Converging into a whole
5 July 2012
Model community forestry initiatives in Orissa are defying Forest Department efforts to control and exploit the region’s forests.
“Heaven is a forest of miles and miles of Mohua trees / And hell is a forest of miles and miles of Mohua trees with a forest guard in it!” Thus goes a song of the Muria Adivasis in the forests of Bastar in central India. Encapsulated in this simple expression, however, is a very complicated history: of how India’s vast forests were turned into a money-making industry, first at the hands of the British and then by independent India.
In 1855, Governor-General James Broun-Ramsey, better known as Lord Dalhousie, issued the Charter of Indian Forests, which declared much of the country’s forest resources to be state property. Overnight, those who lived in these forests, mostly Adivasis, became ‘intruders’ in their own homes, and their livelihood practices, such as hunting-gathering and shifting cultivation, were termed ‘unscientific’ and deemed social evils. In many instances, they were forced to take up the plough or rendered bonded labourers or were simply driven out of the forests into uncertain futures. Forest-dependent communities increasingly lost track of their roots and, for decades, were unable to come to terms with the alien existence into which they were thrown. As the years passed, however, various resistance movements did coalesce, eventually taking on a new shape: community forest governance, or CFG.
As early as the beginning of the 20th century, local communities – especially in the tribal heartland of central and eastern India – began to realise that unless they took over management of the village commons, especially the forests, they would perish. For these communities, management meant not only protecting existing forests but also regenerating (and re-protecting) those woodlands that had been lost to the state. To the dismay of the Forest Department, a quiet revolution thus began in rural India, which was to turn violent in certain places, such as in Koraput district in the 1940s. This movement gained unprecedented, and unexpected, momentum during the 1970s, and has since spread to most parts of the country. In the process, it has put on public display what ‘self-governance’ can truly mean.
In particular, communities in Orissa (now Odisha) have emerged as torchbearers. Today, there are about 17,000 village forest-protection committees (FPCs) in the state, covering some 20,000 villages and protecting about two million hectares of forests. This means that more than a third of the state’s total forest area is now under community control and care – even though, legally, it remains state property.From each kitchenCommunity forest governance exhibits many of the structures and sustainable models on which traditional economies have long been built, relying on simple rules that are voluntarily binding. Apart from banning the entry of outsiders, the rights given to local users are strictly needs-based and non-discriminatory. According to guidelines drawn up by the village committees, villagers are allowed to freely collect minor forest produce but require committee permission to gather anything larger – timber from a felled tree, for instance. At times, the village may decide to harvest a part of its local forest, income from which would either go to the village development fund or be distributed among all villagers equally. Outsiders caught breaking the rules are required to pay a fine.
An important concept in ensuring community ownership of the forest-protection committee is chuli chanda, or contribution by the kitchen. In most villages, this means that each family unit contributes something – either cash or food grains – to the FPC fund. Many villages have been able to construct significant local infrastructure – such as schools and water-harvesting structures – by using forest-related revenue.
In 1990, such community-driven initiatives pushed the Forest Department to come up with a similar people-driven programme known as joint forest management (JFM). However, while researching community forest governance in 50 villages across 8 districts in Orissa, this writer found that most grassroots forest-protection groups had initially rejected the JFM initiative. In the words of CFM groups, the JFM programme was “a desperate attempt by the Forest Department to (1) sabotage people’s efforts; (2) appropriate the forests regenerated/expanded/protected and now ‘owned’ by the people; and (3) save its face from the ignominy of failing to protect the country’s forests for the past 150 years.”
Most community-forestry groups rejected JFM outright because the Forest Department tried to pump huge amounts of money into the otherwise self-reliant village-level bodies, and appointed a government forestry official from each locality as secretary of the new JFM committee. The FPCs sensed nefarious designs in the JFM initiatives, suspecting that the Forest Department would ultimately undermine communities’ rights over the resources they had nurtured and effectively owned for years. However, many community-forestry groups that did not see such underlying motives adopted the JFM approach.
Conflicts between forest communities and the Forest Department are as old as the Forest Department itself, primarily because the two groups’ perceptions of the forest are diametrically opposed. For communities, the forest is a life-sustaining, dynamic ecosystem and even a spiritual space; for the Forest Department, it is a mere revenue-generating ‘asset’. Consequently, in the 1990s the Forest Department used the JFM tool to stamp its authority on forests protected and owned by local communities. In order to effectively confront the might of the State, which allowed the Forest Department impunity over its use of undue aggression, the CFG groups gradually realised that they would need a coordinated institutional arrangement.
The process of alliance-building began in Orissa’s Nayagarh district in the early 1980s when, after the resounding success of a village called Kesarpur in regenerating around 960 acres of forest, nearby villages began to join the Kesarpur effort. “Within about 10 years, a rich biodiversity – hundreds of species of plants including various fruit varieties, grasslands, wildlife including rare birds and snakes – came to exist where earlier there hadn’t even been a blade of grass,” recalls Yoginath Sahu, a retired schoolteacher who is fondly referred to as Shramik Yogi (the labourer saint) for his role as the backbone of the movement in Kesarpur. The Kesarpur experiment started in 1970, and by 1982 the movement had brought 22 villages together to form the Bruksha O Jeebara Bandhu Parishad (BOJBP, or Council of Friends of Trees and Living Beings). “This coming together of village units into one fold boosted our strength significantly and helped us to spread our green philosophy,” Sahu says. By 1990, more than 300 villages focused on protecting and governing their local forests and forest economies were associated with the BOJBP.
Two years later, in January 1992, all members of the BOJBP took part in a two-day convention. In April of that year those discussions led to the creation of a district-level federation, the Nayagarh Zilla Jungle Suraksha Mahasangha (Grand Union for Forest Protection in Nayagarh District), to manage the 810 villages in the district that had now joined the organisation. One male and one female member from each household were designated primary members of the union, and each household was required to contribute a membership fee of one rupee as chuli chanda each quarter. The Mahasangha also started the practice of thenga pali (turn of the baton), in which villagers who find a baton in front of their houses in the morning know that it is their turn to guard the forests that day. The Mahasangha cannot take any decision without the expressed consent of village-level institutions.
The Mahasangha is envisaged as a people’s forum for sharing relevant information and concerns, formulating protection strategies, and adjudicating local forest disputes. It operates on the understanding that “the forest is for forest-dependent communities,” and that “protecting forests and the fulfilment of local needs are never incompatible.” For this reason, the Mahasangha has repeatedly rejected the Forest Department’s practice of ‘policing the forest’, which in practice means restricting the free movement of local residents in their own forests.A giant umbrellaBy 1997, similar federations – mentored in part by the Nayagarh Mahasangha – emerged in several districts of Orissa. Encouraged by these results, the Nayagarh Mahasangha initiated the formation of a state-level federation of forest movements. “As the process of forming a state-level people’s collective was gaining momentum, an employee of a large Bhubaneswar-based NGO convened a meeting in 1999 to discuss a similar issue, and several NGOs also joined,” Sahu recalls. “See, we look at the forest movements strictly as people’s domain and, therefore, we have always tried to stay away from both the Forest Department and NGOs which essentially thrive on funding without having a clear understanding of people’s needs.”
Nonetheless, the Mahasangha participated in the 1999 meeting, which eventually led to the formation of a state-level federation called the Orissa Jungle Manch (OJM – Orissa Forest Platform). Sahu notes, however, that since the proceedings were largely dominated by NGOs, the Manch was formed after “ensuring that [these] NGOs had a hand in controlling the processes of the Manch.” NGO funds began to flow into the Manch regularly, ensuring NGO control over OJM decisions and activities. As a result, despite seeming a powerful entity with an enormous platform, for a long time OJM was unable to deliver on its promises. For example, Sahu explains, “while district-level federations in most cases continued to grow in strength, the OJM could not even organise a single state-level rally on forest issues in the state capital,” which could have increased pressure on the state to respect the demands of community forestry groups.
Laxmidhar Balia, a frontline leader of the Nayagarh movement and the present convener of the OJM, says, “Experiences teach you a lot. The OJM, over time, realised that the reigns of decision-making power can stay in people’s hands only when people act, using whatever resources are available at hand, without depending on outside support. Just like a big tree never allows a small tree to grow healthily under its shadow, people’s movements will be stunted under the burden of heavy bags of money. So now, the OJM too has taken a firm decision not to accept any financial support from these NGOs. The Manch is now out to prove [itself] to be a true and effective people’s forum, the way it was originally envisioned.”
The OJM has also provided a required public platform for effectively resolving inter-village and intra-village conflicts. There have, of course, been disagreements and violent tussles – which Balia terms “local bottlenecks” – between neighbouring villages over their respective forest rights. In one such instance in Balangir, a tiny hamlet of 10 Adivasi and Dalit families has been repeatedly targeted by a larger neighbouring village of mostly non-Adivasi families.
Such incidents occur primarily because the leadership of the district-level federation is in the wrong hands and, in cases such as Balangir, because NGOs unduly intrude into people’s affairs. As an unfortunate result, an OJM-led fact-finding report – guided largely by an NGO employee – rather hurriedly condemned the victims instead of thoroughly researching the matter and putting it in perspective. Nevertheless, despite these setbacks, a movement that started as a spontaneous response to the State’s vicious onslaught on forest-based village economies has now evolved into an empowering collective, and has done so without communities losing their diverse identities and democratic values at the ground level.
The biggest challenge ahead, however, is the state’s expressed intent to heavily commercialise forest resources through various programmes such as arbitrary plantation drives, REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), REDD+, carbon trading, and the Green India Mission. Fortunately, the OJM, founded firmly on the philosophy that “forests are for forest-dependent communities”, is unlikely to barter people’s rights for business profits. Further, in light of the Forest Rights Act 2006, the Manch is already concentrating on using the Act’s provisions to legally ensure communities’ rights over their forests. This would checkmate the government, stalling any misappropriation of people’s resources and rights.
If the Orissa Jungle Manch is able to sustain such politics and practices, it could well usher in a strong coalition of forest movements at the national level, which is long overdue.
~ Subrat Kumar Sahu is an independent filmmaker, researcher and journalist based in New Delhi.