Village Forest Protection Committees in Madhya Pradesh: an update and critical evaluation

Village Forest Protection Committees in Madhya Pradesh: an update and critical evaluation

Introduction

Formalised by the Government of Madhya Pradesh in 1991 and funded by the World Bank from 1994 to 1999, Joint Forest Management (JFM) in Madhya Pradesh has been the subject of great controversy within Adivasi, activist and academic circles, and has lead to strong Mass Tribal Organisation opposition to the project at state level. Although JFM claims to promote greater participation and benefits to communities, in many cases its underlying objective has been to reduce the dependence of Adivasi communities on the forests they have managed for centuries, and to curtail their rights to their lands and resources. Its implementation rests on the formation of Village Forest Protection Committees, through which government and development aid funds are channelled for ‘forest management’ and village-level development works. Since Bank funding ended in 1999, the Village Forest Protection Committees (VFPCs) in Madhya Pradesh have been largely non-functional. Nevertheless the JFM policy and project have left a legacy of Adivasi disempowerment and community-level divisions [documented in reports such as Sarin et al, 2003 [1] , the Summary Report of Jan Sunwai (Public Hearing) on Forest Rights at village Indpura, Harda District, 26 May 2001, etc.] which are still affecting communities.

These well-documented problems with JFM village committees in Madhya Pradesh (MP) and elsewhere in India, contrast with the conclusions of an international research institution, Community Forestry International (CFI), which has described the Village Forest Protection Committees as the most appropriate bodies to implement future carbon offset projects in the area [2] , and has presented the relationship between the Forest Department and the communities as vastly improved and genuinely encouraging.

This article is based on field interviews with villagers and activists in the Harda Forest Division undertaken by the Forest Peoples Programme in collaboration with Shramik Adivasi Sangathan and local forest activists in July 2004. Fieldwork intended to assess the CFI conclusions and evaluate the strength of their arguments in favour of VFPCs. The main objectives of the field visits were to gain a general understanding of the current situation of the Village Forest Protection Committees in Madhya Pradesh and hear the views of local people and activists regarding JFM committees and policy issues surrounding so-called carbon forestry.

 

Impact on forest dwellers and opposition

 

According to Adivasi communities throughout MP, JFM was effectively imposed on them without appropriate consultation during project identification, planning and implementation, and has resulted in the marginalisation, displacement and violation of the customary and traditional rights of the Adivasis in the state (See for example Brahmane, G, Panda, BK and Adivasi Mukti Sangathan Sendhwa, 2000 [3] ). The central state policy of eviction of forest encroachers has been a feature of the implementation of JFM, through which many Adivasis have lost land and access to essential forest resources. According to local activists, there were 56 JFM project-related shootings in Madhya Pradesh during the 5-year JFM period, some of which resulted in the death of Adivasi community members. This was the case in 1997, in Mandlia and Dahinala, when two Adivasi people were killed by armed forces as they tried to defend their crops. As in many other cases of violence against Adivasis, the latter had been defined as encroachers by the Forest Department. By furthering its influence on the communities through village level VFPCs, the Forest Department has intensified its anti-people behaviour towards forest dwellers at the village level. The Public Hearing on Forest Rights held in Harda district in 2001, whose panel was composed of the eminent academics Dr Nandini Sundar, Madhu Sarin and the journalist Rakesh Diwan, highlighted the manipulative and threatening tactics used by the Forest Department to extract money, food and begar (a form of bonded labour, where Adivasi women are, in turn, obliged to cook, clean and wash for the village forest officers). These, among many other documented grievances, lead the Madhya Pradesh Mass Tribal Movement, including organisations such as Adivasi Mukti Sangathan Sendhwa, Shramik Adivasi Sangathan, Jana Sangharsh Morcha and Bharat Jan Andolan, to develop large scale opposition to the project.

 

The World Bank’s Joint Review Mission of 1999

 

As a reaction to this opposition, the World Bank established a Joint Review Mission in 1999 to evaluate the claims made by the Mass Tribal Organisations (MTOs). The Mission, formed by representatives of the World Bank, the MP Forest Department and the MP Mass Tribal Organisations, investigated the impact JFM had had on Adivasi communities in the state through field visits and interviews. Throughout the process, consensus between the three participant groups was reached for every statement made for the report. The report found that amongst other negative elements of the project [4] :

 

  •  There was little to no participation of forest-dependent communities in the planning, implementation or evaluation of the JFM project;
  • The customary rights of forest dwellers were denied; and
  •  The livelihoods of the forest dwellers had been threatened by the project.

 

On the eve of the publication of the report, the MP Forest Department pulled out, in an effort to de-legitimise the whole process. The Bank then followed suit, abandoning the Joint Mission. The MTOs in MP published the report unilaterally in May 1999, and have since then been awaiting the promised formal response to the report from the Bank. The mass demonstrations held both locally at Forest Department offices in 1999 and in New Delhi at the World Bank’s offices in 1999 and 2000 to obtain this response have been to no avail.

 

Current situation

 

One insidious consequence of the imposition of JFM on Adivasi communities in Harda has been the creation of deep rifts within and between Adivasi villages and between different Adivasi groups. This situation is typical throughout MP and has become one of the greatest threats to Adivasi culture. Although funding for the JFM project has dried up, the Forest Protection Committees are still in place in many villages, recouping salaries from the interest remaining in their JFM accounts and from fines imposed on members of their own and neighbouring communities. According to the communities interviewed in our field study, the Chairman and committee members have become to a large extent the ‘Forest Department’s men’. Continuing problems include:

 

  • conflicts within communities as a result of financial disparity between the VFPC members and the non VFPC-members;
  • conflicts between different communities and Adivasi groups;
  • contested bans on grazing in the forest and collecting timber for individual use;
  • indiscriminate fining; and
  • curtailment of nistar rights.

 

In July 2004, non-VFPC villagers in Harda reported that they would like to see the funding for the Forest Protection Committees stopped and the ultimately, the VFPCs disbanded; they would like to see forest management returned to them and their rights to their traditional lands and resources restored.

Throughout the Bank’s JFM project and even very recently, the Forest Department has consistently used violence and aggression towards Adivasis in a bid to remove them from the forest and enforce its out-dated policies. Most recently, in July 2004, Bhandarpaani, a Adivasi hamlet situated in the hills of Satpura, was razed to the ground by a combination of the Betul administration, the Forest Department and the police [5] . The department arrested and detained 73 Korku Adivasi men, women and children from the village, separating relatives and families. As a consequence, Adivasi families lost all their belongings, cooking ware, clothes, bedding, food, minor forest products, cattle and goats and whatever little amount of money they had. Unfortunately, this is just one example of the continued aggression Adivasi people and communities are victim to in Madhya Pradesh. Villagers in MP also tell of multiple cases of serious sexual harassment against Adivasi women, acts allegedly perpetrated by FD officials. Following this, in August 2004, the Government of Madhya Pradesh issued a government order giving the Forest Department indemnity against legal action should they use force during duty, thus placing FD staff on a par with the armed forces. More recently, local activists have received disquieting indications that the Government of Madhya Pradesh put a request to the central government for the provision of 10,000 rifles for the Forest Department.

 

The CFI Feasibility Project

 

In 2001, Community Forestry International carried out two feasibility studies to ‘examine systems that could compensate communities for carbon sequestration and storage resulting from forest regeneration’ [6] , through the mechanism of Joint Forest Management. The feasibility studies were carried out in Harda District in Madhya Pradesh and Adilabad District in Andhra Pradesh. The study highlighted here is the Harda Forest Division feasibility study, entitled Communities & Climate Change: The Clean Development Mechanism and Village Based Forest Restoration in Central India. A Case Study from Harda Forest Division, Madhya Pradesh, India [7] .

According to community members interviewed in this study, Adivasi communities in the Harda Forest Division were not aware of the CFI feasibility project, nor did they know of the concept of carbon forestry. Moreover, the wealth of local and written information exposing the problems with JFM in MP is not cited in studies undertaken for the CFI feasibility project. It is worrisome that the CFI report advocating Village Forest Protection Committees as a basis for forestry projects seems to have been based on partial and biased data obtained from the Forest Department. In other words, the CFI conclusions do not address the views and perspectives of the range of social groups and rights holders who have expressed large scale opposition to the existence of VFPCs at the community level and rejected them as a basis for forestry-related schemes in MP.

Activists and local leaders challenge the CFI conclusion that any forest policy can be adequately and justly implemented through VFPCs, which have been proven divisive, inequitable and damaging to local resource management institutions and decision-making processes. They also stress that the MP Forest Department’s continued harassment of Adivasi communities all over the state as demonstrated by the recent events in Bhandarpaani clearly contrasts with the conclusions of the CFI report.

Activists and Adivasi leaders in India fear that the impacts of implementing carbon forestry would pose a great threat to indigenous communities. Carbon forestry has emerged as a possible carbon trade instrument under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), and although only one full carbon sinks-plantation project has been implemented so far under the CDM (the Plantar project in Minas Gerais, Brazil, funded by the World Bank’s Prototype Carbon Fund) [8] such projects are increasingly the vogue within the international development, industrial and even the conservation communities, who see them as an easy solution to mitigating climate change, and a novel and beneficial way of obtaining substantial funds for conservation and development projects.  

In India, activists and Adivasi leaders fear that, currently, the control the Forest Department has over indigenous peoples’ lands, its increasing incursion into Adivasi peoples’ customary resources and continued harassment and discrimination against Adivasis indicate that their rights and welfare may be under threat should carbon forestry be implemented. They fear that problems are likely to arise related to inequitable benefit sharing, imposition of extensive plantations on Adivasi lands without their consent, and expropriation of community or individual lands for carbon forestry-related activities. Such impacts have already been suffered by communities living in and around the first big carbon forestry project implemented under the CDM, the Plantar plantation project in Brazil.

In Andhra Pradesh, activists reveal that the state government is currently promoting biodiesel plantations, and proposes establishing up to 3 million hectares of new plantations on so-called ‘common land’ (or ‘waste land’) throughout the state. Although, an appropriate legislative structure is currently not in place for the implementation of carbon forestry in India, recent developments seem to indicate that the concept is gaining ground in the Forest Department and governmental circles. Activists and Adivasi organisations will have to remain increasingly vigilant to possible developments in this area.

As one activist in Madhya Pradesh puts it: ‘Government figures show that there are about 5 crores (50 million) hectares of ‘waste land’ in India, land which according to this definition now lies open to exploitation through carbon forestry schemes. What the central government does not say is that most of this ‘waste land’ belongs to Adivasis and other forest dependent communities, who will be the first to lose out from the development of such schemes.’

 

Conclusion

 

Contrary to the conclusions of the CFI report, community members and activists do not consider Village Forest Protection Committees to be the most appropriate bodies for the implementation of carbon forestry in India. Furthermore, the developments, such as large scale plantations, proposed under carbon forestry might further marginalise indigenous peoples within a system that currently does not recognise or respect their rights to their lands and resources. It is therefore clear that any forestry initiative must adopt a rights-based approach, must be community-led and based on the principles of consent and community acceptance, and must be grounded in local institutions and decision-making processes.

Moreover, although Joint Forest Management is currently not funded in Madhya Pradesh, the effects of its implementation are still widely suffered by the communities. It appears that the MPFD and the World Bank are still seeking to implement a second phase of the project. According to the World Bank website, this project has currently been ‘dropped’ [9] . However, senior World Bank staff in New Delhi and Washington maintain the Bank has been collaborating with the Japanese Social Development Fund since June 2004 on a pilot project for Community Forestry Management in MP, to be launched in the near future. It is unclear what divisions or Adivasi communities will be involved in this project.

Activists and Adivasi leaders in MP fully reject the concept of CFM, maintain that they are unaware of the concretisation of this pilot project, and currently refuse to engage both with the World Bank and the Forest Department as long as their 1999 ‘Joint’ Mission report receives no response. As Anurag Modi, from Shramik Adivasi Sanghathan notes ‘How can the World Bank talk of CFM when the MP Forest Department is engaged in the process of converting millions of hectares of community forest into reserved forest, in blatant violation of all procedure and norms?’. Furthermore, as highlighted by the article by Forest Peoples Programme and Samata entitled ‘Old Wine in a New Bottle’ [10] , Community Forest Management as understood by the Bank and the Forest Department makes few genuine attempts to empower Adivasi communities, and local activists claim that the CFM project has entailed a mere change of name in relation to JFM rather than substantial changes in approach and implementation. Therefore, with the possibility of a new World Bank funded project looming, it is essential that MTOs in Madhya Pradesh take action now to demand their rights and prevent a wholesale repeat of the disastrous consequences that they have already witnessed with the JFM project.

 

[1] Sarin, M. et al (2003). Devolution as a Threat to Democratic Decision-making in Forestry? Findings from Three States in India. Overseas Development Institute, ODI Working Paper no. 197 (available at http://www.odi.org.uk )

[2] Poffenberger, M. et al (2001) Communities & Climate Change:The Clean Development Mechanism and Village Based Forest Restoration in Central India. A Case Study from Harda Forest Division, Madhya Pradesh, India. Community Forestry International, Inc. and the Indian Institute of Forest Management. Available at http://www.communityforestryinternational.org/

[3] Brahmane, G, Panda, BK and Adivasi Mukti Sangathan Sendhwa, 2000. The Adivasis and the World Bank-aided Madhya Pradesh Forestry Project: a case study of indigenous experience. Discussion document prepared for the Workdshop on Indigenous Peoples, Forests and the World Bank: Policies and Practice, May 9-10, Washington DC (available at www.forestpeoples.org)

[4] A summary of the Joint Mission’s findings can be found in the document cited above in footnote 3.

[5] See press release of 20/07/04 by Jana Sangharsh Morcha ‘Jana Sangharsh Morcha Demands Government To Act On The Atrocities On Adivasi Women By The Officials In The Name Of Removal Of Encroachments On Forest Lands ‘ and Urgent Actions by Shramik Adivasi Sangathan of 24/07/04 and 11/08/04

 

[8] For more information on carbon forestry, the Clean Development Mechanism, the Kyoto Protocol and related issues, please see www.sinkswatch.org, www.cdmwatch.org, and http://www.wrm.org.uy/actors/CCC/index.html

[9] See the Project Database at www.worldbank.org