From where did Gautama, the Buddha get the idea of proposing a life of equality, sharing and non-acquisitiveness for the ills of society around him? Some believe it was by observing the people of India's jungles - the ones we refer to as Adivasis. Their virtues that the Buddha prescribed to the world, include a set of canons that let them live sustainably with nature's resources. [see below] After a lapse of memory, India is now officially turning to these people for help. And international experts are impressed by the results.
India has always been an open land, welcoming people and ideas. This has enriched her in many ways - but also enfeebled her in some. In the colonial interlude, India was shown centralised law making and policing power. Independent India has been indiscriminately faithful to these skills in all matters of governance.
One of the sectors worst hit by this combination has been forestry. On the one hand, forests were 'fenced off'-- so to speak -- and harmoniously living Adivasis began to be policed by rangers. On the other, industrial interests were allowed to recklessly exploit natural resources in the name of development. What India believed to be modern, managed forestry has been nothing but disaster, riven with degradation of resources, corruption of administration and alienation of people close to the soil.
To this dismal scene, came the National Forestry Policy,1988 like a breath of fresh air. Some uncelebrated unknowns were its authors. The Policy reversed old practices and fell back to India's pre-colonial experience.
A joint sector for forests:
The centre-piece of the new policy is the concept of Joint Forest Management [JFM]. The policy clearly directs that forests be managed first as an ecological necessity, second as a source of goods for local populations, and only third as a source of wood for industries and other non-local consumers. This approach permits Adivasis and people in the proximity of forests to sustainably benefit by forests' bounty in return for help in policing them. In one fell swoop, the suspect became the authority. Thinking used to be, that big investment and technology was required to benefit from forest resources. It now turns out that this approach had actually destroyed natural assets because of the implied aggression. When the forest folk were given usufruct rights however, they harvested at a gentler pace and only for local markets. The forests were allowed time to regenerate, Adivasis gained a legal stream of income - and the motivation to protect the source of this income.
It is difficult to tell, but the modern authors of JFM may well have been the foresters of West Bengal. Throughout the 1970s they had been experimenting with the concept and by the eighties, were convinced of the success of their approach. When finally the concept of JFM was built into the 1988 policy, Madhya Pradesh [-which has the largest acreage of forests in the country] was the first to swing into action. It soon put 10 million hectares in the hands of people: the results were dramatic.
Andhra Pradesh is India's model Learning State - it misses nothing of promise and implements its plans driven by political will. By 1994, with World Bank funds for a 6 year programme and forester S D Mukherjee to lead, AP was ready to roll. Its vehicle: Vana Samrakshana Samithis [VSS] or Forest Conservation Committees made up of villagers in the fringes of forests.
Each VSS has between 75 and 100 members from amongst whom a maximum of 15 are elected to a governing body. 30% of this body has to be female. The Forest Department stands in the background providing technical and administrative support: it is the VSS that is the executive arm. Non-timber produce like grass, fuel wood, fruit, medicines etc are free for them to share amongst themselves. The state also returns 100% of timber and wood revenue as long as the VSS commits half of it for reinvesting in the area under its care; the rest may be used for village development.
A VSS is expected to protect its forest land from encroachment, grazing, fire and theft. It is free to discuss and decide on the ways to manage and improve the asset under its care. The improvement schemes are labour intensive and generate wage incomes. They build check dams and bunds, re-plant species selected for fit and profit, work on soil conservation and so on. For the bonus 50%, a VSS develops its own village micro plan. Projects are always human scale: drinking water facilities, irrigation works, savings and credit schemes, community halls, fish ponds, smokeless ovens and so on.
The World Bank [see below] has declared itself satisfied: "The Forestry Department, once regarded as a rule-bound and hostile bureaucratic police force, is now often heralded by rural people as a friendly promoter of their development. A dramatic change indeed, in perception and attitudes.." And again, "...degraded forests have sprung back to life. Timber smuggling has almost been stopped. Cattle grazing is under control. There is no further encroachment by agriculture on lands vested with VSS."
World wide excitement:
Within ten years of adopting the new approach, an official report [see below]on India's forests in 1999, had figures that suggest depletion of forest area may have been arrested; it may even have increased. Since that report, the JFM score has risen further: there are today, 35 million hectares of forest land in the hands of 35,000 village committees spread throughout India.
The JFM concept has spread worldwide now. Forestry experts -- fairly excited -- want to push on to new frontiers. Concerned that the bio diversity of the world is threatened, a study was commissioned by Future Harvest [see below]. The resulting report "Common Ground Common Future" [Authors: Jeffrey A. McNeely and Sara J. Scherr] presents the dismal scene and how it can be salvaged. Among the six strategies they propose, the major one is what they call 'ecoagriculture'. With some caveats, this proposal is in fact total acceptance of man living in forests, benefiting by it, nourishing it. This is indeed JFM plus. It does make sense - after all 16 of world's 25 bio diversity hotspots are in poor, malnourished, human habitats. "You cannot save the world's forests by locking them up against local people. It is in any case the big companies that are often into illegal logging," says Sarah Scherr of Washington based Forest Trends. David Kaimowitz of CIFOR [Center for International Forestry Research] says India's JFM is the way to go. " Forests are not un-peopled tracts of trees," he says. When all the proposed strategies are considered, what emerges are man plus forest habitats - settled by farmers where forests exist and created by farmers where none do. Forests won't be defined islands. Man-Forest habitats would be a geographical continuum, graded only by intensity.
From the colonial method of policing forests to turning them over entirely to the good sense of people is indeed a giant leap to make in just over 50 years. India has nudged the world along. Good laws and practices are not prescribed but found. Found -- shall we say, at least sometimes -- amidst the humble folk of India's ancient heritage?
 - A brisk over-view of the Adivasi's centrality to India's heritage. It narrates his innovative ways and all round contributions to India's rich culture. Spans the period from ancient times to the modern.Click to read Back to text
 - Here is a detailed and readable report on Andhra Pradesh's Vana Samrakshana Samithis.Click to read Back to text
 - In November, 2000 GoodNewsIndia carried a review of India's State of Forest Report, 1999. While it focused largely on the modernising methods of monitoring forests, there was enough there --long before the current excitement-- about India's success with JFM. Could be useful supplementary reading .Click to read Back to text
 - A summary of the McNeeley and Scherr Report is available here. There is also a link there to download a PDF version of the whole report.Click to read The debate on the advisability of going from JFM to Ecoagriculture is currently on. Read some contrarian views. Click to read Back to text
 - All is not settled and perfect with JFMs. A development journalist of note, Ms.Keya Acharya reports of many abuses and lacklustre enthusiasm. She recently undertook visits to some districts in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu to assess how JFM was working. From time to time she had also been visiting parts of Karnataka in connection with other stories and while doing so gathered inputs from villagers on JFMs in their areas.
She has been disheartened. "I am used to taking Government's and donors' declarations of success with some reserve," says Ms.Acharya. "therefore,I was disturbed by GoodNewsIndia declaring JFMs an absolute success!"
Here are her additional comments:
"Andhra Pradesh's predominantly tribal belt of Srikakulam and Kuppam in Vizianagaram district had lots of negative reports of smuggling of timber allegedly in connivance with forest staff and complaints of JFM trees being planted without consulting the community. Tamilnadu's communities in Srivilliputtur say VFCs (Village Forest Committees) were formed arbitrarily by the Forest Deparment and don't feel a part of any consultative process, while in the Nilgiri area the Toda community are very critical of JFM. In all these areas there is a general view that JFM has not been a consultative process and that policies on the sustainability of both forests and them are formulated in offices and government desks far away from reality."
GoodNewsIndia hopes that all these are only early wrinkles in what is essentially a sound policy.