The United Nations General Assembly has declared 2011 as International Year of Forests to raise awareness about conservation and sustainable development of all type of forests. Every year March 21 is celebrated as World Forest Day. This year it gains more importance as the entire year is dedicated to evolve policies that help the world to conserve the remaining natural forests and to regenerate the forest in the degraded areas.
The logo and the theme of the International Year of Forests is “forests for people”, emphasizing the need to give the central role for people in protection of worlds forests.
The forests play an important role in the wellbeing of the seven billion inhabitants of earth, of which 1.6 billion directly depend on forests for their livelihood. Most of them are those indigenous communities living in the midst of remote forest regions of Amazon or in the central Indian region of India.
While recognizing the role of forests as the source of biodiversity, mechanisms for providing the ecosystem services like water sheds of rivers and most effective strategy for mitigation of global warming, in the arena of forestry policies at the national and international levels, the focus is to keep away the people form the forests.
It is only in the early eighties that the world began to recognize the importance of diversity in the natural forests and the policies of monoculture plantations came under severe criticism.
Forests Vs People
The seeds of modern forestry practices were sown by the colonial rulers in early 19th century. Forests in Latin America, India, Africa and Asia were targeted to be converted into commercial monoculture plantations. Large tracts of forests belonging to the forest dwelling indigenous communities were cleared to make way for these plantations. The multiple uses of the natural forests by the forest dwellers for food, fiber and medicines were termed as “primitive” to be replaced by the “scientific” forestry with commercial objectives. The main aim of the forestry policies was to earn handsome revenue form the forests.
In order to succeed, this policy had to exclude the people or restrict their access to the forest regions. The indigenous communities that lived and used the forests for several centuries had to fight this policy of exclusion. This led to launching of struggles against the colonial rulers. Unfortunately, the same policies continued among those countries that gained independence form colonial rulers. In fact in countries like Indonesia and India, the establishment of monoculture commercial plantations was done in a massive scale in the post colonial period.
It is only in the early eighties that the world began to recognize the importance of diversity in the natural forests and the policies of monoculture plantations came under severe criticism. The movements like Chipko and Appiko were launched to protest against the anti people forestry policies.
However, the realization was too late as it is impossible to regenerate the natural forests that have been lost to replace single species, especially in the fragile tropical forest regions. According to FAO, even though tropical forests cover only 10 per cent of the total terrestrial surface, they are home to considerably more than 60% of all terrestrial and freshwater biodiversity.
Unfortunately, the modern forestry is not equipped to manage the complex eco systems of the tropical forest regions. As the world realized the rapid rate of disappearing biodiversity of these fragile eco systems, a call is being made to elicit people’s participation in conserving these regions.
Forests for and by People
In order to involve people actively in the management and regeneration of forests, the most important aspect is to give them access and ownership to the resources. Their ideas of forest regeneration need to be given priority over the colonial forestry mindset. As a paradigm shift in the Forest Policy 1988, the Government of India changed the objective from commercial to ecological orientation. It also stated that in order to maintain environmental stability and restoration of ecological balance it is essential to create massive peoples movement and the need to involve people in these efforts.
Unfortunately, while implementing this policy the government initiated the programme of joint forest management (JFM) under which people had neither freedom nor the access to natural forest areas to meet their bio mass needs.
Despite this failure, there are excellent examples of successful case studies of community managed forest areas in different parts of the country. The Chipko led women’s groups in Himalayas, the hill regions of Orissa and in villages of south India one can see the regenerated forests in barren areas through community efforts. This is in stark contrasts to the million of rupees spent on forestry projects funded by international donor agencies.
The historical Forests Right Act provides a rare opportunity to the people to regain access to their forests through community forest claims. Nevertheless, the tardy implementation of this Act has defeated the spirit of allowing space to people for genuine participation in forestry activities.
Only through active participation of the people, especially forest communities we have the hope to bring back the dwindling forest cover and provide food and water security for the people.