Establishment of forest protection activities
Having witnessed the forest department plantation drives and analysed them, the villagers strongly felt that plantations were not the solution to their problem. They also knew that the seemingly barren hills and forest stretches were blossoming every year in the monsoon. They realized that the forests of their village still had enough root stock, and if the natural sprouting of each year is protected form grazing and immediate consumption, then it would be possible to regenerate the forests like in the past. But this simple realization was not easy to implement. Everyone in the community had faced the difficulties equally, but even then it was not easy to reach a consensus on the solution.
In most villages, when some villagers initiated conversations about protecting forests for future use, the sceptics within the community would strongly oppose the idea. One of the major points of contention was the fact that the forests were legally owned by the government. After a few years of simultaneous discussions within many villages, a few villages like Usela and Patadia overcame the impasse around 1983 and took a courageous initiative to protect naturally grown monsoon forests. Initially, the villagers received cooperation from the forest department. The villagers evolved rules of use, protection and community penal provisions for breach of rules. They arranged for day-andnight surveillance of forests by teams from within the village. This entire movement was strongly supported and encouraged by a local social worker, Shri Harivallabh Bhai Parikh. He appreciated the people’s initiative, sensed its potential and backed the community momentum. Shri Parikh also inspired many other neighbouring villagers to join this conservation movement.
As the forests of Patadia and Usela villages, which started protection activities first, began to regenerate, this massage reached beyond the neighbouring villages to faraway villages and across the area. Slowly a movement picked up in about 90 villages.
The major stumbling blocks that the villagers were faced with were the fact that the forest department owned the forests and that some villagers were questioned about their right to protect the forests. Additionally, some disgruntled elements within the villages often joined hands with some forest staff and made it difficult for the protecting villagers. Dealing with the strong timber mafia and lack of support from the forest department often led to frustration. In some villages, however, villagers did receive cooperation from the forest officials.
Establishment of the joint forest management programme
The informal community initiative had inherent weaknesses, particularly the fact that the villagers had no sustained assistance and guidance in hours of need. In 1992, the state government of Gujarat adopted the joint forest management (JFM) programme. The programme, as elsewhere in the country, was aimed at regeneration of degraded forests with the help of local people, while sharing any benefits from these forests with the local people. People of the area, with the help of NGOs, started to institutionalise their forest protection efforts under JFM. However, JFM did not succeed in this region, mainly because of faulty implementation. Many villages were stuck with the process of registration of their cooperatives, as the forest department did not help them in the process. At state level or at local level there was no pressure to force the forest department to implement the JFM policy in its true letter and spirit. The NGOs involved were also working to help implement the programme more as a project rather than as a long-term process of participatory forest management. Many of these NGOs lost interest in the programme once the funds were exhausted with the department.
Overall, the rights envisaged under the JFM program over the conserved forests were not visible to the villagers. The communities were not sure that they would ultimately get at least 50 per cent of the benefits that would accrue once the regenerated timber was harvested as envisaged under JFM. In many villages where people seized wood from the smugglers the department refused to grant 50 per cent partnership over such material. At many places, when the regular pruning of the forests was done, the products were not shared with the villagers. Even the wood fallen in rain and storm was not allowed to be shared with communities. Getting nearly nothing from the forests, not even to meet their daily requirements, after years of protection was again frustrating and discouraging for the villagers.
Despite opposition from the villagers, the forest department undertook plantations in the forests being protected by the local villagers. This was the final straw that made villagers extremely apprehensive and distrustful of the forest department. At the community level, the disgruntled elements that were against conservation became stronger. Now they could claim with confidence that government cannot and shall not part with forest resources. At many places, the local forest department personnel joined hands with such disgruntled elements and encouraged them to frustrate community conservation forces.
Ultimately, there was a slowdown in conservation efforts, and the momentum was on the decline. A few villages witnessed severe setbacks and the regrown forests once again turned barren. In many villages, however, the momentum was not affected by negative feedback and they continued to preserve their forests.
Arch Vahini, an NGO, has been closely associated with livelihood and development issues of tribal communities in the tribal pockets of Vadodara, Narmada and Dharampur districts of Gujarat. When some members of the NGO witnessed this decline in the momentum towards forest protection, they decided to intervene. Their objective was to stop further decline of the conservation initiative and to revitalise the community initiative where it had gone down. Arch Vahini started its work by studying and understanding the existing efforts of conservation. Subsequently, they began their work on community-based conservation and management of forests.
Arch Vahini’s experience in last few years shows that there is an increasing shift in the attitude of tribal people in this area. There have been many demands for vantalavdis (forest tanks) from the villages, particularly for wildlife in regenerating forests. There seems to be a sense of belonging and concern and responsibility towards the forests that they have been protecting and the wildlife within them.
After 2–3 years of sustained interactions with the villagers, the villagers are assured of critical inputs when required. Consequently the local meetings are yielding higher results. There is a new enthusiasm among some villagers towards forest protection. However, there are still many doubts and impediments because of past disappointments and frustrations. There is a lot that still needs to be achieved but Arch Vahini is hopeful.