From the early 1990s, along with land and water, SPWD took up the issue of forest management. Forests were looked at as major common resource whose proper management is critical not only to rural people who heavily depend directly for their earning on these but to the regeneration of privately held natural resources. National Joint Forest Management (JFM) Network, an interaction forum, was instituted at SPWD in 1993 as part of the National Support Group (NSG) on Joint Forest Management in India, with major financial support from Ford Foundation. Through the network, Forest Department (FD) officials, NGOs, donor agencies, policymakers, and academic institutions shared information and views on developments in JFM and its implementations in India.
JFM concept emerged in the circumstances when the conflict between communities and FD reached a stage of confrontation owing to the policy of handing over ‘degraded’ forest lands along with other ‘wastelands’ to vested interests without taking communities into confidence. There was a strong scientific opinion that these lands can be regenerated as forests if a common ground can be found for communities and the Forest Department to work together. Some individuals in the FD and certain NGOs working closely with the communities showed enthusiasm for the idea. A few good models were established by spirited FD officials by incorporating the community’s interest in the management plan. The department issued an order for mainstreaming of the concept. But because of FD’s fear of losing control over the forest produce or not taking into account the community’s interest in management plans and also because of conflicts among communities because of shifting pressure of their demand on non-JFM areas or within communities on sharing responsibility and benefits, though the number of JFM communities increased its concept got diluted.
Because of all these lacunae, the very forces who were advocating JFM initially became its vehement critiques. The erstwhile proponents of JFM started fighting against the artificial imposition of JFM and other committees. As a result, the National Network no longer had the necessary support within or outside of SPWD. In JFM, long term tenurial security over forestland was lacking and the demand to incorporate JFM within the Forest Act or to come up with a new Forests Rights Act (FRA) became high in the early 2000s.
While SPWD recognizes the significance of FRA particularly in tribal areas and sees it as a historical injustice corrected, the Society’s thrust was not so much on addressing tenure security issues but on instituting appropriate management practices to improve the land’s productivity, biodiversity, and ecological services. SPWD’s position is that to prevent the parallelization of forest lands, there is a need to focus further on community forest resource rights rather than individual rights. Also, there is a need to focus on conservation aspects and its redevelopment.
Some of the more recent engagements by SPWD on the forest resources theme are: (a) Study on ‘Environmental, social and health implications of shifting cultivation’ for Siemenpuu Foundation and (b) Evaluation of Siemenpuu supported National Adivasi Alliance network.
SPWD will continue to work towards improving access of the poor SC and STs on natural resources like land, forests, and water from where they derive their livelihoods. SPWD’s future thrust is on ‘Localising principles of co-management of forest resources’. Role of community in decision making incorporated in acts and programs but still, the functioning on the ground remains far removed from co-management as only community are imagined and supposed to and hence continue to look at plans only from their perspective while department continues to look at community as the agency for executing plans prepared from its perspective. In absence of emergence of a common perspective, ‘pro-community’ voices started demanding a reversal i.e. from decision making by FD alone to demand decision making by the community alone. The past experiences and current state of forest both in physical and management terms demands a location-specific common understanding of the productive potential and present status of forests along with claims on forest lands by various stakeholders to move towards co-management for achieving Sustainable Forest Management (SFM) goals. The current systems for monitoring conservation efforts and sustainable utilization of forest resources are not in line with principles of co-management as these are based on limited parameters ignoring the local contexts and communities’ concerns. The core idea of the proposed program is to deepen engagement with forest functionaries and forest-dependent communities to help them arrive at a common understanding about the current state of forest and management practices and come to a consensus for initiating co-management system leading towards SFM. It would also address current gaps related to forest security and forest dependent livelihoods.