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Participatory Management of Forests

M.J. Arul

Abstract: Participatory approaches have been accepted today as most appropriate, especially for development of natural and common property resources. Based on a process documentation study by the author, this paper first describes the implementation of a joint forest management project in Gujarat. It then identifies a number of issues that emerged in the project. Subsequently, the paper raises a few questions and points out certain concerns that may need to be addressed for enhancing the efficacy of the participatory approach. The paper concludes with a special stress on the necessity and appropriateness of a vision to be adopted by NGOs at large, given the latter’s crucial role in people’s development.


Growth is a natural process, but development involves intervention. Deliberate interventions are required to direct and accelerate growth selectively so as to achieve development in areas of priority.

Sustainable human development is a priority area, involving management of available resources. Forests constitute an important segment of our country's natural resources, requiring to be managed prudently so as to meet the needs of today's human population, without depriving the future generations, as well as help preserve the ecological balance and biodiversity. [For an elaborate discussion of sustainable development, see Berkes (1989) and Pezzey (1992).]

Participatory management, which involves working together of the beneficiaries, departments of government, and non-governmental organisations, is broadly accepted today by all concerned as the most appropriate strategy for implementing programmes that are aimed at sustainable development of natural resources. Some of the latest policy documents (e.g., the Government of India's National Forest Policy - 1988, the 1991 Resolution of the Gujarat Government and the GRs of several state governments) on regeneration of degraded forest lands also emphasise and foster this approach.

There are several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) today that are engaged in a multitude of rural development programmes on the lines of participatory management [Chambers, 1994]. One such organisation, which the author has had the opportunity to observe, has been modifying and improving its approach to development -- as a result of learning from its own experience as well as from observations of similar attempts elsewhere in the world. This NGO, in its far-and-wide quest, came across effective implementations of large-scale participatory development programmes on forestry and irrigation in Thailand, Indonesia and, particularly, the Philippines. The very design of projects in these programmes (Bagadion, 1985) was a source of significant learning for the implementors: It provided for, inter alia, a working group and an ongoing process documentation research (PDR). Convinced of the need for continuous learning from projects and recognising the instrumentality of process documentation in meeting the need, the NGO in question sponsored a PDR study, which the author undertook to do.

With no prior experience in process documentation, the author initially thought (in line with the traditional research paradigm) of selecting a representative sample of villages where the programme was in progress so that the study could be conducted under a scientifically acceptable research design. During his first field visit, however, the author noted that the villages were at various stages of the project -- such that the required stratified sample would turn out to be as large as the population itself! Moreover, for the process documentation to be meaningful, it was deemed necessary to observe a project from its beginning and follow it through continuously. It was, therefore, decided that a mixed sample of villages be selected in a purposive way: i) take one or two villages where the project was just starting and ii) cover, on a critical-event basis, those villages where the project had been going on for various periods of time. The first would serve the purpose of continuous observation of a project from its beginning; the second would help observe some significant events that might occur in the older project villages.

Having so decided on the "sample", the author familiarised himself with the history of the JFM programme in the district through a study of relevant records and discussion with persons associated with the programme. Concurrently, the PDR assistant, who had been recruited and groomed specially for the study, was introduced to the programme personnel and was posted in the field so that he could sufficiently socialise in the work milieu before embarking on the task of process observation and documentation.

This paper primarily presents a glimpse of what was observed during the process documentation study. It also identifies certain emergent issues and concerns in the context of implementing JFM in Bharuch and goes on to indicate what may be required for enhancing the efficacy of the participatory approach.

The Advent of JFM in Gujarat

Realisation and initiative

By the early 1980s, the forest cover in the region had reduced drastically and the consequently stepped-up departmental vigilance seemed to be creating more and more intractable problems of confrontations, arson and other forms of organised crime. Having, in the process, suffered progressive losses of forest cover as well as human lives, both of the departmental personnel and of the tribals, the Gujarat Forest Department began to realise firsthand that the traditional forestry practices of afforestation and protection by law alone were counter-productive and that more effective approaches were imperative for ensuring sustainable maintenance of forests in the years to come. On coming to know of the non-traditional, participatory management of forests in West Bengal (the famous Arabari experiment), some of the officers of the Gujarat Forest Department began to be positively inclined to involve the people in protecting the forests, but were as yet unsure of how to set about doing so. (For a report on the West Bengal experience, see Malhotra, 1992 and Palit, 1990.)

It occurred to one of the senior forest officers, posted then in the Vyara division of Surat Circle, that motivating the forest-resident members of the already existing Forest Laborers' Cooperative Societies (FLCSs) might be a good starting point for accomplishing people's participation in having the forests protected. Accordingly, the forest department tried in the early eighties to free the FLCS members from the private contractors' control and exploitation. In the process, about 20 Forest Protection Committees were formed of the tribals, who would in conjunction with field forest officials patrol the forests. Financial incentives were offered as a reward to these committees whenever any pilfered forest material was recovered with their help. Pilferage from and damage to the adjacent forests began to decline, as a result of such assisatance from the locals. Unfortunately, the senior officer who was spearheading this move was transferred about this time (in 1984).

The formation of forest protection committees and the subsequent protection of forests by the locals themselves began to hurt the interests of the contractors. The latter, therefore, reacted by orchestrating a violent confrontation, with the help of hired gangsters, between the tribals and the departmental field officials, resulting in loss of lives on both sides. An ominous lull followed. The field forest officials went on a strike, demanding fire-arms and wireless sets for their self-protection. A tense atmosphere is reported to have prevailed and several of the Forest Protection Committees (FPCs) became inoperative. The forests began to be damaged rapidly both by the contractors and the local tribals themselves. The situation in 1985-87 was worse off than before.

Entry of an NGO

In April 1985, through an informal contact with certain "Parikh Doctor", who had organised the villagers of Solia in Bharuch district for agricultural development purposes, a development organisation entered the village of Solia. Registered in 1983 as a non-governmental organisation (NGO) under section 25 of the Companies Act-1956, the organisation took to a programme of community development in backward villages. Rural resource development was a component of the community development programme. The NGO started off by reviving and reorganising Solia's erstwhile Gram Vikas Samiti into a Gram Vikas Mandal (GVM) and launched its developmental effort through the GVM, beginning with an activity that addressed the immediate need of the villagers, namely, wage employment: Plantation was undertaken in 1985 on 17 hectares of panchayat land and the work expanded to cover another 10 hectares of it the following year, when 75 hectares of degraded forest land was also taken up for plantation. (For a monograph on Solia's JFM, see Manju and Vaghela, 1993.)

In 1986, another village, Pingot, by virtue of its having vast stretches of revenue wasteland, was identified as a potential area for similar developmental effort; tree plantation was taken up on 65 hectares of the degraded revenue land there, with labour from the village. Many of the residents of Pingot, who had till then been migrating regularly to cities, such as Surat, Ankleshwar and Baroda, for most of the year in search of wage employment, now began to stay more and more in the village. Demand for wage employment in the locality grew larger than could be met by the work generated on the 65-hectare land. The NGO, therefore, took up plantation work in the adjacent forest land that was about 125 hectares and lay degraded. While these plantations provided a much needed relief for the people in terms of wage employment, not much of the plantation survived for lack of protection from open grazing of local cattle as well as of cattle belonging to migratory shepherds.

Concerned about their long-term goal of ecological recovery and village resource development, the NGO held several meetings with the people to communicate to them the importance of protecting the plantations. Consequently, a Tree Growers' Cooperative Society was formed and a protection system was evolved to guard the planted plots: Society members would form small groups of volunteers and by turns patrol the plantation sites by day and by night. One member was elected to schedule and monitor the turns, for which he was paid Rs.50 a month by the Gram Vikas Mandal, which was formed in 1987 to cater to the various developmental needs of the village. With these arrangements, the plantations grew, the barren land areas turned green, people got wage employment, and fodder availability increased. With more and more of the people beginning to stay in the village for most of the year (having reduced their seasonal migrations in search of employment elsewhere), Pingot's agriculture began to look up, too.

Encouraged by its experience of having successfully regenerated revenue wastelands as well as degraded forest lands both in Solia and Pingot, the NGO, with the consent of the Forest Department, took up in 1988 an additional 50 hectares of degraded forest land, which had coppiceable root-stocks, for protection by the people of Pingot. Witnessing these activities of Pingot and also having participated in them as wage laborers, the people of Mota Jambooda (a neighbouring village with no forest land of its own, but situated very near Pingot's vast forest land) expressed their desire to take up forestry plantation and protection near their village. Thus yet another additional area of 36 hectares of the forest land was taken up for gap planting and protection, the same year (1988). Over and above the actual immediate benefits of fodder, fuel wood, wages and savings, and the potential long-term benefits of harvesting when the trees matured, these forestry activities by the people of Pingot and Mota Jambooda helped regenerate the degraded forest lands of the area so well that the Gram Vikas Mandal (GVM) of Pingot received the Indira Priyadarshani Vriksha Mitra Award of 1990. Using part of the money from the Award, the GVM constructed an office building of its own in the village.

A massive rally

In 1987, the senior officer who had spearheaded the FPCs and had been transferred elsewhere, was posted again at Surat on promotion. Back in his good old surroundings, he promptly resumed his contact with the local leaders of the tribals and tried to resurrect the FPCs. Using his revived contact with the leaders and some of the earlier supporters of the movement, he hunted out and exposed the gangsters who had been behind the evil incidents that had hurt a lot of people and the forests. He organised several meetings with the people who lived along the forest belt. In these meetings it was ensured that the forest department staff was present, besides the local leaders (FLCS office bearers, village headmen, Sarpanches, office bearers of youth clubs, NGO personnel working in the area) and the tribals. Many of the village headmen and people in these meetings expressed their readiness to form an FPC in their respective villages. At this juncture, the forest officer visited Pingot, where participatory protection and regeneration of degraded forest lands was already in operation with the help of the NGO, mentioned above. This visit to Pingot strengthened the officer's faith in people's participation. When he returned to Surat and met his people, some of the local leaders there suggested to him that a rally be organised to conscientise the people about the forest wealth and to spread the spirit of forest protection. The officer accepted the suggestion and a rally was organised.

The rally took off from Raikach on January 27, 1988 and terminated at Ghutvel on January 30, having touched about 20 villages en route. This 50-kilometer rally was punctuated by meetings, film-shows and planting of some trees along the way. As the rally progressed, people from the neighbouring villages joined in every day -- some of them part of the way and some to the end; by the end of the third day, about 30,000 people had participated in the event. Following the rally, there was a spurt of FPCs in the area. In 1988 itself, there were more than 100 such committees, a majority of which were in well-wooded forest areas and some in degraded forest areas. All this happened in the Vyara division of Surat Circle. Gradually FPCs began to be promoted and formed in other parts of the State, such as the Panchmahals and Junagarh.

Later developments, in brief

Impressed by the accomplishments of the initial attempts at involving the people in protecting the forests, both the Forest Department and the NGO were enthused to bring more and more degraded forest areas under people's protection. By 1994, the NGO had helped plant and/or protect 1623 hectares of degraded forest land, adjacent to 27 scattered villages of the district, by motivating the respective villagers.

Although the participatory forestry programme on forest land was, in its initial years, characterised by people's involvement only in plantation and protection, the NGO gradually began to involve the people also in the management of degraded forest lands. The people of the selected forest village began to be involved in identifying the area that needed plantation and\or protection, deciding on the species of trees to be planted, planning of the various silvicultural activities to be undertaken, and evolving a local system of executing the plan and monitoring the progress. The NGO facilitated the whole process by maintaining a close touch with the people as well as with the Forest Department, whose support was well recognised to be crucial. With the enhanced role of the people (as mentioned above) in the programme, coupled with a continued social and operational backing from the NGO and administrative, legal and technical support from the Forest Department, the participatory forest regeneration programme veritably evolved into a Joint Forest Management (JFM).

The JFM Process

How does JFM work? How does it begin in a village? What are the various stages of implementing a JFM? What does each stage entail? What are the problems and difficulties that crop up at each stage? How are these problems solved and difficulties overcome? What are the problems (if any) that continue to persist? What are the sources of these problems?

Observation of on-site happenings that relate to questions such as raised above would provide us with a knowledge of the processes that characterise the implementation of a JFM. Such knowledge, besides its intrinsic value, would be handy in efforts to expand, scale up or replicate the developmental work.

Processes of old: A summary

In the earlier years, if the NGO came across a stretch of degraded forest land as it went about contacting and organising villagers for their overall community development, it would, in the respective village meetings, broach the subject of regenerating and protecting their adjacent forest land for their own good. If the people were willing and ready to take up the task, the NGO would use its resources to get the work started on the degraded forest land -- as it had done in Pingot. This operational procedure enjoyed the sole sanction of the NGO's own conviction and clear conscience that no harm was being done to any one and that the organisation was actually carrying out a nationally desirable mission of ecological and rural development -- overlooking, however, the possible legalities involved in doing so.

The local forest officials took objection to such "encroachment", but wouldn't really stop the activity, unable to deny the fact that the forest was visibly improving by means of people's participation, brought about by the NGO's intervention. From then on for a couple of years, the NGO would, in advance, inform the RFO orally of where it would like to take up afforestation next. The RFO would give an informal green signal, after inspecting the site and pointing out which patches therein should be left untouched. By 1990, about ten Gram Vikas Mandals (GVMs) had taken to afforestation and protection of forest lands with such an informal sanction. But soon it became difficult for the NGO to go ahead with JFM activities under what was becoming an unpredictable situation, wherein the local forest officers had become increasingly reluctant to grant informal go-aheads as before.

With a view to resolving the above problem and creating ameliorative working relations with all concerned, so that anyone taking up JFM in the future would rather feel empowered than encumbered, the then chief executive of the NGO took the initiative of exploring ways to effect some changes at the policy level. Under the Forest Act obtaining then, not much could be attempted formally in terms of people's participation in forest management. Mr. Shah, the NGO chief, met the Secretary of the Forest and Environment Ministry and discussed with him possibilities of evolving a scheme that would benefit the forests and the people, and, therefore, acceptable to the government. A formal proposal for such a scheme was submitted in March 1988 to the Government of India (GOI). Subsequently, in December of the same year, GOI presented its National Forest Policy, which encouraged people's participation in the management of forests all over the country.

The national policy had to be made operative at the state level for actual implementation. Mr. Shah, therefore, pursued the matter till the state government of Gujarat issued its Resolution #FCA-1090-125V(3) on March 13, 1991. Even before the Government Resolution was passed, Mr. Shah had organised a meeting with the State Forest Department on September 26, 1990, in which NGOs engaged in any form of JFM in other parts of the State also participated. This meeting was the forerunner of the State-level Working Committee on Joint Forest Management, which was formed soon thereafter with representatives from the Forest Department (with the PCCF as the chairman), NGOs and academic institutions to jointly facilitate JFM in the State. Field-level problems of implementation and suggestions on how the Forest Department could facilitate the process began to be presented and discussed in the state-level committee meetings.

Processes at present


Unlike in the earlier days of the venture, the NGO now typically writes to the DFO, with a copy of the letter to the RFO, requesting him for a formal approval of JFM work in a number of selected villages. This letter is followed up by personal visits to expedite action. Villages for JFM are identified with the help of Master Extension Volunteers (MEVs) -- locals, who are selected, trained and kept in reserve by the NGO to be engaged on a daily-wage basis as and when their assistance is required. These MEVs move around and study the villages in their respective area. They collect information on various aspects of the village, including the population, cultivable land area and its visible use pattern, forest land and its current condition, and people's general attitude. The forestry cell of the NGO discusses the findings of the MEVs and draws up a list of potential villages for JFM. After a village has thus been identified as suitable for JFM, the NGO arranges a meeting with the villagers on two consecutive days that are mutually convenient to the people and the NGO.

Involvement of people

Participatory appraisal
On the first day of the meeting with the villagers, the NGO staff, with assistance from the MEV, conducts a participatory rural appraisal (PRA) of the village. When making a physical map of the village, as part of the PRA exercise, the interaction process among the villagers intensifies gradually, resulting in what appears to be a fresh awareness among the participants about their own village and its surroundings. This is followed by a time-line exercise, engaging the ripe old people of the village in the presence of all. This exercise wins a ready audience from the younger population of the village; the younger folks listen to the oldsters' narration with great attention and also ask questions when they apprehend gaps or lack of clarity. (Who ever says history is a boring subject? It does not appear to be so in this exercise. If relevant, history can indeed be quite gripping!) Seasonality exercise is done next, which brings into focus the different seasons of the year and the associated work patterns of the villagers, laying bare before them how they are occupied at different times of the year and the corresponding fluctuations in their economic condition. At the end of the day, a preference ranking of trees (Tree Matrix) is done separately by the males and the females of the village. The day ends with a brief review by the NGO's Programme Organiser, who presents to the people a quick summary of what they have accomplished on this one day and announces the next day's programme.

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