World Rainforest Movement

India: Indigenous Peoples and Joint Forest Management

India’s experiments with Joint Forest Management (JFM) grew out of attempts by forestry officials to accommodate ‘tribal’ demands to manage their own forests. [The indigenous peoples of India are officially referred to as ‘Scheduled Tribes’]. Under JFM forests remain the property of the State under the jurisdiction of Forest Departments but local communities are contracted to manage the forests and retain a portion of profits from the sale of harvests. The extent to which profits are shared with the communities varies considerably from state to state in India, as does the degree of forest department intervention.

However, JFM is notable for the low security of tenure it provides to participants. In most states, the Forest Protection Committees established to co-manage forests with the Forest Departments lack legal personality and have no status outside their relationship to the government agencies. Many of those involved in JFM thus see the process as just another means by which the Forestry Departments are able to organise local labour to improve public lands. However some in the forest service have argued that State intervention is crucial to ensure that the weaker sections of communities benefit from and are not further marginalised by JFM.

In the mid-1990s, large-scale foreign assistance, notably through concessional loans from the World Bank, was provided to help ‘scale up’ joint forest management. Notionally, the programme now embraces the whole country. However, the programme has begun to run into serious problems. One set of problems derives from the lack of real political will in some States to implement the programme. In Indian states where the programme was ‘home grown’ and implanted by leading foresters, the scaling up has been relatively successful. In these states, the existence of a least some committed foresters, active social movements pressing for reform and a network of concerned NGOs, has ensured that mechanisms have developed to monitor progress and provide accountability. However, in other states which have accepted the programme mainly as a result of national policy change and the provision of outside funds, these checks and balances have been lacking. Forestry Department officials have resisted what they see as an erosion of their authority. Joint Forest Management schemes have thus been implemented half-heartedly, with inadequate community preparation and with too much authority being retained by officials. In these circumstances scope for the application of local institutions, knowledge and initiative has been frustrated and enthusiasm for JFM has been correspondingly weak.

A second set of problems has come from the inflexible application of the JFM concept. JFM was originally conceived by foresters as a way of encouraging the rehabilitation of degraded ‘forest’ lands. The programme is thus only applied in areas where natural forests are already lost and local communities require help to restore forest cover and achieve (or regain) a more sustainable forest management system. Ironically this has meant that those communities which have not significantly depleted their forests do not qualify for the programme. Many of the tribal groups in Central India have been caught out by this Catch 22.

In other areas, tribals have felt excluded from JFM because opportunities to participate have been monopolised by higher caste groups who have been able to use their greater access to officials to secure participation in the JFM scheme. Marginalised and technically landless groups like the tribal peoples have thus seen ‘degraded lands’ and ‘wastelands’ that were important to their livelihoods annexed to JFM, leaving them further impoverished.

Surprisingly, despite its policy on indigenous peoples, World Bank support for JFM, has not helped focus attention on the special needs of indigenous peoples. In January 2000, the World Bank abruptly pulled out of the Madhya Pradesh Forestry Project after tribal groups frustrated at the way JFM was being imposed on their traditional lands without their rights or interests being accommodated travelled all the way to Delhi to visit the World Bank office and voice their complaints. Denied access to the building, the tribals camped in the compound until the Bank accepted a petition from the group. World Bank staff privately admit that the project was not developed in accordance with its policy and was thus indefensible. Alarmed by this experience and facing complaints through the Inspection Panel, World Bank staff in India have discussed whether or not they should wind up their involvement in JFM altogether.

Among the lessons learned from the JFM experience are the following:

* communities can only benefit if they also have adequate lands for subsistence outside forests
* long term benefits require that a major share of the profits be retained by the communities
* forestry officials need re-training and given incentives to devolve decisions to communities
* forestry department commitment must be real and not a token response to aid agencies
* arrangements should be fitted to local forest management traditions not prescribed from above
* the programme should be extended to include healthy forests
* special provisions are needed to accommodate the needs and rights of indigenous peoples

In general, however, most indigenous peoples in India see JFM as an (inadequate) first step towards the restitution of their rights.

By Marcus Colchester, Forest Peoples Programme, e-mail: