New Delhi: State governments allocate sizeable sums of money for forest protection, but they are no more effective than local communities that manage with minimal resources, according to a new study that has revived an old debate: Who should manage forests, the state or the local community?
“The states should leave forest maintenance to local communities and be involved only in undertaking research,” said E. Somanathan, an author of the report and a scientist at the Indian Statistical Institute in New Delhi.
The institute tied up with Bangalore-based Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment, a non-governmental organization, for the study.
Green cover: The report says the canopy density declined more in state-protected forests compared with areas managed by local councils. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
The study, done in Uttarakhand, compared the satellite images of forests separately managed by village forest councils, known as Van Panchayats, and the state government in 271 villages of the northern state, and they concluded that the levels of degradation were similar.
The Uttarakhand government spends seven-nine times more than the local communities, said the report that is published in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a journal of the National Academy of Sciences, US.
In Uttarakhand’s Van Panchayat model, which is one of a kind, forest communities are responsible for the upkeep of those tracts that earn them a livelihood. However, most forests in the country are managed by state governments; in some areas the government works with local communities.
According to recent government estimates, there are 6,069 Van Panchayats managing 405,426ha of forests (13.63% of total forest area) in Uttarakhand.
“The government incurs a lot of expenses in appointing forest guards, paying salaries, using jeeps and vehicles just for protecting trees,” Somanathan added.
“Local communities (such as Van Panchayats), on the other hand, employ watchmen on an immediate-need basis and many a time (the members) take turns to act as guards. That’s how expenses are kept low,” he said.
Somanathan said the essential findings of the study—that local communities were better managers of forests than the government—could be extrapolated to other forests in the country, too.
The report also said the canopy density—the metric by which the quality of forest cover is judged—declined considerably more in state-protected forests compared with the areas managed by the local council. But experts question the study’s findings and at least one government official is sceptical of the efficacy of letting local groups manage forests.
“While these findings may be true for Uttarakhand, we can’t extrapolate these results to the rest of the country,” said Ritwick Dutta, a New Delhi-based environmental lawyer. “For instance, several community forests in Meghalaya and Manipur are grossly degraded when compared to regions managed by the state. Concentrating full control in either state or private communities is a bad idea. There should be some sort of a joint ownership.”
The government official who did not want to be identified said most communities dependent on forests are not aware of the need for forest conservation. “Look at the rampant poaching and the smuggling of exotic species that take place in these forests. There’s no real concern,” he said.