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'The protectors are thieves in disguise'

By Subrat Kumar Sahu

In village after village in Orissa, people complain that joint forestry management, which mandates the setting up of a Van Suraksha Samiti headed by a forest official, only ensures that money-power and corruption destroy the forests communities have been managing so successfully

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With their amazing success in keeping and exercising villagers’ traditional rights over the forests, CFM (community forest management) groups across Orissa have, ironically, become the nemesis of the forest department.

Danardan Mallik of the tribal village Junanibahal, at the foothills of the Gandhamardan mountains in Bolangir district, says: “The identity and importance of a forest are best understood by those who have survived on it for ages, like us adivasis. The forest department looks at the forest as a commodity to be traded for petty gains. So there are relentless conflicts with the forest department. You can gauge how they treat a forest: they have barricaded the Gandhamardan mountains at many places, as though it is the backyard of their paternal house! Now, neither can wild animals move freely nor can we access the forest for fuelwood. We depend on the 25 hectares of village forest that we have been keeping since 1987, and no one is allowed to enter there without our permission, not even forest officials.”  

A village forest in Bolangir district

Such spontaneous outbursts of anger by villagers against the forest department were frequent throughout my journey into the villages of Orissa. Why? Daman Bagh of Baghjor, another tribal village in Bolangir, is more forthright: “A few forest officials together can eat up all the forests in the country!”  

He adds: “We landless sell wood to survive; and we sell dry wood. But today forest officers are selling wood, that too fresh logs! Only we know how painfully we have protected the village forest since 1985. It now spreads to an area of 180 hectares. But if we catch hold of members of the timber mafia and hand them over to the forest department, the officers will take a bribe and let them off. There was a bamboo forest here covering around 40 hectares. When the mafia came to cut the bamboo, we resisted. But the forest department tried to shield them. In fact, they were monitoring the loot. The bamboo forest has now vanished. What do we do? We do not have the power to punish thieves. When the so-called protectors are actually thieves in disguise, you can only sit back and mourn the tragedy!” 

Shramik Jogi, who was central to the Kesarpur movement in Nayagarh district, puts it a bit differently: “The forest department was very cooperative in the beginning of our struggle. It actually depends on the kind of person in charge of the department in your area. Around 1978, the then DFO P K Patnaik was like a father figure to this village. After he left, forest department officials came and pestered us to cut trees and plant new saplings. That infuriated the villagers. We opposed their agenda. We exposed their intentions far and wide, and in public. So they retreated. But they came again with a similar plan in 2001/02 -- the social forestry project. We did the same, and they retreated again.”  

From the large-scale commercial felling of trees in the 1950s and 1960s to the social forestry programmes of the 1980s and 1990s, the forest department had a single-point agenda: making revenue from the forests. ‘Protection’ was never even considered a duty, let alone a virtue. In what is known as the ‘coupe’ programme, the department cut a large number of old trees throughout the state, planting saplings in their place in the hope that the forests would regenerate. This rarely happened. Indra Palei, vice-president of the forest protection committee (FPC) in Budhikhamari village, in Mayurbhanj district, says: “I protested against the ‘coupe’ felling of trees. They were cutting very old trees in large numbers in our forest. They tried to harass me for a long time. But we succeeded in stopping them from cutting more trees.”   

Indra Palei in the Budhikhamari village forest in Mayurbhanj district

The social forestry programme -- funded by SIDA (Swedish International Development Agency) -- was marked by the planting of non-indigenous tree species, on what the forest department considered government land. The land was mostly used as grazing grounds; sometimes trees were planted even on fertile farmland, only to be cut down a few years later to make money. Trees planted under the social forestry programme usually ended up providing pulp wood to the paper industry, with little benefit going to the villages involved. Professor Radhamohan, who has been associated with community forest management in Orissa since the 1970s, asks: “Then why call it social forestry? There was very little ‘social’ and very little ‘forestry’ in that programme. Those were not forests; those were the planting of species that are not found in our forests. Acacia and eucalyptus are not indigenous to our forests or our country. It was said that the people would decide what species they wanted to be planted. But it was not the people but the department that determined the species.”  

Shramik Jogi recalls what he said at a meeting at the Oxfam office in front of a Swedish official who had come to offer funds under the social forestry programme: “I am scared looking at this officer, just like the woman whose child has been bitten by a snake is scared even looking at a rope! If you have a lot of money in Sweden, throw it in the ocean or simply give it to the money-eating forest department. Do not destroy our tradition of forest management with your money. Our concepts of the forest and its protection are very different; we only want our basic needs to be met, and we have done that all these years without external funds. We do not want to turn our forests into money-spinning industries.” 

Returning to the issue of ‘protection’ of forests by the forest department, it is often argued that the department lacks the human resources to guard such vast stretches of forest. Then why does it not simply leave it to communities that have been protecting the forests for generations? And, given the objective on which the department was created in the first place, would greater staff strength really put things back in shape? Professor Radhamohan argues: “I do not buy that reasoning. Between the 1950s and the 1980s, India lost 45 million hectares of forests even as the size of the forest technocracy went up from 10,000 to 90,000. It proves that greater manpower does not necessarily mean better forest protection. If anything, the number of staff has to be substantially reduced. In the final analysis, it is the people who will protect (the forests) and not the department.”  

But people have been declared ‘intruders’ in the forests for as long as 150 years, and they are still being treated as intruders despite their significant efforts at protecting the forests.  

The progressive National Forest Policy of 1988, which led to the resolution on joint forest management (JFM) in 1990, did promise to resolve the conflict between the real protectors of the forests and the ‘absentee landlords’. But did the JFM resolution only escalate the crisis? 

CFM versus JFM 

JFM -- also referred to as ‘participatory forest management’ -- was meant to establish ‘partnership in forest management’ between forest-dependent communities and the forest department through a set of guidelines issued in 1990 by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India. In Orissa, it came into effect in 1993 after the state government passed a similar resolution. The key understanding in the arrangement was that, in return for protecting forestland and helping in the regeneration and management of forests, people would be entitled to usufruct rights over dead fuelwood, timber, NTFP (non-timber forest produce) and a significant share, in cash or kind, in the final harvesting.  

It would seem as though this participatory approach would, once and for all, end the longstanding conflict between forest communities and the forest department. But its shortcomings were soon evident. Seventy-five-year-old Ladukishore Nayak, ex-president of the Jungle Suraksha Mahasangh in Nayagarh district, explains: “Under the JFM it is mandatory to form a VSS (Van Suraksha Samiti) even if a community FPC already exists and is doing good work. The catch here is that the local forester becomes the secretary of the VSS by default, meaning the forest department now has complete control over people’s efforts and resources. Moreover, the JFM arrangement is not a law; it’s just a resolution in which the community’s usage rights have been kept ambiguous. It does not acknowledge local systems of self-governance. So, we at the Mahasangh, took a decision and rejected the JFM idea in toto.”  

Many CFM committees in the state have turned into VSSs within the last 15 years, apart from the ones separately created by the forest department. According to the Economic Survey of Orissa 2007/08, by September 2006 there were already 9,813 VSSs in the state in charge of 895,387 hectares of forests. But in most such villages I was told by the villagers that the FPCs weakened, both in terms of management and spirit, after getting into this arrangement with the forest department. Why?  

For starters, the JFM had a uniform institutional structure that did not take into account the culture and practices of the social group or formation. Secondly, any decision taken by the community needed the forest department’s approval to be implemented.  

Baghjor, a predominantly tribal village in Bolangir, is a case in point. The village FPC has been protecting the forests there since 1985. In 2001/02, following the insistence of forest officials, the village FPC registered itself as a VSS. “What corrupted an otherwise honest people was the money that came to the VSS in the name of forest protection. Earlier, we kept the forests using our own resources, and there was no problem as such. Since the money came through the forest department, they took some committee office-bearers aside and siphoned off the funds. Timber traders started felling trees and the department did nothing to stop the plunder. All this demoralised the villagers. Now nobody guards the forest; it’s open for loot,” says Ghanshyam Gheebela, a villager in Baghjor.  

Villagers in Baghjor in Bolangir district stopped guarding their forest after the forest department took over and formed a VSS

The secretary of Baghjor Yuvak Sangh, Singa Majhi, adds: “The VSS is there to serve the interests of the forest department only. They have appointed a beat guard here who does not turn up. We asked the DFO to give us just one-third of the amount they normally pay a forest guard, and we would guard the forest. But they didn’t listen. So now you can see for yourself how our forest is being destroyed.” 

In Gunduribadi, a tribal village in Nayagarh district, the villagers have succeeded in keeping the forest department out of their schemes. Manas Pradhan, president of the village FPC, says: “The forest department is after us to turn into a VSS. But we know that if the department steps in, no forest will remain here. They will come with the money and trade our forest. We want to protect this forest to ensure a safe future.” 

The adivasis of Gunduribadi in Nayagarh district have succeeded in keeping the forest department away from managing their forests


The dense village forest at Gunduribadi

It is, however, apparent that many successful CFM initiatives have been persuaded to form VSSs by the funds attached to the latter. With money coming in, sustainable and democratic traditional systems of forest management exited. In many villages, VSS members do not even know how much money has been sanctioned to their VSS, indeed whether money has been sanctioned at all! Premanand Bhoi of Kandhkel village in Bolangir district says: “We have been protecting the village forest for the past 25 years. We turned into a VSS some 10 years back, but nothing has changed. The VSS is only on paper; there has been no intervention by the forest department either in the form of monetary support or personal involvement in the effort.” 

Indra Palei, vice-president of the FPC at Budhikhamari village in Mayurbhanj district, explains: “We have been guarding the forest since 1971, and successfully. Although many of us were not in favour of forming a VSS, we somehow got into it in 2004. The only help we have received from the forest department since then has been some money to buy chairs, tents, and equipment to use for weddings in the village. There has been no support in matters of forest management.” 

There are also instances where the forest department has formed VSSs on the sidelines of existing village FPCs that are unwilling to turn into VSSs; this has led to tensions in the village and damaged the social fabric of the community. In Chaulbanji village, at the foothills of the Gandhamardan mountains, Baikuntha Bariha, a village elder, says: “For more than 20 years we have been keeping our forests and the forests, in turn, are fulfilling our basic needs. How could we hand over our livelihood resources to the forest department even if they promised to support us monetarily? We do not need their money. So we clearly said we would not form a VSS. But they went ahead with some people and formed a VSS around a patch of forest next to ours.” 

Ladukishore Nayak says: “In Nayagarh district, two VSSs -- in Dhodapali and Sanpada villages -- have been created over the same patch of forest! So you can imagine the level of conflict there.” He adds: “The forest department cannot see communities enjoying their traditional rights over the forests. In 2005, they motivated a VSS to intrude on the forests protected and managed by the Odagaon CFM. The conflict led to violent fights. In another incident the same year, there were serious arguments between 43 villages on one side and 13 on the other, because the forest department promised the same patch of forest -- many of them under CFM committees -- to a number of villages.”  

Bijay Mohanty, a retired schoolteacher in Mursing village, Bolangir district, believes however that, “It is good to have the forest department on board. It helps in many ways. But again it depends on the kind of person in office. Since 1998, when we turned into a VSS, forest protection was going on smoothly. But for the past four years we have been more busy resolving conflicts than protecting the forests because the present forest officials just don’t care. This has re-opened the door to the timber mafia”.  

Interestingly, I discovered that the money that had come to the VSS towards forest protection, in Mursing, had been spent on refurbishing the Jagannath temple!  

Until the early-1990s, the forest department did not even refer to community protection of natural forests; they only talked about villagers protecting social forestry plantations. They pushed the massive grassroots response under the carpet. It was only after success stories of people’s interventions began circulating in the public domain, helped by civil society organisations, academics, and activists, that the forest department came out of denial. In a way, therefore, the forest department was forced to introduce the JFM programme in the name of ‘partnering’ communities in forest management. “But the department always has nefarious intentions in whatever it does. They would first cut down the forests to make money, and then carry out planting. A patch of plantation is not a forest. The very spirit of CFM that started as a democratic mass movement is now being killed by the JFM” laments Hemant Kumar Behera, president of the Budabahal CFM committee in Debgarh district. 

Ladukishor Nayak puts it more strongly: “Who says that the forest department has any interest in protecting the forests? They are only interested in the timber.”  

Should the forest department be renamed the ‘timber department’ then?  

Forest department or ‘timber department’? Trees ‘harvested’ by the forest department in Budhikhamari village, Mayurbhanj district

The CFM movement has always been a pain in the neck for the forest department because communities had practically reclaimed their lost livelihood bases after being pushed for decades into uncertainty that was first unleashed on them through the Indian Forest Act, 1965, and then in a more severe form through the Indian Forest Policy Resolution, 1952. With one-third of Orissa’s forests under the control and care of communities, the forest department faces a huge conflict of interest. It would seem as though the JFM resolution was only a ‘trick-weapon’ in the hands of the department to take back control over what it calls ‘encroached forests’ and what local communities regard as their ‘natural home’. 

An organised mass movement  

With growing tension between forest protection groups and the forest department over exercising rights over the state’s forests, villagers have come to realise the need for a coordinated institutional arrangement among themselves. And so, towards the late-1990s, began a process of alliance-building among CFM groups, both at the grassroots as well as the state level. “Starting from a very localised phenomenon of cooperation between villages, this alliance-building process led to the setting up of several formal federations at various levels. By June 2001, seven district-level federations and one state-level federation had been formed.” According to Prabhat Mishra of RCDC, today there are district-level federations -- both formal and informal -- in as many as 22 districts (out of 30) in the state. Among them, the Mayurbhanj Jungle Suraksha Mahasangh and the Nayagarh Jungle Suraksha Mahasangh are the strongest.  

Bibek Patnaik who is part of the Mayurbhanj federation says: “The Mayurbhanj Mahasangh takes a somewhat different approach from that of many other district federations; it is completely run by the people, with no direct support from NGOs. The sense of participation and ownership by communities is also exemplary here. Unless federations are self-governed and self-funded they will not be sustained in the long run.” 

The apex federation at the state level is called the OJM, or Orissa Jungle Manch. This collective -- with several tiers of functioning bodies down to the village level, even family units -- has placed communities in an excellent bargaining position while dealing with the state, especially the forest department. It has also provided the much-desired ‘public platform’ for experience-sharing among VFCs in Orissa, apart from making inter-village and intra-village conflict-resolution smooth and effective.  

A movement that started as a spontaneous response to the state’s onslaught on forest-based village economies has now evolved into an empowering collective, without communities having to lose their diverse identities and democratic values.  


Babu A, Panigrahi R, and Rao Y G, 2003. ‘In the name of participation: Paiksahi-FD conflict’, in Communities, Forests, and Conflicts, pp 114, edited by P K Nayak and others. Bhubaneswar: Vasundhara. 139 pp  

Ojha N, 2006. ‘Report on Difficulties in JFM/CFM affecting forest-dependent communities in Orissa’. Bhubaneswar  

Padhi T, 2002. ‘Forest should be restored to the communities: interview with Prof Radhamohan’, Community Forestry, 1: 1 and 2, January 2002 

Singh N, 2002. ‘Federations of community forest management in Orissa’. Forests, Trees and People, 46: September 2002. Bhubaneswar: Vasundhara  

(Subrat Kumar Sahu is an independent writer and filmmaker based in New Delhi. He was formerly with TerraGreen, a magazine on the environment and sustainable development. He was awarded the Infochange Media Fellowship 2009 to research the history of community forest management in his native Orissa)   

Infochange News & Features, March 2010