03 October, 2009

Of forest dwellers and such...

The talk about 'alternative development' or 'sustainable development' is quite interesting these days. The NGOs that usually make recommendations to governments about what can be done so that rural communities continue to lead their relatively simpler lifestyles that are directly dependent on the wilderness areas around them as a means of promoting the protection of these wilderness areas through stakeholdership will recommend that funds be donated/allotted and/or legislation be passed to secure that community's way of life, and they will lobby for rights to the community over the forest that they are stakeholders of. The point that they miss completely is that even though current stakeholders might be interested in safeguarding their forests and making sure only sustainable quanta of non-timber forest produce (NTFP) is harvested from them, there's no guarantee that future generations who inherit this stakeholdership will do the same. Another moot point is also that if an ad-hoc village committee is in charge of the forest around their village, it is a possibility that bad management decisions can be made with the best of intentions. Unlike the evolved system of centralised and state-owned forest management, village committies will not have access to research and data to base their decisions on (this is not to say the centre doesn't screw up. They do, and big time at that. But there are certain safeguards and corrections can be made with higher intervention). And even if they do manage to set limits to NTFP harvests in the name of sustainability, it is only so that humans can continue to sustainably harvest material with nary a care for the wildlife inhabiting the forest. (A good example would be honey collection from wild beehives in southern India. Even though there are ancient laws passed on from father to son about what kind of hive to harvest and what kind to leave untouched, most of the extractable honey is collected and sold into the free market with little of it left to bears - whose main diet during the nonfruiting season happens to be honey. Bears are also further affected by collection of deadwood. Deadwood is essential for the existence of termites in a forest. Termites feed on the dead and fallen wood and return organic matter back into the soil. Termites also happen to be another major part of bear diet. No deadwood, no termites, no bears. Only a small example.)

Beyond all this talk of sustainability, one also forgets about the people concerned. Do they want to continue with their way of living or do they want healthcare, schools, electricity, food and water security, toilets, pukka roofs that don't need to be replaced every year, insurance, access to the internet and telecommunications, news, information and entertainment? Why should someone who has access to (and is a user of) all this make recommendations that basically dictate the absence of these very things from a community of people who happen to be physically and financially far off from these things? Why not ask them what they'd like first? As long as human communities continue to have access to the 'free' market of the open world (most 'tribals' do, only a few like the Jarawas of the Andamans continue to live disconnected from all but the most primitive technology - one reason why their population hasn't exploded like the rest of the world and they can actually be said to be living 'with' nature), continue to change their environment to raise animals and crops, get diseases and need cures, get bitten by snakes and need antivenin, they cannot be given special permissions and rights to the forests they live in. With the little forest we have remaining, we cannot continue to add infrastructure and services into it. People can adapt to a change in lifestyle but animals and the forest cannot. I sit in a coffee shop as I write this, a place where I can buy the cheapest item on the menu and meet with a dozen of my friends until it's closing time and use the internet for free. I can walk down a few blocks into a multiplex and expose myself to a plethora of cinema from various corners of my country and the world. Why would I not want the 'tribal' people to have access to the same if they chose so?

Ideally, sustainable societies would not have advanced technology such as computers and the internet, because 'jobs' in sustainable societies would be directly linked to the environment. I can only imagine "technological advancement" being made under capitalism because it calls for bigger, better, faster of everything. But considering where we are currently, it'd be imprudent to call for forest-dwelling peoples to "go back to nature" and avoid what the current world has to offer. Today, the right to internet access is equivalent to the right to information. We cannot keep asking them to be where they are and continue their 'sustainable' (but impoverished and meagre) existence. It would be both, impudent and imprudent of us to ask them to go back to using their traditional systems of medicine for the diseases created by contact with the rest of the world. It would be equally imprudent and impudent to ask them to skip the 'modern' education system and stick to their traditional knowledge, for that would leave future populations at a huge disadvantage versus the rest of the world. What would work best in today's scenario is a system that gives the right to forest dwelling communities to keep ownership of their land (governed by strict land use regulations curbing any commercial activity and/or serious landscape modification) while at the same time providing for them residence and services in nearby towns and cities. It is the only way their children will be brought up at minimal disadvantage vis-a-vis children from towns and cities, while at the same time, exposing them to their homeland (the forests) and making sure they never get alienated from it. This, I think, is much better than the system we use today where we give them 'jobs' in the name of NREGS and other trivial jobs with the hospitality/tourism industry which only makes them reliant on an outsider (a capitalistic outsider!) to continue living in their homeland.

Management of the forests, on the other hand, needs to be taken away from the exclusive domain of the Forest Department (Because, seriously, the FD does not consist of conservation biologists or police. The forests need a combination of the two for proper management and protection.) and must be shared by a committee/board consisting of stakeholders (i.e, the people, not corporations), the Forest Department (whose role would be limited to protection) and conservation biologists who would present all management options. No management decisions would be made without hearings, with opinions drawn from peers and public. That would be my ideal forest.

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