There is a growing body of experience available from India and abroad showing that joint protection and management of forests by the Forest Departments and local people living in and around forests can effectively protect degraded forest lands thereby allowing them to regenerate. The Arabari experiment in joint protection and management of natural forests has now become well- known in India and abroad (Singh, 1991). The experiment was started by the Forest Department of West Bengal in 1971-72 in the Arabari Forest Range which is located in East Midnapur Forest Division, about 30 km away from Midnapur town and 200 km west of Calcutta. In 1972, as part of its project, Resuscitation of Sal Forests of South-west Bengal, the Forest Department launched an experiment in natural forest regeneration in Arabari (Table 1). The then DFO, Dr. A.K. Banerjee, soon after taking over charge, realised that it was difficult to regenerate and protect the Arabari forest without the co-operation of the local people who depended on the forest for fuelwood, fodder, wood, grazing of animals, minor forest produce and even cash income from sale of fuelwood. Consequently, he started meeting people in the neighbouring villages and informally discussing with them the need for forest protection and regeneration.
The DFO promised to help solve the problem of livelihood of the local people in the lean period, provided they were ready to co-operate with him in the task of regeneration and protection of the forest. With the consent and assurance of the local people, he demarcated 1,272 ha of degraded forest land for plantation and protection by the people. The plantation work was to be taken up in full swing only in the lean period, and all the local people were assured of equal employment opportunities. All the people living in the villages situated in the vicinity of the forest were asked to form a Forest Protection Committee (FPC) for managing and protecting the plantation. The committee was assured of work under various on-going rural employment schemes and given exclusive rights to all non-wood forest products, free of cost. Their immediate needs for fuel and fodder were also taken care of.
Initially, the villagers were allowed to cultivate paddy, fodder crops, sabai grass, maize and ground-nuts on some of the degraded forest land. Honey-bee hives were established in eucalyptus groves on an experimental basis as a possible source of supplementary income to the villagers. Poles were provided to the villagers for house construction, repairs and making cots for sale at subsidised rates. The participating villagers were given exclusive rights to all minor forest products such as sal and kendu leaves, dry twigs, seeds of mahua, subabul, sal and akashmani trees etc. Fruits like mango, guava, jack fruit, kendu fruit, etc. and valuable medicinal plants were also allowed to be collected and sold in the market by them. The villagers earned substantial amount from the sale of these products (Chandra & Poffenberger, 1989, p. 39).
While the committee was organised in 1972, it was not formalised until 1977, when the list of beneficiaries was checked by the Forest Department and the Panchayat. A demographic survey was conducted by the Department, as well as the Indian Statistical Institute, Calcutta since the initial list received from the Panchayat was biased. All the 618 families residing in and around the project area were included in the list. Only the heads of households were enrolled as members of the committee. The committee was headed by the President and consisted of 11 members, one each from the participating villages. It had a Secretary to handle routine office and other matters.
When the committee started functioning, 22 persons from the 11 participating villages (one man and one woman each) guarded the forest in the day time. Some forest guards and van mazdoors (forest labourers) also accompanied them on patrol. The van mazdoors were landless labourers hired from all the 11 villages. Night guarding was not done as it was not considered necessary. If a person failed to turn up for his/her duty he was called for an explanation. Each member was assigned to the patrol duty for one week, every two months.
Anyone spotted cutting wood or destroying the forest was fined by the villagers or handed over to the Forest Department. The fines range from Rs. 2 to Rs. 5. The FPC feels that a heavier fine, say, Rs. 100 to Rs. 500, will be too much for the villagers and even if they manage to pay the fine, they will try and recover the amount from the forest in retaliation. If a member of the committee is at fault, he is presented before the committee. The members then tell him about the merits of conserving the forest and the sentiments of the villagers toward the forest. They listen to his problems and assure him work within the village, only if he promises to stop cutting the trees.
The protection provided by the participating villagers allowed the forests of Arabari to regenerate. Consequently, by 1988, 700 ha of fine sal coppice and a plantation crop of over 305 ha had been raised. At the 1988 price, 700 ha of sal forest was valued at Rs. 12.6 million and the expected benefits exceeded the expected costs by over ten times (Sarabhai et al., 1990, p. 41). This encouraged the FD to formalise the partnership through a special Government Resolution issued in July 1989 which was later modified and re-issued in July 1990. Both the original and the modified Resolutions stipulated, inter alia, that (i) the members will have to protect the forest/plantation for at least five years to be eligible for sharing of the usufruct; (ii) each eligible beneficiary will get his proportionate share of the usufruct from the final harvesting not before the crop attaining the age of ten years; and (iii) the concerned Forest Official shall set apart 25% of the net sale proceeds at every final harvesting of the concerned plantation/forest for distribution to the eligible beneficiaries.
After the first Resolution was issued, the local people came to know about the benefits of the membership of the FPC. Consequently, some of the villagers from Chandmuda village under Gorebeta police station approached the FD with a plea that they should also be included in the list of beneficiaries as they had also worked for the regeneration and protection of the forest. As the FD originally included in the list of beneficiaries only the villagers under Keshpur police station, the villagers from Chandmuda were not included in the list nor did the FD accede to their request. Consequently, these villagers filed a suit in the High Court staking their claim under the Indian Forest Act, 1927 and were able to get an injunction against the FPC. In the mean time, the FD harvested about 95 ha of regenerated forest in 1986-87 but due to the court injunction, the produce could not be sold. Later, to avoid losses in storage, the court directed the FD to sell the produce and deposit the beneficiaries' share of 25% of the net sale proceeds in a bank account. which amounted to Rs. 3 lakh. As of October 1990, the case had not been settled and the beneficiaries had not received any payment. According to Shri Nantu Ghosh, currently a member and formerly the founder President of the FPC, the villagers have lost their patience and have started illicit felling again. The FD has employed 10-12 forest guards to protect the forest.
Shri Nantu Ghosh further told us that until 1972, the FD was not able to protect the forest and the villagers had virtually destroyed all of it leaving only stumps. The success of the Arabari experiment could be attributed mainly to the personal interest taken in the experiment by Dr.A.K.Banerjee. After taking over as DFO in 1972, Dr. Banerjee spent most of his five year tenure talking to the villagers, educating and convincing them about the need for and the benefits from regeneration and protection of the forest. The then Minister of Forests, who is no more, was very sympathetic to Dr. Banerjee's work and extended all possible support to him. Other factors crucial to the villagers' participation in the regeneration and protection of the forest were: provision of wage-paid employment to all those who wanted to work, availability of small wood to meet the needs of the villagers, and full rights to non-wood forest produce free of charge.
According to Shri Ghosh, of late, the FPC has been politicised and has virtually been captured by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M) cadres. Of the 13 members of the FPC, 11 including the President belong to the CPI-M and the remaining two to the Congress (I). A similar view was expressed earlier in a meeting with us by Shri Subhash Chandra Bhagat, Range Forest Officer, Arabari, in-charge of the Joint Forest Management (JFM) programme. He told us that due to political interferences, the effectiveness of most of the FPCs in protecting the forests had been gradually declining over time. He cited one instance from the Belpadi Range where three of the participating villages had a tussle on political grounds and destroyed the forest while the other villagers and the police watched helplessly.
The Arabari experience demonstrated that local people would effectively protect the degraded forest if their basic needs of fuelwood, fodder, and small wood are fulfilled, if they are provided exclusive rights to non-wood forest products, wage-paid employment, and are assured of substantial cash benefits from the final harvest. However, the experience also indicated that more comprehensive discussions with the local communities having legitimate claims to benefits from the forest need to be held before forest protection, management responsibilities and system of distribution of the benefits from joint management are determined and finalised.
Based on the encouraging results of the Arabari experiment, the Government of West Bengal has prepared an ambitious programme to regenerate some 259,000 ha of sal forest under the joint forest protection scheme. At present, there are some 1,266 FPCs in the Western Circle protecting and managing about 152,000 ha of forest land which account for about 37 % of the total forest area in the Western Circle.
The success of the Arabari experiment is attributed mainly to the political commitment of the state government to better forest management, substantial and immediate benefits to the parti-cipants in the form of wages and forest produce; a clear-cut policy for sharing of benefits from forest; protection of the forest with the participation of the local people; dynamic leadership and commitment of senior forest officers to the approach of JFM and willing participation of local people in the programme (Table 2 and Singh, 1991, Ch.13).
Encouraged by the success of the West Bengal experience in JFM, the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, issued guidelines in June 1990,to all the States and the Union Territories for involvement of village communities and voluntary agencies in the regeneration and protection of forest lands. As per the guidelines, access to forest land and usufruct benefits are limited to those eligible local people who get organised into a village institution specially for forest protection and regeneration and with no restriction on membership.