Forest, People and Livelihoods: The Need for Participatory Management

P.K. Biswas[1]


In India it has been observed that wherever there is a large concentration of forest, there is also high concentration of tribal people in particular, and of the rural population in general. Rural people are dependent on forest resources for their livelihoods. For many of them, not only do the resources provide economic sustenance, but the forest is also a way of life socially and culturally. It meets basic needs like fuelwood, fodder and small timber that are important for them and their livestock. Degradation and depletion of the forest resources are increasing poverty and suffering among the rural people. Therefore, it is imperative to rehabilitate degraded forest resources in order to sustain rural livelihoods. This is possible only through devolution of power to the people for the management of forest. There have been several popular movements in India to protect the rights of the local people.

The National Forest Policy 1988 of the Government of India envisaged people's involvement in conservation, protection and management of forest. It emphasized that forest produce must go first to the people living in and around forests. Further, in June 1990 a Government resolution supported involvement of non-governmental organizations and the creation of village level institutions in forest management. With the active support of local organizations people's participation in forest management, was initiated and is generally known as Joint Forest Management (JFM) in India. Now, it is recognized that participatory management of forests is key to sustainable development for people and forests. This paper examines the experiences of JFM in the last decade to show the strengths of participatory management. This paper also pleads for suitable institutional arrangements for ensuring livelihood options for rural people and augmentation of forest resources, as both are crucial for the nation's development.


India is a developing nation. The majority of its population lives in rural areas. Forests play a vital role in the rural economy. In many areas, forests and trees are among the few resources that are available to rural dwellers. They provide different kinds of benefits: jobs and incomes often needed to supplement inadequate returns from agriculture; produce such as fuelwood, food, fodder and building poles for the home; and -a range of environmental benefits, without which other activity, such as agriculture might be impossible.

Forest sector is the second largest land use after agriculture. In remote forest fringe villages about 300 million tribal and other local people depend on forest for their subsistence and livelihood and about 70% of India's rural population depends on fuelwood to meet its domestic energy needs. For about 100 million of them, forests are main source for livelihood and cash income from fuelwood, non-timber forest products (NTFP) or construction materials. More than half of India's 70 million tribal people, the most disadvantaged section of society, subsist from forests.

India's biodiversity is rich & unique. It is one of the 12 mega diversity countries in the world having vast variety of flora & fauna, which collectively account for 60-70% of world's biodiversity. Its ten bio-geographic regions represent a broad range of ecosystems. India has world's 6% flowering plant species and 14% of world's avian fauna. (World Bank 1996). There are nearly 45,000 species of plants in the country and similarly, in fauna there are 81,250 recorded species (NFAP 1999). It has 80 national parks and 441 sanctuaries, known as protected area, which is about 14.8 million ha. and this is 4.5% country's land area and 14% of forest area.

Forests contribute 1.7% of GDP of the country. However, this figure does not take into account its numerous non-market and external benefits and the vast amount of fuelwood and fodder and other forest products collected legally or illegally. One estimate shows that total annual removals from the forest is worth about US$ 7.1 billion or Rs.30,000 crores which includes about 270 million tons of fuelwood, 280 million tons of fodder and over 12 million cubic meter of timber and countless non-timber forest products (NTFP). This does not include value of environmental services provided by the forest.

Present Status of Forest in India

The land area of India totals 328.7 million ha. of which 142.5 million ha. (43.3%) is under agriculture, forests cover 76.5 million ha. (23.27%). According to the State of Forest Report (FSI 1997), the actual forest cover is 63.34 million ha (19.27%) of which 26.13 million ha. are degraded. (NFAP 1999).

* Faculty of sociology and Social Anthropology, IIFM, Bhopal, India, email: [email protected]

However, forest area is being rapidly depleted due to the heavy pressure of population on land. Having about 2.5% of world's geographic area, India at present is supporting 16% of planet's human population and 18% of cattle population. The forest cover has been reducing both in quality and extent. The degradation is not only indicated by crown density decline but also soil erosion, lack of natural regeneration. Between 1950 and 1980 India lost about 4.3 million ha. of forest land for non-forest use like development of agriculture, heavy industries and other developmental process. Complete with this there are serious problems of encroachment, grazing, forest fire, shifting cultivation and illegal felling. Most of the flora and fauna species are endangered with a serious economic implication. A recent World Bank report estimated that due to degradation and deforestation the loss has been up to one million ha. per year during 1970s to 1980s. The depletion of the forest resources has aroused the passion of the rural poor in particular and the general public. As such, there have been spontaneous popular movements. Conservation and protection of forestland has become a top priority for the country's development.

People's Involvement in Forest Management

Traditionally, forest management practices aimed at developing and understanding the protective and productive aspects of natural forests. Biological, technical and macro-economic considerations received overriding priority. In the process, people's livelihood issues were relegated to the secondary position and people's role in safeguarding the resources and their active participation were relegated to a secondary place. Only recently the social role of forests and forestry together with their protection and production roles have received attention.

After all, forestry is about people. It is about trees only in so far as trees can serve the needs of the people (Westoby 1989). Forestry and Forest Policy should concern itself in every conceivable way in which, forests, wood loots and trees can contribute to livelihood of people in particular and human welfare in general. In fact, future of human society is intrinsically linked to the future of the forest.

To arrest further degradation and to rehabilitate the degraded forestlands, social forestry, in mid 1970s, provided the most challenging area for social analysis in rural livelihood scenario and development. However, the major drawbacks of the implementation of the social forestry programme were lack of transparency and accountability, exaggeration of physical target achievements and unsustainable investments. It did not help in institutional reforms. The economic benefit to the landless poor people came through wage employment. Beyond this, the community participation was not very significant.

Joint Forest Management

Simultaneously with social forestry, other forestry projects made attempt to check further degradation of forests to alleviate miseries of rural poor and to provide livelihood options. The Policy makers realized that along with the Government, the people and the people's institutions are the real stakeholders in forest management. It was increasingly realized that unless the opportunities for rural livelihoods are created, development of forest would be an extremely difficult task.

In 1972 at Arabari in Midnapore district of West Bengal the village forest committees were formed and in turn, provided with usufructs of all NTFP, first preference for employment, plus 25% of net cash benefit from the sale of Sal (Shorea robusta) poles. The material benefits which are potentially sustainable were the clear motivation. This kind of joint efforts/collaboration between Govt. and people led to evolution of Joint Forest Management (JFM) programme in India, which essentially is a participatory management tool or strategy.

Coupled with such experience genesis of JFM is rooted in the National Forest Policy (NFP), 1988. Though the NFP 1988, has main thrust on conservation of flora and fauna diversity it clearly recognizes that "the life of tribals and other communities living within and near forests, revolves around forests. The rights and concessions enjoyed by them should be fully protected. Their domestic requirements of fuelwood, fodder, minor forest produce and construction timber should be the first charge on forest products". (NFP 1988). Conservation and people's livelihoods are integral part of the forest development and development of the rural poor.

It was further strengthened by the 1st June 1990 circular of Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), Govt. of India. It highlighted both the need and process for involving village communities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the protection, development and rehabilitation of degraded forests. It encouraged to form village level institutions for forest management. Formally, the NGO was identified to provide interface between forest department and rural communities. The benefit sharing mechanisms also has been outlined to enable rural communities to develop an equity-based stake in the protection, development and rehabilitation of the degraded forests. The JFM strategy sought departure from earlier conventional mode in the following manner as given in table 1.

Table 1 JFM Strategy



Centralised Management

Decentralised Management

Revenue Orientation

People Orientation

Large Working Plan

Micro Plan

Target Orientation

Process Orientation

Unilateral Decision Making

Participatory Decision Making

Controlling People

Facilitating People


Peoples Institutions

Plantation as First Option

Low Input Management and Regeneration

Fixed Procedures

Experimentation and Flexibility

JFM and Livelihood Options

JFM provides an opportunity for managing forest resources for better productivity and availability of forest produces. Forest provides direct benefits (physical products such as wood, food, medicine, fuel, fodder, fiber, organic fertilizers and host of other products) and indirect and attributable benefits for environmental enrichment. As an inseparable component of the total land use systems, forestry has significant inter-relationships with agricultural, pastoral and food-producing systems. Through soil and water conservation, and maintenance of soil fertility, forest provides critical support for agricultural development. In addition, forest based small and cost effective enterprises can help increase in rural employment and raise the income and living standards of rural people including forest dwellers and indigenous groups. The quality of life in rural areas depends on the rehabilitation of forests, which in fact, is principal aim of Joint Forest Management.

The potential of NTFPs for poverty alleviation is very important. The rural poor and tribal communities collect various kinds of products throughout the year to sustain their livelihood. Activities related to NTFPs provide employment during slack periods in the agricultural cycle and provide a buffer against risk and household emergencies (See Box No.1). In fact sustainable NTFP management is key to the success of JFM.

Box No. 1: Case study of Women FPCs in Jaypur Range of Bankura (North) Division, West Bengal

In a study of 3 FPCs, namely Tribanka, Gopal Nagar, and Brindaban Pur in Jaypur range of Bankura (North) division, West Bengal, it was found that NTFPs contribute significantly to the economy of the rural poor. In these villages, FPCs were formed between 1990 and 1991. With proper protection by the villager, the Sal forest was regenerated to a great extent and other products like mushroom and medicinal plants contributed to the income of the VFCs, During 1992-93, each of the VFC earned about Rs. 1.0 lakh from only by selling Sal leaf products. According to the Range Officer of Jaypur, his beat had the potential to produce 30 quintals of mushroom in a single week, with proper dehydration technology. Apart from these, the villagers were collecting mahua, satmuli and 29 varieties of medicinal plants both for self consumption and sale. This has tremendous potential for the rural poor.

Source: Biswas, P.K, 1994.

Current Status of JFM

It is evident that the answer to India's immediate problem of poverty lies in increasing the biomass available in nature. If we fail to recreate nature on a massive scale in a manner that it provides livelihood options and equity, both the villages and urban centers will be difficult places to live in.

JFM is an attempt to alleviate such situation. According to MOEF, Government of India by March 2002, 27 states have adopted JFM as main strategy to augment forestry resources. There are about 63,000 village forest protection committees (FPC), which are implementing JFM in 14 million hectare of forest area.

Experiences of JFM in India

In last one decade JFM has led to several positive impacts.

Rehabilitation and Improvement in the Conditions of Forests

There is evidence that JFM has rehabilitated country's degraded forests. In the past few years, the overall forest cover of the country has increased by 3896 sq km. One main reason for this rehabilitation and improvement is the successful implementation of the JFM. In areas under JFM incidents of illicit felling have sharply declined. One of the more immediately visible ecological effects of JFM has been the recovery of fodder resources in JFM areas. The prolific growth of understorey vegetation, in many instances, has led to increased bio diversity and relatively rapid increases in wild herbivore population.

Increase in Livelihood Options

JFM programs has created livelihood opportunities at several places, through sale of NTFP, share in the final harvest etc. Further, JFM has helped many FPCs to build up substantial level of community funds, which are used for local development activities.

Reduction in Encroachments

At several places, JFM has helped to reduce the area under illegal encroachment and the rate of fresh encroachments. In Andhra Pradesh nearly 12% of the encroached forestland has reportedly been vacated since the JFM program was initiated.

Involvement of NGOs

The JFM program has led to a considerable involvement of NGOs in the forestry sector although, there is significant variation from state to state. This has facilitated interaction among communities and Government.

Change in Attitude and Relationship

One of the most significant impacts of JFM program has been the change in the attitude of local communities and forest officials towards each other and towards forest. For instance, members of Botha FPC in Buldhana, Maharastra, even postponed a wedding in their village in order to fight a forest fire. This was unthinkable in the Pre-JFM days. The large number of training and orientation exercises carried out in the different states have also contributed to a positive change in attitude. (Government of India 2002)


In keeping with the philosophy of Decentralized Governance people's involvement in decision-making process and consequent empowerment is crucial in such efforts. Village dynamics and social processes have to be understood properly. Sociological insight, perception and knowledge are, therefore, instrumental and essential for formulation, designing and implementing any effective approach to JFM which will lead to an integrated development of the rural poor. Sustainable forest management is key to the sustainable rural livelihood. There has to be a harmonious balance between conservation of forests and development of communities through livelihood security. A sustainable alliance has to be forged among Govt., Non-Govt. and Local level organizations. There has to be an effective partnership among all the stakeholders for capacity building, monitoring and evaluation of JFM to achieve the ultimate goal of planning and development, i.e., Self Reliance. And Gandhiji's 'Gram Swaraj' may be a reality.

Even in the age of liberalization and globalization it has to be understood that there can be no financial assets if there are no ecological assets. Sustainable livelihood is increasingly linked to environmental conservation. Here, it is apt to quote a Tribal Chief who said:

Only after the last tree has been cut down
Only after the last river has been poisoned
Only after the last fish has been caught
Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.

What a commentary on our contemporary society indeed! The JFM as a strategy has its ups and downs. It is still evolving. There is no single best strategy; neither JFM is the panacea for all the evils of environmental degradation.

It is clear that forest productivity will ensure equity and livelihood for the rural poor. The rural livelihoods must be integrated with development of forests, with the involvement of people in the form of village forest committee/ forest protection committee. Once they are involved forest resource cycle will be completed. The following schematic diagram depicts the real scenario for participatory management (Diagram: 1)

Diagram 1: Forest Resource Cycle

Source: Biswas, PK, 1993.

It is important to empower people to take decisions on management of forest. There has to be a legal sanctity to village forest committee / forest protection committee. It is imperative to have a memorandum of understanding signed between people and Government. In forestry, unlike agriculture, gestation period is long. Only NTFP based activities would provide livelihood options. The JFM experience is only a decade old. On the basis of this it is strongly recommended that JFM can encourage more and more participatory management practices, implying more legitimacy and power to the people. The NFP, which essentially pleads for people's empowerment need to be backed up by appropriate acts and legislations. There is an urgent need for amending various forest laws and acts to facilitate the process of participatory management in forest. This needs to be harnessed properly for environmental stability and ensuring rural livelihoods. We need to strengthen it and sustain it for a bright future for both.



Biswas, PK, 1988, 'Sociological Issues in Forestry' in the Indian Journal of Social Sciences, vol. 1, No.2.

Biswas, PK, 1993, Forestry-Based Sustainable Development: The Social Dimensions, in the Indian Journal of Public Administration, vol. XXXIX No.3.

Biswas, PK, 1994, Women FPCs in Jaypur Range of Bankura (North) Division, West Bengal, Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal Mimeographed.

Forest Survey of India, 1997, State of Forest Report, Govt. of India, New Delhi.

Government of India, 2002, Joint Forest Management: A Decade of Partnership, Joint Forest Management Monitoring Cell, Ministry of Environment and Forests, New Delhi.

National Forest Policy, 1988, Govt. of India, New Delhi.

National Forestry Action Programme-India, 1999, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Govt. of India, New Delhi.

Westoby, J, 1989, The Purpose of Forestry: Follies of Development, Basil Black Well, Oxford.

World Bank, 1996, India, Country Economic Memorandum, Washington DC.

[1] Area Chairman, Sociology and Social Anthropology, Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal, India. Tel: 91 –755-773799/775716 (O); 91-755-766771 ( R); Fax: 91-755-772878; Email: [email protected]