India’s “joint forest management” programs have been widely touted as giving communities greater control over forests and a higher share of forest revenues. State forestry departments sign agreements with local representatives in which the government promises to finance local plans, forest guards, tree nurseries, and other activities and to let residents
keep some of the earnings from selling forest products. The local representatives agree to conserve their forests and to follow the program’s rules. The World Bank and other agencies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on these programs.
In many places the results have probably been positive. However, Madhu Sarin ’s “Disempowerment in the name of ’participatory forestry? – Village forests joint management in Uttarakhand”, points out the dangers of applying one single model in diverse contexts and of ’participatory’ schemes that don’t acknowledge what people are already doing. FAO’s Forests, Trees and People Newsletter published Sarin’s paper.
Back in 1958, the elected forest council of Pakhi received the right to manage a 240-hectare forest, which women use to collect fuelwood, fodder, leaf litter and other products for their families. For years, the local women’s welfare association controlled the forest. It decided how to use the forest and paid a woman guard to fine people that violated the rules.
Voluntary contributions paid the guard’s salary. While the women managed the forest it was always kept in good condition.
When the Village Forests Joint Management program came to Pakhi in 1999, the women lost control of their forest. The local men, who previously showed little interest in the forest, took over. They used project money to hire three male forest guards and fired the woman. Conflicts broke out over the funds for the village forest plan and the tree nurseries. The Forestry
Department now makes key decisions about how the forest will be used. It has marginalized the women’s welfare association and turned the men and women in the village into virtual wage laborers. The villagers need the money, but they did not realize they would no longer be able to manage their forest. It also seems no one consulted the women when the village leaders agreed to enter the program.
The Uttarakhand region in Uttar Pradesh has over 6,000 community forests like the one in Pakhi. Studies show that on average these forests have faired as well or better than the government – managed Reserve Forests. About 50% of the region’s rural households depend heavily on village commons and forest lands for their livelihoods. Some 40% of heads of households are women.
The Village Forest Joint Management program looks real good on paper. Unfortunately, the villagers of Pakhi don’t live on paper.