Forest tales

  • 28/02/1996

Forest tales THE aftereffects of a forest felling movement started in Singhbhum district of Bihar in 1978 had created a none-too- happy situation for tribal forest dwellers of the region, who felt that the core of their existence was being damaged indiscriminately. This was coupled with the Porahat (a forest territorial division in Singhbhum) Forest Corporation"s activities to replace traditional mixed forests with teak monocultures, as a response to the recommendations of the National Commission of Agriculture (NCA).

It was in 1976 that the NCA set a new agenda for forests, declaring that the requirements of industry should determine forestry projects. That was the period when the quest for scientific management of forests and environmental issues had gained ascendancy. Consequently, the forest dwellers, hitherto dependent on timber contractors, perceived a certain sense of "wagelessness".

The completeness of this tribal-forest relationship is brought out extremely well in the B K Roy Burman Committee Report on Tribals and Forests (1982). The "70s and "80s tended to look at forests from the more narrow perspective of incomes, instead of the wider concept of securing livelihoods. But traditionally used to "living one day at a time, tribals view "income" quite differently from the urban populace.
Contested domains The unequal market versus forest dweller relationship high - lights the need for state intervention, but the modus operandi remains unresolved. The community"s recognition of demarcation of forest lands - the "contested domains" - is also drastically different from the forest department"s definition. The local forest dwellers perceive that humans can plant trees, but cannot create forests, and that forests are nature"s bounty and communities can only protect them.

The tribals also make A clear distinction between tree- growing and natural forests. The diversity of sal forests and the multiplicity of plant and animal species that they support, have defined the very livelihood patterns of the people in this area. A study had found that of 214 wild plant species identified in the adjoining sal forests of the Jamboni Range of Midnapore forest division, the tribals used 155 species for fuel, food, fodder, medicine, household articles, commercial and religious purposes, ornaments and recreation.

Located in the central Indian tribal region and spread over an area of 13,440 sq km, Singhbhum district (bifurcated into East and West Singhbhum districts in 1990) has one of Asia"s finest sal forests - the Saranda forests. The Ho tribals, akin to the Mundas, but unique in preserving their traditional cultures, dominate the Saranda, Kolhan, Porahat, and South Forest divisions. The district is also very rich in iron ore,, uranium, copper, asbestos, kyanite, china clay and other minerals. This explains the emergence of 20 industrial mining towns in the region, including the industrial city of Jamshedpur. Besides the incomes from non-timber forest products, not- so-modem agricultural practices are followed in almost all its 32 community development blocks. The Dhalbhum region of the district has many tanks and a second crop of vegetables is grown in many such pockets to meet the growing needs of the mining towns. The firewood and timber needs of these towns have exerted pressure over forests in these regions.

Singhbhum has also traditionally been meeting the needs of the Indian Railways for making wooden sleepers in a large measure. The unabated increase in the demand for wooden furniture has also put tremendous pressure on these sal forests (according to a 1989 preliminary market study of the wood industry in Bihar, and another contemporary study, India"s timber needs will go up to 300 million cubic m by AD 2000, from the 125 million cubic m consumption in 1978-79). The tribals point out that although the state has been reporting felling by tribals, the loss of forest cover due to industrial expansion has been more significant.

Tribals have long been demanding the closure of private sawmills. Their festivals and rituals, like the Ho festivals - Maghe and Ba - are all centred around the annual seasonal cycle of the sal Most of the festival songs refer to life in the land of the sal tree. The Santhals too have their own rituals and the annual shikar (hunt) is still practised. Non-tribals of this region also have their livelihoods - mostly agricultural operations - organised around the natural forests. Even the long 15-20-year cycle of shifting cultivation among the tribals is considered useful in mixed forest areas.

The promotion of natural regeneration as a means to protect degraded sal forests has been an ancient tradition of this region. The Forest Working Plans, as well as the Cadastral Survey and Settlement Reports, prepared early this century, also mention such efforts. Forest Working Plans for Saranda, Kolhan and Porahat divisions mention that in certain villages, the demarcation of reserved and protected forests had posed some problems that needed redressal by forest settlement officers, as land patterns kept changing.

The Cadastral Surveys of Dhalbhum and Kolhan mention community initiatives to protect forests - how people came together to extinguish forest fires. Forest reservation and protection on the other hand, through state ownership of natural resource, managed to alienate the people, especially in an area where the tribals recognised land ownership based only on sasangdiris (stone memorials to the dead) which they had installed in several places as they were primarily nomadic in the past. As a result, some reserved forest and protected forest areas have these sasangdiris within their areas.

The introduction of social forestry programmes around Jamshedpur in Dhalbhum and North Forest divisions, have promoted tree-growing culture as an income-generating activity. With the usual degree of apathy attached with most forestry programmes, there has been largescale plantations of the non-browsable acacia and eucalyptus. Farmers on these plantations initially made good money. Later, prices slumped "gradually and long bureaucratic procedures emerged around transit permits which affected the pace of such endeavours. Subsequently, a greater attraction for the protection of degraded natural forests has arisen, partly from a realisation that it may be more remunerative in the long run, especially following the spread of Joint Forest Management schemes. This rings more true in areas adjoining Midnapore district in West Bengal, where the Santhals and Bhumij tribals have taken to intensive agriculture and have also made some money by tree-growing under social forestry programmes.

The endgame
The tribal movements and agitations of the "80s were determined by the delineation of contested domains. The perceived helplessness of the tribals was developed into a movement of desperation by their leaders, and the illicit felling of trees by the tribals en masse became a symbol of protest. In fact, among the Hos, any villager who did not participate in illegal felling during the movement, was fined and beaten up by his community. But even at the peak of the movement, one notable feature was that the tribals rarely sold off the felled timber themselves; they would go to the forest state trading office after the monsoon season when the roads became motorable, and demand wage labour. At a point of time, the grapevine had it that the only way to get wage labour was to indulge in illicit felling, as the forest department abandoned felling as per the Working Plan (the response of the forest department in the wake of illicit felling was to suspend the operation of the Working Plan). There was no harmonious relationship left between the forest and the forest dweller, and the actions of the state appeared to the tribal to be an alienating one.

It is paradoxical that many of the movements for forest protection also started during the "80s. In the areas that had been exposed to social forestry programmes, the local tribal community came together to protect degraded natural forests with prospective financial returns in mind. In non-commercial areas, in the interior of Singhbhum district, it was the perception of the community that the ultimate wellbeing of the tribal lay in the survival of natural forests. Even the manner of forest protection varied, depending on the motivation that brought the people together.

The plantations by the forest department on government lands, on the banks of canals, next to roads and railway lines, and on deforested hill slopes, consisted mostly of acacia and eucalyptus trees. In 1989, in a meeting of 300 village heads - to discuss the problems facing the forest regions - the Tribals very strongly argued against the indiscriminate plantation of these non-browsable species. They unanimously demanded support for the natural regeneration of degraded forests with silvicultural practices instead.

They argued that silvicultural operations are labour-intensive, and a much lower cost is involved in them than in the planting of acacia and eucalyptus. Also, the community would be willing to support such constructive initiatives. In 1992, Manjul Bajaj, in a study (The Price of Forests, edited by Anil Agarwal, Centre for Science and Environment, 1992) on the prospects of natural regeneration with community participation, maintained that silviculture has many advantages over plantation forestry and is also cheaper than afforestation operations.

Parenting a forest
The most common type of community forestry programmme is that in which the forest department takes on the responsibility for carrying out the planting. It provides inputs such as fertiliser and seedlings without any outlay from the community; the engagement of the local community remains largely passive, and is normally restricted to providing hired labour. This has often resulted in the villagers illegally felling trees before they are fully matured.

Efforts at involving the community were also made in some other Indian states - notably in Gujarat - and it actually did lead to the participation of people in tree-growing on a large scale. Clearing undergrowth, digging contour trenches to conserve rain water where and as it falls, thinning and pruning to promote more luxuriant growth, protection from cattle by social fencing, fines for unrestricted use of forest resources or for trespassing and the like, are all part of such efforts. Manjul Bajaj holds that regeneration efforts will yield a more diverse output mix than the so-called afforestation programme"s.

Besides timber, natural mixed forests provide grass, fibres leaves, fruits, seeds, medicinal plants, resin, honey, lac, and several other non-wood products which can sustain and support the livelihoods of a large number of people. Present afforestation technology aims at maximising wood outputs. Other outputs remain only byproducts of plantation forestry. Also, naturally regenerated forests are less vulnerable to pest and disease attacks.

In fact, the activity of regenerating forests demands attention and investment in its own right. However, ambiguity regarding the sharing of forest produce has often led to feebler community participation. More exchange of information regarding the entitlements of the community involved in protecting degraded natural forests and promoting natural regeneration would probably improve this. In Goberdhan village in Majhgaon block, villagers participated actively in forest protection, in the realisation that a regenerated forest provides sufficient undergrowth for the fuelwood needs of the community, besides creating wealth in the form of timber. But after they had protected their forests, they were informed that since part of the land was reserve forest, therefore, no benefits would accrue to them. Such absence of clearly demarcated rights can act as a deterrent in promoting natural regeneration.

The Indian Forest Act and other regulations which are meant to officially restrain the use of forest wealth, have successfully alienated the tribals in their own lands; they are being told that it was they who were responsible for the destruction of forests. This made the tribal communities develop a sense of disrespect towards their original world view of harmonious relationship with nature. Their forced pauperisation on account of poor agriculture yields and poorer integration with the market made them look at issues on environment as alienating propositions. They immediately attributed the failures of the state to restore confidence in them as an absence of political will.

Their forest, their fare
The homogeneity of tribal societies and the institution of village heads can help in community self-regulation. Modernisation and industrial mining activities partly destroyed the homogeneity of some of these tribal villages. Self-regulation gave way to wanton destructiom There are instances where forest dwellers became sub-contractors to timber thiefs. No wonder that the enlightened lot among them demand a shift from the current policies of social and community foresty. In their understanding of the dynamics of regeneration, alternative methods would he much more welcome as natural regeneration compels a community of people to think and act together.

The well protected Kudada forests - very near Jamshedpur, for example - are a clear demonstration of what wonders community initiatives can do. The village of Ramgarh, near Tatanagar in Singhbhum, has been protecting its forests since 1984. Predominantly inhabited by Munda and Santhal tribals, the village had virtually become a desert following mindless felling. Now the mud track leading to the village from the highway is bordered by a lush green forest wall of young sal trees. "When the rains started decreasing, we realised that it was because of the depleting forest cover," says Mohan Singh Munda, a villager. The villagers then decided to put a stop to the exploitation of the forests by timber-pinching profiteers. Initially, no one was even allowed to enter the forest; now only minor forest produce is permitted to be collected, that too, only off the forest floor. -The fact that these strictures were unquestioningly followed is a strong evidence of the effectiveness of community participation.

Sustainable livelihoods in natural forest regions. will require the participation of the community. The state will have to intervene to secure the basic needs of the people living in forest regions. Exploitation of timber in natural forests arises largely out of poverty and destitution faced by the tribal -communities. The returns from non-timber forest products will need to be protected by policies of effective minimum support price and procurement arrangements in a decentralised manner at each of the village market centres.

This experience of monopoly procurement and marketing rights vested in the operations of the state forest corporations have often limited the options of the tribals. The modalities of successful intervention on their behalf must be looked at carefully. The successful market interventions made by the Girijan Cooperative Corporation in Andhra Pradesh can throw up very useful guiding principles in this regard.

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