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The roles played by NGOs for responsive governance of forests

~ by Mansi Monga 

The Forest Rights Act enacted by the Parliament in 2006 makes a provision for Community Forest Resource Rights (CFR rights) which are, rights to protect, regenerate, conserve, and manage community forest areas alongside space for three other kinds of rights: Individual Forest Rights (occupation & cultivation), Community Forest Rights (grazing, fuelwood, collection, fishing, ownership and disposal of non-timber forest produce or NTFP) and Development Rights. A recent paper titled – ‘Promoting a responsive state: The role of NGOs in decentralised forest governance in India’ addresses the post-rights scenarios in two cases – villages without active NGOs and villages with active NGOs in the realm of community rights and allowances.

Regenerating CFR land in the village Nyaykheda (Dist. Amravati, Maharashtra); Source: Divya Gupta

The authors highlight that the mere existence of the act does not protect the forest-dwelling communities from deprivation & marginalisation. A responsive management paradigm would include control of forests into a more realistic synergy of working and living around forests – with true-decentralisation that includes sharing some facets of forest control (authority in addition to the acknowledgement of rights). Post-claim support to the rights holders is a specification in the Forest Rights Act, Amendment 2012 which continues to either be missing or considered a lofty unattainable goal due to capacity constraints of authorities and broad understandings of what such post-claim support might entail. 

The importance of post-claim support, in practice, is widely viewed as additional aid after the main work is completed, when it is crucial to long-term conservation values being upheld in the region without impinging on human rights. In the absence of such support from within a top-down view of forest governance, non-state actors (largely NGOs and sometimes activists or community leaders) have often stepped in to bridge the gap between forest-dwelling communities and the state to enable more responsive governance. 

This paper takes into examination the role of such NGOs in enabling these communities by conducting a study in Vidarbha, the eastern region of Maharashtra state in India (see map below) which is well known for being actively engaged in the varied interpretations and implementation of Forest Rights Act. It also contains 53% of Maharashtra’s forests and 28% tribal population.

The authors studied the post CFR rights recognition and post-claim scenarios in both NGO and non-NGO supported villages within this region through extensive travelling and networking with key-informants. The authors study a select group of NGOs working in this region that help communities while also being active members of networks that act as a platform for learning and developing common strategies for more responsive governance across themes – including forest governance. The study was conducted using open ended interviews with nearly a hundred people from a wide range of backgrounds (both from NGO supported and non-supported villages) and information collected through government documents, (NGO project reports, popular media and records by the gram sabhas). Focus group discussions were also held in each village for effective information gathering and spontaneous expression which also was useful in increasing awareness about the Forest Rights Act especially in the non-NGO supported villages. 

Focused Group Meeting in Mainghat Village (Dist. Amravati, Maharashtra); Source: Ramod Morale

The observations of this study tell us that in NGO supported villages there was awareness within the village of the recognition of their CFR rights and NGOs have filled post-claim support roles across three domains: a) Interaction within communities – NGOs’ primary work in the village has been mobilizing and empowering communities to exercise their rights and carry out responsibilities which was achieved by building awareness (through workshops, creating material in local language, arranging exposure visits to ‘model’ villages), empowering certain groups (engaging youth and empowering women), carrying out capacity building and targeting skill development (training programs) and lastly, pursuing specific activities related to the CFR rights (owning responsibility for sustainability and conservation, also encouraging ban on destructive practices) 

b) Interaction between communities and government authorities – NGOs perform dual-roles in interactions with the state and communities. NGOs are crucial for equitable place-based relationships across power hierarchies and often provide space to facilitate bottom-up approaches for forest governance in prevailing top-down policy and practice frameworks. c) Marketing of forest produce –  The NGOs support the creations of Gram Sabha led federations, focal institutions for trade of tendu leaves for rolling cheap cigarettes and also promoting alternative livelihood opportunities in the villages. Alternative livelihoods have included – producing sweets made from the flower of Mahua tree, active markets for local honey and more. This has smoothened the transition of the shift for all NTFP operations from the Forest Department to the Gram Sabhas. 

The research concludes that even though there are multiple risks and shortcomings in NGO involvement for post-claim support (such as any one NGO performing this role at scale), it currently provides an extremely valuable support system and plays a vital role for long-term sustainability in the region where conservation must go-hand-in-hand with human development.

Original Paper: Gupta, Divya; Lele, Sharachchandra; Sahu, Geetanjoy  (2020). Promoting a responsive state: The role of NGOs in decentralized forest governance in India.. Forest Policy and Economics, 111(), 102066

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