Can the Forest Rights and Wildlife (Protection) Acts be friends?
It’s an old mistake. Lush tropical forests give people the erroneous impression that the land itself is rich. Therefore, when politicians and planners, unfamiliar with ecological realities, see standing forests they think to themselves: “Why waste this land on animals, when humans could use it more productively to grow food.” This is the basis on which the Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 was passed in the Indian Parliament.
Tropical soils are, in fact, very thin and nutrient-poor. A combination of heavy rain and high temperatures tends to leach most minerals away from the underlying rock, which means virtually all the available nutrients are contained in the living biomass of forests – plants, animals and decomposed and rotting matter on the forest floor.
To grow food on forest lands, people must necessarily deforest such areas first. This objective is often achieved by burning trees and ground vegetation, then planting food crops on the ash-fertilised remains. But, because the vast bulk of the forest nutrients are quickly washed or blown away, such farms are incapable of offering anything more than borderline livelihoods to farmers. This is why the term ‘marginal farming’ was coined by economists to describe the millions who are condemned to penury, forced to eke out an existence in inhospitable conditions against nature.
Inevitably such marginal farmers are forced to encroach on nearby forests where the cycle of burning, nutrient depletion, forest and biodiversity loss is repeated ad nauseum. This actually erodes India’s food security because downstream farms are deprived of the flood, drought-control and nutrients offered by forests. At least some of the tragic farmer suicides that have traumatised India can be attributed to this bitter truth.
Can this situation be changed? Could marginal farmers living outside India’s protected forests conceivably turn into better-off ecosystem farmers? Could communities become the filter through which ecosystem restoration benefits flow outwards? Can such communities help restore natural ecosystems in the future, rather than continue to be conduits through which markets misuse such ecosystems?
There are other hard questions that need answers. Must everyone – rich and poor – destroy biodiversity to survive? What livelihoods and activities can we think of that are dependent on the regeneration of habitats, or the continued richness of biodiversity? Dare we dream of a scenario where forest livelihoods depend not on tendu patta (local cigarette leaf) collection from inside the Kanha Tiger Reserve, or the sale of firewood to Sawai Madhopur or Nagpur from wild trees in the Ranthambhore or Pench Tiger Reserves? Could the restoration, regeneration and protection of biodiversity possibly offer better livelihood options for millions?
Meanwhile, as elections loom large in India, politicians from all parties can be relied on to cold-bloodedly use the “forest lo, vote do” (take the forest give us the votes) maxim to claw their way back to power.
Social activists and wildlife groups (divided at birth!) must both accept that no rights can be championed, nor wildlife saved, if the forests at the centre of the tussle vanish. Given that the Forest Rights Act is a reality and without going into the merits or demerits of the legislation itself, I wonder whether it might be possible for those living next to forests to form cooperatives with the singular purpose of restoring ecosystems back to health on their own lands. This may be easier said than done, but it is possible if a basket of benefits can be channeled to communities that opt for ecosystem farming, instead of bajra, wheat or paddy. If this is achieved the answer to the rhetorical question “Can the Forest Rights and Wildlife (Protection) Acts be friends?” might well be: “Yes!”
Climate change is already taking a toll on marginal farms and the forests next to which they are located, thanks to soil moisture evaporation and the drying up of water sources. Man-animal conflict will only escalate as animals raid farms, and communities invade forests for sustenance.
Every tree is made up of roughly 50 per cent carbon. Billions of tons of carbon stored in forest lands in India have found their way into the atmosphere over the past century, thanks to deforestation.
Restoring ecosystems through assisted natural regeneration, with forest communities playing the lead role, could reverse this trend and help India counter climate change.
The amount that millions of marginal farmers earn today is probably in the vicinity of Rs. 4,000 to Rs. 10,000 per annum, per family, per acre. The income of the landless is even less. A majority of such individuals could conceivably earn more from ecosystem farming that would involve no extraction from forests (which they would continue to own) that would be managed like sanctuaries or national parks, except that people would patrol and protect their lands, with inputs from, and the cooperation of, sociologists, ecologists and officialdom.
To achieve this, several different financial options would need to be readied for communities outside Protected Areas to guarantee them financial and social security. If this is achieved, they would end up sequestering and storing carbon through ecosystem renewal. In other words, they would become one of the world’s most effective, long-term solution providers for climate change.
What potential basket of benefits is possible?
a) Carbon / conservation credits (from voluntary carbon offsets).
b) Benefactor funds, which pour in for wildlife, but which hardly ever reach the tiger, or the communities living near tigers.
c) Tourism revenues (currently usurped to the extent of over 90 per cent by tour operators, agents and lodge owners) from facilities owned by communities.
d) National Rural Employment Guarantee (NREG) monies (often stolen by a retinue of corrupt officials).
e) Funds from the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) whose mandate includes the promotion of good relations between tiger reserve managements and surrounding communities.
Unless the legitimate beneficiaries get the reimbursements, rather than corrupt officials, district politicians and opportunistic NGOs who often reap major profits in the name of the poor, the whole idea will remain a non-starter.
Conclusion: It should be the objective of the Government of India to fight poverty by weaning people away from marginal farming next to sanctuaries and national parks through the establishment of Forest Cooperatives capable of guaranteeing economic and food security. The benefits of ecosystem regeneration would be dramatically enhanced carbon sequestration and storage on a global scale, enhanced biodiversity, improved quality of life for millions, reduced impact of droughts, flood and crop damage, fewer forest fires and dramatically reduced man-animal conflict. That sounds good to me.