How Odisha’s Forest Project Led to Collapse of Grassroots Conservation Movements

With the villagers in the Deogarh district losing autonomy and forest department regaining control, community initiatives have broken down and a grassroots movement is being converted into another sarkari programme.

Recently, the government of Odisha announced the launch of the second phase of the Odisha Forestry Sector Development Project (OFSDP), supported by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA), to be implemented in 18 districts to promote ‘sustainable forest management’. The project will aim to build on the experience of phase one in which 2,426 Vana Samrakshana Samitis (VSS) were involved. As Odisha gets ready to launch the second phase of the project in 2018-2019, it will do well to learn some lessons from the first.

As part of my doctoral dissertation research during 2013-2014, I conducted research in Odisha on community initiatives to conserve forests and came to see the effects of the Japanese-funded forestry project on local initiatives to protect forests in the Deogarh district of Odisha.

In Deogarh, my study included 15 villages, 12 of which were part of the 237 villages covered by the OFSDP in the Deogarh forest division. I found that the long-standing community conservation efforts of several decades broke down in all 12 villages. In the three villages that did not receive project funds, the local system for community-based forest conservation continued.

Lessons from one village

In Birimunda village (the name of the village has been changed to protect the identity as required by the research ethics protocol for PhD research) women had been protecting a large patch of forests since 1992.

However, this longstanding forest protection effort broke down in 2008 when the forest department imposed joint forest management (JFM) supported by funds from JICA, which was known as the Japan Bank for International Cooperation at the time of signing of the MoU for the first phase.

A woman from the Birimunda village collecting sal leaves for making leaf plates. Courtesy: Rana Roy

The verdant forests that the women of Birimunda had nurtured with care and attention are now open for timber smugglers and thieves.“Eei VSS amaku khaila (This Vana Samrakshana Samiti devoured our initiative),” said a woman leader, her matter-of-fact tone belied by the grief on her face.

This was not an isolated story. The breakdown of active forest conservation by local communities was repeated in village after village in my study. Anecdotal evidence tells us that such cases of a breakdown of forest protection due to project funds using JFM framework are common all over Odisha.

Odisha’s community forest conservation efforts are probably the largest concentration of self-initiated conservation in the world. More than 10,000 villages in Odisha have conserved over a million hectares of degraded state forest lands without any support from the government. Communities devised elaborate institutional arrangements to protect forests and use the ‘thengapalli‘ system, where a stick would be rotated amongst households for forest protection duty. These fascinating and inspirational examples of grassroots conservation, as remarkable as the Chipko Movement, offer lessons on how to conserve nature in these times of human-induced environmental crisis.

Role of forest department

The official custodians of these forests, the forest department of Odisha, ignored these initiatives for a long time, seeing local conservation efforts as a threat to their authority over forests. In the 1990s, the forest department sought to bring these community forestry arrangements under the JFM framework.

JFM seeks to establish management partnership between the forest department and local communities over the conservation of forests, and vests decision making power with the forest department. Most communities who were conserving forests resisted JFM and thousands of JFM committees were formed on paper by the forest department.

On the ground, community-based forest conservation continued, largely autonomous of the forest department, though studies by famous scholars have shown the detrimental impacts of JFM on community conservation. In 2006, the forest department and the government of Odisha obtained a substantial loan of Rs 802 crore from the JICA for the Orissa Forestry Sector Development Project. Part of this loan was to be channelised to the JFM programme and to the VSS formed by the forest department under the JFM programme.

Community forest conservation groups and their federations strongly protested the OFSDP, pointing out that the JICA loan would burden the state exchequer with debt when thousands of villages were protecting forests on their own without any external support. However, promise of funds for village development was used by the forest department to silence opposing voices and the OFSDP loan was signed with the Japanese in 2006 and implementation started in 2007-08.

Impact of JFM programme

Armed with money, the forest department began promoting JFM in villages where communities were already conserving forests. Over the years, these villagers have spent tens of thousands of days patrolling the forest, hundreds of days in meetings and deliberation to devise rules for conservation and undertake adaptive management of the forest.

In the process, they braved not only the elements, but also threats and beatings from timber smugglers. As previous extensive research on community forest initiatives shows, villagers have deep emotional relations with the forest that they have protected. They see the forest that they have cared for as a child, emphasising that aamar pilla bhaliya rakhuchu (We have fostered the forest like a child).

I previously studied the Birimunda village in 1999-2000. At the time, they had a vibrant and dynamic forest protection system led by the women. By 2013, the system had broken down. The women of Birimunda said that when the OFSDP programme was introduced in their village, the local forest official assured them that the project would be under their control.

However, the forest department imposed their own handpicked person as the president of the VSS, while the local forester became the secretary. There was a complete lack of transparency and the women lamented that none of them have even glimpsed the bank passbook of the VSS, and had no idea how the money flowing under the project was spent.

The forest department appointed certain individuals as animators and para-teachers with monthly salaries, once again not taking the village general assembly into confidence. There was no accountability of the money that came in to the JFM committees under the programme, and there were strong allegations of the officer bearers taking the money in cahoots with the local forester.

The women from Birimunda were near tears, their voices choked when they talked about their isolation after the project began and funds started rolling in. “This VSS killed our initiative and left us heartbroken. We laboured so much to keep the forest; during patrolling in summer months, we even used to carry water pots with us”. They have a deep sense of grief and guilt. They were heart broken that they had given up conserving the forests – which was almost as if they had abandoned their own child.

Similar pattern in other villages

A similar situation existed in other villages. In one of the villages studied, a non-tribal villager was selected by the forest department as the president of the VSS, despite strong opposition from the tribal-majority village. Villagers were extremely unhappy and allege that the president and the animator are misappropriating money in connivance with the local forester.

In another village, lack of accountability over the OFSDP funds has created a rift between the tribal and non-tribal households, leading to a breakdown of their forest protection arrangement, including stoppage of voluntary patrolling. A villager commented: “This money came and few ate it away, what benefit did the village get? We didn’t even get to know anything. Everyone is disappointed and heartbroken, we never conserved the forest for money.”

Loss of autonomy

The conservation system broke down in all the villages studied after the forest department imposed JFM under the OFSDP project. One of the first things that the forest department did was to appoint hand-picked favourites to the leadership of the Vana Samrakshana Samithis. In the process, the village leaders who had selflessly volunteered to conserve forests were replaced by individuals motivated by prestige and rent-seeking.

The reason for the changes, villagers learned from bitter experience, was that the forest department wanted people who would be pliant and facilitate easy rent-seeking. The unaccountable and non transparent flow of funds further disrupted village unity. The villagers are filled with bitterness and sorrow. Observers long associated with the forest protection movement say, “After the money came, the local system of forest conservation has been deeply affected and the communities have lost their autonomy and interest. Now everything is controlled by the forest department.”

Timber smuggling from the forests has again started, and one of the women I talked could not hide her exasperation, “Jiban ta chhadi jauchi.. bada bada gachha kati kari nei jauchan (I seem to lose my life, such big trees are being cut and smuggled).”

I found that the project has not only led to the breakdown of the system, it has also strengthened the power of non-tribals in these primarily tribal dominated villages. Seventy-five percent of the population of the 12 villages is tribal, but in ten villages, the forest department has selected a non-tribals as a president. In one village, a person from the sole non-tribal household was chosen as the VSS president.

Discussions with people who have been involved in community forestry movement in Odisha for a long time confirm the findings of this study. They told me that external funding support through the forest department has allowed the forest department to regain control over these forests that were being conserved by communities. Quite often this has led to the breakdown of the conservation system and institutions. More importantly, it has led to a sense of helplessness and despair amongst the hundreds of thousands of people who had wielded thengas and protected their forests for decades. A grassroots movement for conservation is being converted into another sarkari programme.

The flow of money itself is not the problem – many of these communities have handled large amounts of funds generated through informal forest operation and are accustomed to managing village funds (gaon panthi). The main problem is the locus of control with the forest department, whose local staff’s major incentive is not to protect forests but to devise efficient ways of rent-seeking.

Villagers say that the money should come to the gram sabha and decision making on fund use should be left to them and the forest department. It is interesting to note that Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, provides the legal powers to the gram sabhas to protect and govern their forests. Yet, there has been little interest in the forest bureaucracy to support this law – rather, it has tried its best to sabotage the implementation of the FRA.

At the global scale, the need for meaningful inclusion of local communities in forest governance for achieving sustainable conservation is now widely acknowledged. In India, the FRA has opened space for community controlled forest governance. The government of Odisha could have provided legal recognition to the Odisha’s unique grassroots community conservation movement through the FRA, instead, it has decided to continue channelising funds through the forest department for JFM-type programmes. This is evident from the launch of the Ama Jungle Yojana despite opposition from civil society groups and the launch of the second phase of OFSDP in 2017.

It is high time that policymakers get out of the JFM ‘hangover’ and imagine the new possibilities of community led-forest governance through the FRA. And donors such as JICA assess the harm that they are doing by funding programmes like the OFSDP.

Rana Roy is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Forestry, University of Toronto.