Communities that live around protected areas in India have long been held responsible for a substantial percentage of forest and biodiversity degradation. And largely, most of these communities are poor and often belong to a Scheduled Tribe. Forty per cent of India’s poor live on the periphery of forests and these forests are important to people for firewood, non-timber forest products and livestock grazing. Poverty and dependency on natural or forest resources have, therefore, been considered liable for extractive pressure on such resources, which has led to large national programmes (Joint Forest Management in India) and international aid aimed at the integration of developmental goals with conservation.

One of the key questions, therefore, when it comes to biodiversity-linked developmental programmes is whether dependence on forest resources decreases as people get richer and acquire more assets. Or does it have more to do with other factors, such as education or gender or political empowerment? Recent research from India, by Nandini Velho and others, from households around four tiger reserves questioned this paradigm – whether an increase in assets leads to reduced forest use.

The study found that while an increase in assets may reduce non-timber forest product collection, it may not necessarily reduce livestock numbers or use of wood as a cooking fuel. Both these uses are primary causes of forest degradation. Even more interestingly, it shows that for those dependent on forest resources, nature is still the source of primary goods they trust in times of distress – the foundation of their trust.

Conservation and development

Historically, conservation and developmental goals have been at opposing ends of the spectrum, and still are in many ways. The prospect of a blend of conservation and human welfare, therefore, has the appeal of a panacea. Over the past few decades, there has been a move in the field of conservation to a more pragmatic approach that could address generating alternatives and improving livelihoods and compensation for lost benefits. There has been increased emphasis on working with the weakest and on improving governance and institutions as increasing evidence has questioned age-old and entrenched assumptions about poverty-environment interactions. And though the relationship between biodiversity and poverty has been discussed at the Global Environmental Outlooks and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, it hasn’t been quantified.

Forty per cent of India’s poor live on the periphery of forests and depend on forest resources for sustenance. (Photo credit: Tridibchoudhury/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY 4.0])

However, this isn’t necessarily such a win-win prospect as previously thought. There is now awareness that when it comes to an integrated mix of conservation and development, one might ultimately have to select either conservation or development goals, or risk achieving neither. And while there has been extensive investment in alternative livelihood projects, there is a massive evidence gap as to the results of this investment. Either there is little reporting on the outcomes of such projects, or post-project monitoring has been largely absent.

“There has been a lot of wishful thinking about win-win solution for conservation, in the context of livelihoods and conservation. There can be win-wins but they are effective when they come with perspective of both sides, the local people and conservationists. There have been assumptions that good forests would be good for livelihoods. What improves livelihoods is job opportunities and less dependence on local resources, and there has been learning in the conservation community that conservation by itself is not satisfactory for livelihoods,” said Ruth DeFries, professor of ecology, evolution, and environmental biology at Columbia University and the Earth Institute’s Centre for Environmental Research and Conservation and co-author of the study.

Reducing poverty, reducing dependency on forest resources, and improving conservation status is not always direct or linear. The reduction in these dependencies can depend on several other social, economic and political factors. It is, of course, an extremely complex question and often, no two cases are the same. And within the Velho study, there are several results that run counter to conservation-poverty linkage.

Dependence on forests

Livestock numbers or the intent to get more in the future, for instance, which is an extractive force on forest resources, do not necessarily decrease with increase in assets.

The study shows that wealthier households that owned a greater number of livestock were likely to keep or increase their livestock holdings in the next five years to 10 years. And overall, almost 92% wanted to either keep their current stock or increase in the future.

Aditi Patil, a consultant with the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and a co-author of the paper, said that most families will never let go of the livestock as there is an assured local market for the products. She explained that when it came to alternate livelihoods, the trust was missing. “They do not trust the longevity of other livelihoods. Suppose there is an NGO which is trying to provide alternates – maybe honey collection. Overall, many believe that these can shut down. But traditions always last,” said Patil.

The results with firewood collection were similar, another considerable pressure on forests.

Liquefied petroleum gas or LPG did not completely replace firewood as a fuel source, even with the wealthy. “It is a choice for the wealthy. They can have LPG but they also like food cooked over firewood. It is about taste, it is cultural. Firewood is used for heating houses also; LPG can’t do this. When they are rich, they can even hire other people to do this work. Firewood is a backup for everything, always there, never dependent on anyone, or any agency,” explained Patil.

List of non-timber forest products sold at an eco-tourism shop at the entrance of Kallar reserve forest. (Photo credit: Prashanthns/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY 3.0])

In India, almost 200 million livestock depend on forests for fodder – either by grazing, or feeding on collected fodder. Wealthier families also often pay the poor to graze their cattle in nearby areas. “Fodder supplement has to be cheaper, made from farm waste from wheat or paddy and they need storage facilities for these. They have their own huts for these but [these are] often destroyed in rains. These are some of the solutions we can consider as there is no supply chain for fodder in India,” added Patil.

But ultimately, most of these households trust what they have known for centuries – livestock.

When in doubt, turn to nature

When faced with distress or setbacks, such as droughts, floods or crop disease, understandably the households look towards what they believe will deliver no matter what – nature. The study reports that income setbacks can increase dependence on forest-based resources as an economic buffer, especially for marginalised communities such as small-holder farmers and the landless. Households with larger families, those that suffered a greater number of income setbacks and reared livestock as an occupation were more likely to want to increase their holdings. And households that faced more economic setbacks were more likely to state that they wanted more livestock in the future.

One of the more curious aspects of the results was demonetisation in India, which was being initiated as the study went into commission. “Drought, rain, pests – all this they had experienced [households]. We hadn’t even included demonetisation. Baaki sab to theek hai [everything else is fine], they said, understanding natural disasters. But this kind of setback had no back-up plan. And this, anecdotally speaking, could have increased forest use. Ultimately, they have to sell NTFP [or non-timer forest products, for example, mahua, fruits, neem seeds, bamboo in Kanha Tiger Reserve], which suddenly came to a halt because there was no cash flow,” said Patil.

Bhagirath Behera, associate professor, Humanities and Social Sciences, at IIT Kharagpur, has spent decades researching social welfare and conservation in India, especially the evolution and impacts of joint forest management. “Nature is their fall-back,” he agreed. “They think that any crisis comes, they can still rely on forest to overcome that crisis. Forest is an insurance for them – they can always turn to it.”

There are several factors, apart from asset or wealth creation, that lead to reduction in forest dependency. Velho’s paper is echoed in Behera’s work at the Simlipal Tiger Reserve, which shows that non-timber forest products for income differ widely across different socioeconomic and demographic profiles. Level of education, age, landholding and household size, number of children and gender influence the intensity of household collection of non-timber forest products, according to Behera.

Velho also reports that “efforts that get households to choose LPG in the future may be more effective if they also focus on education and gender, both important factors that are likely to predict a decrease in fuelwood collection currently and an increased likelihood of choosing LPG in the future”.

Trust between residents, authorities

Joint forest management in India was a collaborative arrangement (since the early 1990s) between local people and the forest department to sustainably manage state-owned forests outside protected areas. Joint forest management, a top-down process, over the decades has been strongly criticism for ultimately failing to construct a truly participatory process and for perpetuating friction between authorities and locals when it came to forest use. “Earlier and still now, there is very little trust in ‘departments’. Locals won’t even open their mouths in front of forest department officials,” said Behera.

Joint Forest Management in India started as a collaboration between forest department and communities to sustainably manage state-owned forests outside of protected areas. (Photo credit: P Jeganathan/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under 4.0])

Behera’s field experience in Andhra Pradesh and Odisha with respect to joint forest management is that the idea was good but the outcome is not satisfactory. “It is a mixed result because in certain parts of India, the state forest departments were not willing to give away their control over forest land. They are resistant to the idea of giving control of forest to local communities. Historically also there has been tension between them. Forest officials think the forest belongs to them and locals believe forest officials are the enemy of their rights and livelihoods,” he said.

The aim of joint forest management is to come together to protect biodiversity and share the benefits. “In this kind of sharing system, some states we found that a lot of responsibilities were given away but not rights. There was disharmony that was still prevalent,” added Behera.

But did joint forest management manage to reduce biotic pressure from forests? Behera has mixed results. “In a few places – people didn’t go to the forests given to them through joint forest management for wood, they went to other forests. Even if it was located far away. It just displaced the pressure. Like a river – if you block one place, then it goes to some other place,” Behera said.

If anything, joint forest management and other top-down programmes have added momentum to the wisdom of including, most importantly, those who are affected into decision making. “There is recognition today that many of our past solutions have not been working. It is not a criticism but learning. Look at dairy cooperatives, women’s micro finance, women’s collectives – there has to be a combination of bottom-up [resources to self-organise] and some kind of top-down enabling power. There has to be capacity that enables the bottom-up approach,” said DeFries.

Move to non-farm activities

If not wealth then what? Empirically speaking, dependence on forests reduces when people move away from farm employment. Behera recollects an experience from a village in Visakhapatnam.

“There was this wealthy man who had a pucca house and bike but he was also the one smuggling sal and teak; he too depended on the forest. The question is where is the affluence source? Does it come from forest products? Is s/he moving from agriculture to non-farm activities? Are they opening shops or becoming drivers? Using LPG has a lot to do with gender and education level as well. If a household is living on agri-activities or animal husbandry, then pressures will remain,” said Behera.

DeFries agreed that non-forest-based or non-land-based work can reduce pressure, such as salaried or government jobs.

“The educated want to leave these areas. They want to explore the world and work in cities. If people are moving to cities and towns then there will be less forest pressure. But do we have enough jobs for everyone?” asked Behera.

Whether integrating development goals with conservation is truly a win-win scenario is seemingly unlikely, according to a study. (Photo credit: Subodhkiran/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY 4.0])

Ultimately, there needs to be more trust among people and with institutions. The fact that millions have little trust in governments and institutions says very little about how the intersection between natural resources and people has been handled in India. Behera’s work at the Simlipal Tiger Reserve shows that there is a trust deficit between fringe villages and the forest department and that existing local institutions need to be revived and participatory community management supported.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.