do have a greater stake in the health of the environment.

However, it is only in exceptional cases that local people are today taking good care of the natural world. This is because, beginning with the British times, people have been deprived of all rights over natural resources, and these have been dedicated, initially to meeting colonial demands and lately to serving the industrial and urban interests. We have made available to paper industry bamboo resources at throw-away prices such as one-and-half rupee per tonne. Such perverse incentives have destroyed people's motivation for guarding nature.       

Fortunately the tide is turning. Joint Forest Management, Extension of Panchayat Raj to Scheduled Areas, Protection of Plant Variety and Farmers’ Rights Act, Biological Diversity Act and the Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Rights over the Forest) Act have conferred substantial rights over natural resources to local communities. Along with the rights, of course, comes the duty, the responsibility of using this natural wealth prudently, in a sustainable fashion. At the same time the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme has opened up opportunities to earn a livelihood, while protecting nature, and rejuvenating natural resources. If we employ the provisions of all these various acts in an integrated fashion, it is surely possible to accomplish a great deal.

Like Orissa, whose sad performance in the context of the Niyamgiri episode has been brought out by the Saxena Committee, Maharashtra too, has a Government hell-bent on sabotaging rights of local communities to promote Corporate interests. Regrettably, the Corporates have decided to push for and take full advantage of an economic growth at all costs approach, instead of adopting a broader perspective in long term social interests. Yet, local struggles can yield positive results as has happened with Gond and other local communities of Gadchiroli and Chandrapur districts of Eastern Maharashtra that have won Community Forest Rights under the Forest Rights Act over extensive areas. They had to struggle hard, for both these districts have substantial mineral reserves. Fortunately for the people of Gadchiroli, there were some very enlightened officers in the district administration that facilitated the implementation of FRA. But, the struggle has been far harder in Chandrapur district and only one village, that of Pachgaon has been assigned Community Forest Resource area of 1000 hectares.

The conferment of these rights activated the citizens of Pachgaon who decided to work out a whole series of community level regulations not just in terms of management of Community Forest Resources, but conduct of civil life in their community. The Gramsabha resolved that all must contribute to the formulation of these regulations, and so each household was asked to offer 5 regulations to kick off the process. This generated a list of some 500 potential regulations, naturally with a lot of overlap. So a committee appointed by the Gramsabha undertook the editorial job and produced a list of about 150 proposals. These were debated over two days of full meeting of Gramsabha, leading to the finalization of a list of 40-odd regulations that were adopted by consensus.  The entire community was thus party to the decisions arrived at and has now taken to their implementation whole-heartedly.

Notably enough the regulations include setting apart an area of 34 hectares, amounting to 3.4% of the Community Forest Resource area as a strictly protected nature reserve, or in the idiom appropriate to their culture as a Pen Geda or Sacred Grove. This is an area along the crest-line of the hillock within the Community Forest Resource area, with the best preserved natural forest, rich in wildlife and the source of their perennial streams. It may be noted that this is close to the proportion of the total forest area of the country set aside as Wild Life Sanctuaries and National Parks. Other interesting regulations agreed upon include banning smoking as well as consumption of alcoholic drinks in the village. It so happens that tendu is a major produce from their Community Forest Resource area; these leaves are used for bidi-making. The harvest of tendu leaves entails extensive lopping and setting of forest fires. So Pachgaon community has decided to forego this income and instead focus on marketing the edible tendu fruit. With stoppage of leaf collection the tendu trees are much healthier and the fruit yield and consequently the income from marketing of the fruit has gone up.

I have worked extensively on the Community Forest Resources issues, both as a part of scientific research, in particular in the action research mode, as also through work on official advisory committees. I have written on such issues in newspapers and other media. I will attempt through this website to share much of the resultant material.