Community Forest: A scope in Assam

Article by Sagarmoy Phukan

A few days back I had a conversation with “Nature’s Beckon” and I was appraised about their community forest initiative in Assam. Assam traditionally never had a concept of community forests. Before colonialization of Assam, most communities, especially the tribal communities of North East India were dependent on Jhum cultivation. Moreover, the resources population ratio was high at that time. 

Ever since post-independence, as the population of the region increased both due to better medical facilities and immigration from other parts of India; the resources gap was realized. One of the major advents was opening the region to the global market during the colonial times that lead to heavy ecological damage. Unfortunately, over the time we have realized and must realize that ecological destruction of the region shall not lead to the economic and social development of the people. It has proved to be the other way round. Eminent economic historian Amlendu Guha has termed this phenomenon as “a big push without a take-off”.

However, it seems Assam’s progress and development are closely related to forest and forestry. A 2002 study shows that in undivided Lakhimpur and Sibsagar districts, forest cover decreased up to 45%. But a forest nearby means unmeasurable natural resources that can be used for livelihood, especially Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP). More than 50% of the vegetables that are found in daily markets (haats) are sourced from the forest. There is a close nexus for the livelihood of villagers in Assam and forest-based products. Historically forests had remained available to the local communities until the British Administration plunged into a rigorous process of land settlement which marked the beginning of the systematic exclusion of local forest communities from any forest associated business.

In 1997 inspired by Uttaranchal’s Van Panchayat, the Indian Government initiated the Village Forest Joint Management (VFJM) which was to be implemented by the Forest Department. Scholarly articles point out the core problem of the system is the dominant role played by the Forest Department. Usually, community forests are maintained by the people and the local government should be the benefactor of it; Gram Panchayat in this case. However, in order to increase the revenue of the department, plantations are allowed instead of allowing thick canopy of forest or plants that can provide resources and livelihood opportunities to nearby communities who are dependent on forest produces. 

Assam too needs to start progressing towards community forest for resources management where participation and benefits should be predominantly enjoyed by the community involved with a democratic and self-governing forest management system. The participatory approach has been given a front-row world-wide to increase sustainability. It helps in voicing the concerns of the people and in scaling the impacts. If we can build participatory governance into the initiative, we have a powerful mechanism to build genuine evidence and prioritise what is most needed in the community.

Community forest has a lot of potential starting from conserving biodiversity, it also promotes local cultural values, creates livelihood opportunities through ecotourism, non-timber forest products such as bamboos and canes, fuelwood, wood for agricultural implements, house repair and construction materials, forest foods and other non-timber products including fruits and leaves. etc. It also helps in maintaining potable water supply and enhance resilience to environmental shock and climate change. Moreover, it becomes a throve for ayurvedic medicines that can help the population through general illness. Forest managing communities in various locations in India have reported that within a few years of successful protection they could derive forest benefits. However, these measures should come with creating awareness among local communities while providing them with insights to benefits. 

Training, awareness-raising and provision of tools will ensure integration of biodiversity and ecosystem services into local level forest management plans whilst the subsequent implementation of plans will ensure community forests are managed sustainably, with benefits for biodiversity conservation as well as livelihoods. In India, since the launch of the community program, over 3 million hectares of land have been regenerated since 1993. Being an ecologically sensitive zone, Assam and the North Eastern Region of India, cannot afford to have a large number of industries. Livelihood and economic development of our people should be promoted in terms of services; either ecosystem services or anthropogenic services. Community forest provides an equal opportunity to all people irrespective of caste or gender. Several studies on Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Nepal have shown the progress of communities involved with conservation especially concerning women.

As we start the forest protection and conservation initiative, one of the most important hurdles is establishing a well-oiled management system that can formalize membership to the said resource. Negotiations on boundaries and other local rights need to be finalized with neighbours and governmental agencies, the Forest Department in this case. This will help in the appropriation of shares and help in monitoring, sanctions and conflict management. Under the current system across the country, there are several issues of tenurial rights. The benefits of the system are more than the problems associated with it and with proper management and local planning involving the community, I believe it is truly a good move on our part to be locally vibrant and self-sufficient. 

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