Rights to Forests: Meeting Basic Needs in India's Western Ghats

Firooza Pavri[1]


In addition to the oft-stated benefits of tropical forests on the earth’s physical system (e.g. assisting in carbon sequestration and regulating local and regional climates, among others), these biomes also serve as crucial resource endowments for the rural regions of many developing countries, meeting local fuelwood, food and timber requirements. Thus, resource decline can have particularly negative consequences for dependent populations living in the vicinity, and often lead to an overall deterioration in their quality of life.

This paper considers the extent of forest resource dependency across rural populations within a section of India’s Western Ghats, and examines how both institutionally prescribed rules and culturally specific practices mold people’s forest use patterns. It does so by drawing on a political ecology perspective that recommends examining the socio-political context in dynamic relationship with the environment. To these ends, the paper uses data gathered from over 500 household surveys, in-depth interviews and eight months of field observation to examine forest use patterns. Surveys are categorized based on the socio-economic characteristics reported by individual households. This categorization helps identify rural populations’ diverse patterns of interaction with the environment.

Statistical analyses of the data suggest that dependency on forest resources, and especially fuelwood, is substantial within the study area and cuts across income groups. There are, however, statistically significant differences in the extent of dependency along socio-economic axes. Thus, the implications of resource decline are exacerbated for certain groups, and especially the rural poor and adivasi (or indigenous populations) who are dependent on these resources to sustain their livelihoods. Lastly, the paper finds that, while both institutional rules and cultural practices mold forest resource extraction, economic necessities play equally important roles in dictating patterns of dependency.


Research on tropical deforestation and its consequences has elicited substantial interest from academics and the popular press in recent decades (Hecht and Cockburn 1989; Millikan 1992; Shiva 1988). This attention stems primarily from the implications of a rapidly diminishing forest resource base on human activity. There is little debate over the widespread reliance of local populations on forest-based natural resources across the developing world. Yet, with the exception of a few studies, detailed variations in rural dependency remain to be explored (Nadkarni et al. 1989; Jodha 1986; Soussan et al. 1991). Are rural populations evenly dependent on forest resources? How do institutionally prescribed rules and culturally specific practices mold resource use? And, what is the differential impact of resource loss on these populations? Through a case study in India’s Western Ghats, and using data collected from an extensive survey of over 500 households from 23 randomly sampled villages, and in-depth interviews with local residents, this paper sheds light on these questions and in so doing provides guidelines for policymakers.

Past empirical research has typically grouped rural populations as monoliths, glossing over differences amongst groups and providing few targeted policies. Veering from that path, this paper provides a detailed exploration into distinguishable variations in forest resource dependency based on the population’s socio-economic characteristics. Drawing on a political ecology perspective that recommends examining the socio-political context in dynamic relationship with the environment, this research highlights the actions and interactions of local people, and provides the historical context through which particular local resource-use practices might be explained (Blaikie and Brookfield 1987). The purpose for unraveling different user groups’ roles is both to identify disparate interests and stakes in resource use and management, and draw attention to groups most adversely affected by resource decline. The study area typifies the agrarian setting and cultural diversity of rural India and other parts of the developing world. Additionally, the paper’s emphasis on examining the role of forest-based groups in resource use makes its relevance to other similar indigenous groups across geographic contexts particularly noteworthy. In these terms, the applicability of this project is wide-ranging.

Study Area: Landscape, institutional history, and cultural composition

Stretching the length of India’s western coastline, the Western Ghats hill-range is identified as one of the world’s hot spots in terms of rapid ecological degradation. The study site, covering approximately 500 km2, is located within Raigad district in the state of Maharashtra (Figure 1). Here, the underlying basalt rock and the monsoon’s erosive power result in a flat-topped, and sometimes, forest covered hill landscape. Soil and climate combinations yield south Indian tropical moist-deciduous forests, with Tectona grandis (Teak) as the dominant tree species. Also abundant are economically important species such as Mangifera indica (Mango), and Terminalia paniculata (Kinjal) (Government of Maharashtra 1989a).

Figure 1 Study Area: Survey villages in Raigad district, Western Ghats, India

Presently, most forests within Raigad district fall under the control of the state’s Forest Department (FD), an agency formed during British rule and charged with managing forest reserves to meet local and commercial demands. Villagers that reside in close proximity to Reserved Forests (RF) hold certain rights and privileges, which include the collection of dry and fallen dead wood, felling dead trees, and collecting minor forest products for personal consumption (Government of Maharashtra 1989a). The FD also spells out rules and penalties for misuse. As outlined in the Indian Forest Act, 1927 penalties range from small fines or property confiscation for minor offenses, to heftier fines and incarceration for felling restricted species like teak (Beotra and Bagga 1989). Forest guards are hired by the FD to enforce use rules. However, selective enforcement, corruption, and a shortage of personnel often results in ineffective protection. Additionally, the interpretation and negotiation of these rules vary, and reflect the combined forces of class, caste, and rural politics (Pavri with Deshmukh forthcoming).

The ethno-religious composition of Raigad’s inhabitants reflects the region’s long and varied history. Today, the region’s different religious groups represent this diversity. These comprise various Hindu castes including the so-called forest dwelling, or adivasi communities, and a small proportion of Muslims[2]. The adivasis in particular warrant closer examination, as their relationship with forests span a long history and differs from the rest of the population (Singh 1986). Historically, adivasi livelihoods were closely intertwined with forest ecosystems. Besides residing in forested regions, they also engaged in hunting/gathering, some shifting agriculture, and participated in the forest economy (e.g., fuel wood, timber sale, etc). By the late 1800s, however, their traditional proprietary rights to forests were absorbed by the state. This reorganization steadily alienated adivasis from the forests they depended on, while providing few other viable livelihood alternatives (Rawat 1991; Fernandes and Kulkarni 1983). Adivasis found in the study area today primarily work as agricultural daily wage laborers and still engage in the extraction and sale of fuel wood and other forest products. While forest dependency has decreased, they remain far more reliant on these resources than the general population -- both in terms of meeting household needs and supplementing incomes through regular fuel wood sales. The decrease in forest cover and changes in government policy over forest access, thus directly affect adivasi livelihoods.

Materials and Methods

Patterns of forest resource dependency were gauged through surveys conducted in 23 randomly sampled villages within the study area over an 8-month period in 1997, and select follow-up interviews in 2001-2002. 20-25 households were sampled from each village to arrive at a total of 520 household surveys. Villages included in the random sample were largely agriculture-based, while a few included some basic service sector activities.

To examine the rural population’s resource dependency, household surveys were further grouped into four socio-economic categories. These categories included, adivasi, farm-based, service sector-based, and daily wage labor-based households. Rather than concentrate on conventional caste-based affiliations, as is the norm, this paper used a combination of socio-economic factors when arriving at user group categories. This more accurately reflects contemporary India, while in no way diminishing the role caste plays in Indian society. Adivasis were grouped separately based on their long-standing relationship with forest ecosystems. The remaining population was categorized based on primary occupations reported by households. Farm based activities included agriculture and dairying, and generally reported higher household incomes. Service oriented activities included professional services such as carpentry, masonry, teaching, and retail-based activities. The daily wage labor sector included agricultural labor or other allied activities, and reported comparatively low household incomes. Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) was conducted to identify statistically significant differences in terms of forest use and dependency between these user groups.

Results: Rural populations and forest resource dependency

Resource dependency across tropical forest settings typically encompasses the use of different products, including medicinal plants, small animals and fuel wood, among others. Within the study region, fuel wood is the most important, and often-extracted commodity obtained from state managed forests. Due to this emphasis on fuel wood, the paper restricts the analysis to considering patterns of fuel wood extraction and consumption alone. The results first consider patterns of resource dependency across the rural population, and next, examine fuel wood extraction patterns in greater detail for the study’s socio-economic categories.

Dependency on fuel wood compared to other conventional fuel sources was substantial within the sampled population, and data indicated dependency cutting across socio-economic categories (Table 2). 96.5% of the total sampled population, and 90% plus within each individual category identified fuel wood as the prime fuel, meeting household needs. While kerosene was the second most commonly used fuel, it met a smaller proportion of overall daily fuel requirements because of its comparatively high cost and limited availability. Even so, fuel wood was always present, and generally used for most energy intensive activities such as heating water or cooking large meals.

Table 2. Fuel dependency for surveyed households

Fuel used in household

# of responses (% of total)

# of responses - Adivasi (% of total)

# of responses - farmers (% of total)

# of responses service-sector (% of total)

# of responses daily wage labor-sector (% of total)

Fuel wood






















Table 3 documents fuel wood consumption patterns and highlights the temporal demands placed on households engaged in foraging for this commodity. Fuel wood collection is a daily chore across most parts of rural India. Past research has shown that it is primarily women who engage in fuel wood extraction activities; a trend observed across geographic contexts (Awumbila et al. 1995; Shiva 1988; Wickramasinghe 1994). This research only partially supports that claim. Data indicated that males frequently helped with fuel wood collection, and particularly in the case of adivasis, where ~82% of the households surveyed reported both male and female participation. In this case, since fuel-wood extraction also contributed toward household incomes, the higher joint participation rate for adivasis was not entirely unexpected. For other user groups, female household members dominated this activity. Informal conversations, however, revealed that higher male participation rates for the population overall were observed across the region in recent years. This was attributed to the increasing amount of time required for this essential activity, as longer distances need to be traversed to reach source areas.

While overall patterns of harvesting fuel wood varied among households, the results indicated an average of 3.2 days/week were spent to meet weekly needs, with 10.5% of the respondents conducting this activity 7 days a week. Fuel wood was brought from RF by individuals as Ahead-loads,@ with each weighing between 20-25 kg. An average of ~6.5 head-loads of fuel wood were used by each household per week. This amounted to a considerable total weekly demand (~135 kg of fuel wood) when considered in light of earlier data, which indicated 96% of the sampled population identifying fuel wood as a major source of household energy. Clearly, this demand places considerable pressure on available resources.

Variations in extraction and consumption by socio-economic category reported some interesting findings. Statistically significant ANOVA results (Table 3) were observed for (a) the number of days/week spent on extraction, and (b) the total weekly consumption of fuel wood. Since adivasis engaged in the sale of fuel wood in addition to meeting personal household requirements, it was not surprising to see them spending the highest number of days/week (mean = 5 days) on this activity, as opposed to other groups whose means ranged between 2.57 for farming and 3.14 days for daily wage sector households. Adivasis consumed the highest number of head-loads per week (mean = 8.9 head-loads); a reflection of their near complete dependency on this fuel source to meet household needs. Additionally, 66% of all adivasi households surveyed reported engaging in fuel wood sale. Fuel wood consumption was also fairly high amongst other socio-economic categories despite the use of alternative fuels. Farming based households consumed the least at an average of 5.4 head-loads, with daily wage households at 6.2, and service households reporting 7.1 head-loads.

Table 3. Patterns of fuel wood extraction and consumption

Total # of responses (Mean)

# of responses - Adivasi (Mean)

# of responses - farmers (Mean)

# of responses -service-sector (Mean)

# of responses - daily wage labor (Mean)

ANOVA Results F Statistic

Days/week fuel wood extraction












Weekly fuel wood HLs used












Time spent fuel wood extraction (hours/visit)













HL = Head-loads

* F statistic significant at .000 level.


Data presented in the previous section illustrate the importance of forest based extractive activities as an essential part of daily rural life. Fuel wood is a high-demand commodity and consumed in substantial quantities regardless of a household’s socio-economic status. Statistically significant variations do occur in the amount of fuel wood consumed based on socio-economic status, with adivasis accounting for the largest amounts consumed per household. At present, there are few other readily available or affordable sources of fuel that can supplement fuel wood use. Data further indicate that extraction activities take up a considerable portion of the day (mean = 3.81 hours), are undertaken an average of 3.25 days per week, and become an almost daily occurrence for adivasis. This significantly reduces the time available for other income generating activities, and is particularly unsettling for households that face dire economic situations. Fuel wood purchases to supplement weekly supplies are common across the study region, with sales generating a much need income for adivasi households.

These results suggest that while all sections of the population are adversely affected by resource decline, adivasis and poorer households have the most to lose because of their limited ability to participate in other workforce sectors. Their present economic and social marginalization limits any shift to wealth accruing sectors of the economy. Thus, the immediate impact of resource degradation on their lives will be substantial. Additional hours are already being spent on resource extraction as longer distances need to be traversed, and a decrease or total cessation of supplementary incomes from forest related activities are sure to negatively impact their living standards.

There is little doubt that household needs dictate fuel wood use. However, it is also imperative to recognize that resource use is conditioned by the FD. While local inhabitants were aware of use rules, field observations revealed that they would often engage in illegal and unsustainable activities such as tree felling and extensive tree branch lopping. Stringent penalties for violations were largely unsuccessful in stemming illegal use. While, these practices could be partially explained by the inadequacies on the part of the FD in controlling illegal use, select in-depth interviews revealed that they also reflected local responses to state forest management. Many local inhabitants perceived the FD=s agenda being driven by little besides expanding coffers through monoculture afforestation schemes and commercial extraction. Reacting to what they saw as diminishing rights and privileges, local responses to authority and rule enforcement included actively contesting and disobeying existing use rules. Violations were observed across the population, with participants seeming to have little interest in sustainably using or managing a resource base controlled by the state (Pavri 1999). Likewise, how local households and forest guards interacted with each other and the environment further clarified how resource use was socially/culturally mediated. Forest guards formed a crucial link between rural households and the state FD. They recognized the vital role forests play in fulfilling basic household requirements, and regularly adjusted formally prescribed sanctions for violations to fit individual contexts. Discretion was exercised on the basis of a complex equation that included informal familial or caste ties, politically motivated favors, and deference to important village families (Pavri with Deshmukh forthcoming). Thus, examining the political ecology of particular places also helps unravel how resources are used, by whom, and to what ends.


This study provides noteworthy cues to policy makers addressing issues of tropical forest resource use and access, and adds to the existing literature by providing empirical data from a region that typifies so many others across the developing world. It underscores the need to move away from considering rural populations as monolithic. Rather, it appeals for an exploration into their diversity and varied patterns of interaction with the environment. Specifically, it highlights how both, institutional rules and cultural norms of interaction mold resource use practices, and considers an exploration of these factors vital for any comprehensive study of society-resource interaction. In so doing, it augments growing research on political/institutional ecology and expands our understanding of how more productive environmental outcomes might be achieved (Emel and Roberts 1995; Pavri with Deshmukh forthcoming).

Literature Cited

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Pavri, F., 1999. Tragedies in state commons: macro forest policies, local influences and deforestation in the Western Ghats of Raigad, India. Ph.D. diss., Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, 202 p.

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[1] Assistant Professor, Department of Geography, Emporia State University, 4032 Plumb Hall, Emporia, Kansas 66801. Tel: (620) 341 5537; Email: pavrifir@emporia.edu; Website: http://www.emporia.edu/socsci/faculty/firooza/webpg.html

[2] The Hindu caste system refers to a hierarchically structured system that grouped people into four major castes, with explicit rules governing conduct between them (Flood 1996). Over time, numerous sub-castes evolved along with groups like the adivasi who fell outside this societal super-structure.