Dharamghar Region

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 Location  Ecosystem Type    Conservation Type    Area(hectare)  Legal status 
Berinag, Bageshwar and Kapkot, Pithoragarh, Uttarakhand  Forest  Ecosystem Conservation  Not Available
Village Forest

Case Study (2009)


This case study looks at the innovative manner in which several rural communities in Kumaon region of Uttarakhand tried to conserve their van panchayat forests when all other means were proving ineffective. Changing social, economic, and political circumstances in the region have resulted in a recent breakdown of the forest-guard system of protection of panchayat forests. As a last resort for conserving the deteriorating forest resource base, villagers here have resorted to the customary means of resolving land conflicts, which entails sanctification of land and appealing to the local goddess of justice for appropriate action. This study presents the phenomenon of sanctification, and analyzes the ecological impacts of this dynamic process on one hand, and villagers’ adaptation to the process to the closure of village forests on the other. Using the political ecology framework and common property literature, the study attempts to understand the reasons for the collapse of the van panchayats, the motivation for forest sanctification, changes in interand intra-village patterns of resource use, and the ecological implications of forest sanctification.

The Study Area

Referred to as the Dharamghar region in Kumaon, the study area incorporates villages scattered along the tributaries of the Ramganga and the Saryu rivers, at altitudes between 1500-2000 above mean sea level of the Lesser Himalayas. The villages lie on the border of two administrative districts of Kumaon: the Pithoragarh and the Bageshwar districts. All villages studied lie within the Berinag block of Pithoragarh district and Kapkot Block of Bageshwar district.

Disintegration of Local Commons Management

Villages in this region as in other rural areas are under the influence of economic, social and political changes. Since local management systems are embedded in these broader social structures, the interconnected web of these changes has heavily influenced both the informal (shramdaan) and formal (van panchayat) systems of commons management in recent years. Thus, migration and unavailability of male members of the community, differential economic opportunities between the rich and the poor, and increasing differential in local dependence on resources within the village society have led to the emergence of managerial difficulties in the protection of panchayat forests. Mismanagement of these commons is also exacerbated by weakening systems of rule enforcement as they existed based on social, moral and, to some extent, legal sanctions. Management and legal sanctions have also been influenced by structural problems, embedded in government policies relating to van panchayats, which have contributed to the disintegration of these local institutions of management of panchayat forests. Despite difficulties posed by these changes however, and despite the changing dependence on panchayat forest resources, there is continuing interest among villagers across social classes in maintaining healthy panchayat forests. In response to the crisis of panchayat forest degradation and continued interest in preventing degradation, villagers in the Dharamghar region have attempted to redesign the system of panchayat forest management based on the use of supernatural sanctions.

The meaning and mechanics of sanctification

The merging of sacred and secular in mythology and practice, and the conscious use of the sacred in secular concerns is nothing new in rural societies. Sanctification of panchayat forests represents one such conscious effort of ascribing to the supernatural in forest management concerns. Here villagers appear to have resorted to the supernatural due to the lack of a secular solution to the problem of encroachment in these panchayat forests. The nature of sanctification in this case however straddles between the customary means of resolving conflicts and seeking of justice against violators of forest rules reflected in the spatial dimensions of sanctification on the one hand, and a renewed attempt at forest management suggested in the temporal limits of sanctification on the other.

A total of 25-30 van panchayats in this region have sanctified their forests for the purposes of conservation. Sanctification in each of these cases is limited primarily to the oak zone, although not all van panchayats in the region lying within the oak zone have sanctified their panchayat forests. The research presented here encompasses interviews conducted in villages of ten van panchayats, eight of which had sanctified their forests and two that had continued management through secular means. Five van panchayats that had sanctified their forests formed the focus of this study. The first van panchayat was sanctified in 1992. Villages incorporated in all these van panchayats lie adjacent to each other, with the respective forests sharing its boundaries.

The process and logistics of sanctification is similar for all the van panchayats. Each of these van panchayats sanctified its forests for a period of five years. Each van panchayat also sanctified its entire panchayat forest, accept those panchayats that had under their jurisdiction pine forests. In addition, the basic rules of forest use under the forest-guard system of management remain the same as under sanctification. Neither of the systems allows the removal of live (biotic) resources from village forests, although both systems do allow for livestock grazing in these forests. Entrusting the forests to the deity has however resulted in slight variation between the two types of management, and therefore variation in forest use. Two of the main differences between rules of forest use under the guard system versus the rules of sanctification are: opening of forests on specific days during the winter months for the collection of fodder leaves, and the removal of understorey, especially thorny shrubs for use as fuelwood, both allowed under the forest guard system. With management of the forests accorded entirely to the deity, forests are no longer opened for green leaf collection, nor is the removal of understorey allowed. Only dry wood (branches) may be lopped or collected from the forest floor to be used as fuelwood. Despite the fact that rules of forest use under the two systems remain for the most part unchanged, the actual use of panchayat forests has changed significantly in most of these villages.

Political dimensions of sanctification

Given that any decision-making is inherently political, sanctification of forests also remains a political process. Interviews, especially in the first few villages that sanctified their forests in the region, leaves little doubt that the decision on sanctification came primarily from the elite. Sanctification in this case was not motivated by the elite asserting control over the forest; however, it is political in the level of democracy involved in the decision-making. In villages where the decision-making process was more or less democratic, the process remains political on who voices the decision, on what areas are sanctified, and on the time period of sanctification. With these specificities of sanctification left to the elite, concerns of those who are not in the positions of decision-making, which include the poor and the women, are neglected. Apart from the process of decision-making involved, there has also been differential impact of sanctification on the various classes of village society, the impact being greater on the poorer households with less access to alternative resources.

The experience of forest sanctification has been considerably different among the various villages studied. As noted above, while in some villages sanctification resulted out of a decision of the village elite, in others the decision was arrived at collectively through relatively democratic means, where the poor themselves recommended sanctification. This variation in the decision-making can partly be explained by local politics within these villages, but it is better explained by the community-based ‘chain reaction’ or catalytic effect that took place upon the sanctification of forest by the first van panchayat in the region. The first few villages to sanctify their forests, share their forest boundaries. Thus, sanctification of forests by one van panchayat created problems for the adjoining van panchayats. In other words, villages that had collectively decided to sanctify their forests were responding to the new problem of encroachment from neighboring villages of the sanctified panchayat forests. This chain effect was combined with a lack of foresight on the part of the villagers, including the decision-makers, on the unexpected ecological changes and the changes in resource use patterns that were to take place in these villages. The problem may have been exacerbated due to the lack of involvement of the women in the decision-making, leaving a gap between intent of the decision-makers, primarily men, and practice of the forest users, primarily women.

On a second visit to these areas in May 1999, it was found that several of the sanctified panchayat forests had been desanctified upon completion of the five years. While one van panchayat had joined the Joint Forest Management (JFM), another had reinstated the guard system on a temporary basis. Only one village had creatively adapted the system of sanctification to continue for another fiveyears. This van panchayat sanctified a portion of the forest for three years, and upon desanctifying this section, it aimed to sanctify the remaining portion of the forest for two years.

While this study focuses on the Dharamghar region, it appears that other van panchayats in Askot, Kapkot, and Koteshwar areas may have sanctified their forests as well. In addition, examples from Tehri Garhwal noted in Neeru Nanda’s (1999) book Forests for Whom? Destruction and Restoration in the U.P. Himalayas suggest that sanctification of panchayat forests may not be as localized as might appear from the Dharamghar cases.

Changes in patterns of forest resource use since sanctification

Changes in patterns of resource use due to forest sanctification have been significant in this region, with significant variations in adaptations among villages, as well as among the households within each village. Intra-village variations are based on existing social heterogeneity reflected in differences in land ownership, access to disposable cash income, and availability of adult labour to assist in daily chores. Inter-village variations, on the other hand, have been defined partly by problems of logistics of villagers’ ability of meeting their basic needs, in particular by the ease of accessing alternative spaces such as secular government and private forests. Inter-village variations have also been determined by the type of ecological regeneration that has taken place since sanctification, and the resulting inability of accessing panchayat forests due to the growth of an understorey dominated by daru halad and other prickly shrub species.

Changes in patterns of land and forest resource use confirm that the decision to sanctify panchayat forest lands has wider repercussions than might be expected from the minor differences in rules of forest use under sanctification. The resulting patterns of livestock grazing and fuelwood and fodder collection suggest that sanctification has led to a spatial shift in the use of forests, resulting in conservation of sanctified panchayat forests at the expense of greater pressure on civil, reserve and private forests. Villagers’ adjustment to sanctification has also resulted in transitions in the type of resources used, such as from oak leaves to the greater use of grass for fodder, and increasing use of alternative fuel such as kerosene rather than dry wood, reducing the overall pressure on local forests.

Although sanctification has in most villages provided means of enforcing forest rules in these commons forests, the success of sanctification may in fact have been determined partly by an underlying factor, namely, social relations. Limited access to panchayat forests has resulted in hardships for most households encompassing all levels of the village society, yet transgressions to the rules of sanctification, contrary to what might be expected, have been dominated by the wealthier households, implying that transgressions have occurred more for convenience than for meeting of basic needs. Sanctification has also ultimately resulted in the creation of differential pressure on the various classes of the village society, for while the wealthier households have taken advantage of the easily accessible alternatives or have transgressed the rules of sanctification, the poor households wait until the panchayat forests are desanctified. (Transgressions by the wealthy reflect not a lack of faith in the supernatural, but the greater risk-taking behaviour of these households). In effect long-term success of sanctification may be limited by the lack of provision of alternatives to panchayat forest resources.

Ecological change

The mixed temperate coniferous forests in this region are primarily the broad-leaved species of mixed banj oak and its associates including rhododendron and other Quercus species. On the lower elevations, particularly on south-facing ridges, are the dry temperate forests dominated by
the chir pine forests.

Ecological changes in these sanctified forests, primarily the mixed banj oak forests, have resulted in enormous forest regeneration. This regeneration can be characterized by the rejuvenation of the overstorey, particularly the increase in crown density, changes in the maturity-class structure due to the emergence of new oak and associated trees, changes in composition of forest vegetation in some forests resulting from the excessive regeneration of specific shrub species, and changes in discharge of water sources, as well as abundance of forest fauna. Some sanctified forests in the region are also in effect being preserved rather than conserved, leading to unexpected changes in the emerging floral compositions, particularly the overgrowth of Berberis shrub species, inhibiting the regeneration of oak species in sanctified forests.

Ecological changes since sanctification have also taken on distinct spatial qualities. Thus, in addition to the above reversal in trends of biophysical change in panchayat forests, pre-sanctification trends of degradation in civil forests and large private forests in the region have been exacerbated due to sanctification of panchayat forests. These regional level forest dynamics suggest that despite a net decrease in the use of local forest resources, net degradation may in fact have accelerated due to panchayat forest sanctification in the region.

In conclusion, this paper suggests that the use of supernatural sanctions has limited viability in the long run, both in terms of conserving forest resources at the regional level as well as in its success in limiting encroachment in panchayat forests for an unlimited time. More important are spiritual and deep ecological responsible relations with the natural surroundings. Social sanctions based on the mere protection of social reputation are unlikely to be effective. However, strong community ties based on a moral economy are likely to be more effective, where the material conditions or a group identity produces values that encourage cooperation. In other words, generating individual responsibility to the commons and the community is likely to be much more effective in adequately maintaining these areas than any form of sanctions. Where scholars have placed greater emphasis on the strength of the legal system (and supernatural system of sanctions in this study may be viewed as an attempt of strengthening the legal sanctions in its goal of strengthening the monitoring and penalty system), this study shows that only one village that had strong community bonds was able to successfully avert transgressions through these means. This does not imply that legal sanctions are unnecessary, but that the maintenance of a cohesive community appears to be indispensable.

Local institutional change that would prove particularly helpful would be more democratic decisionmaking. This would include active participation of women, not because of the current emphasis on the gender issue, but because today women increasingly happen to be the primary, and in many households the sole, users of forests. The commons institutions will also need to adequately address problems arising from political groups with divergent interests. For political exclusion, often due to domination by a set of elites, leads to failed cooperation, resulting in ecological degradation. Current human-environment relations in this region also suggest that meeting of local needs are more of a priority for villagers than long-term sustainability. Hence, along with problems of rule enforcement and management, technical issues will need to be sufficiently dealt with. Such technical issues include the generation of fodder alternatives to prevent excessive lopping, and attempting to ease off pressure experienced by women in accomplishing their daily tasks.

Both political ecologists and scholars of common property have criticized the determinism of economic forces. This study agrees with the criticisms in assuming that economic forces revolving around market and money economy and individual benefit will prevail and that human actions will automatically be defined by these economic forces. However, in analysing the current trends of socio-economic change, it is clear that alternative economic incentives in this region will continue to rise for local communities. While local use of resources need not be defined by these economic incentives, nor do local institutional arrangements need to cater to these incentives, the competing incentives will however need to be understood adequately to understand villagers’ interest, or lack thereof, in maintenance of local resources.

Local solutions such as sanctification of the commons will provide a solution as long as the strategy provides a link in the adaptive process of seeking a balance between human needs and the natural environment. Given that human relation to natural resources are defined by numerous factors, individual and societal, and given the uncertainty of ecological change, it is necessary that adaptive management takes place such that it allows constant adaptation to the changing human environmental circumstances. To this end, self-mobilization by taking independent initiatives through active leadership is likely to be much more effective than constant reliance on external institutions.

This case study has been compiled from a report of a study conducted by Safia Aggarwal between February and November 1998, with updates from May 1999.

Safia Aggarwal,
Dept. of Geography,
University of Hawaii at Manoa,
Honolulu, Hawaii 96822
Email: [email protected]

1 Forests handed over to the democratically elected institution, called van panchayat, under the Uttar Pradesh Van Panchayat Rules of 1931. For more details see Uttarakhand chapter in this volume.

This case study was part of the Directory on Community Conserved Areas (2009), published by Kalpavriksh. The directory can be downloaded here.

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