Recently, while editing a novel on Sikkim, I found a passage where it was written that near Goechala in West Sikkim, forests were cleared of all the original human inhabitants who had been living there for centuries and had protected the forests.
The novel portrays how giving up old ways of life led to an apocalyptic disaster such as Covid-19. As editor I had added that this was because the GEF, the Global Environmental Facility had arm-twisted all Southern countries as a condition for releasing environmental funds.
The GEF was established in 1991, by the World Bank, in collusion with the United National Development Program (UNEP) and the United National Environment Program, ahead of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.
Naturally, the World Bank used this to arm-twist economically developing and under-developed countries to push them to a corner through funds control, because at the Rio Summit, in which Indian environmentalist late Anil Agarwal played a pivotal role, the Southern countries lobbied against the North to force the latter making higher commitments for the reduction of vehicular emissions, aerosols and other greenhouse gases.
The GEF controls $120 billion in co-financing for more than 5,200 projects and programs. It is country-based membership, which means that countries that do not agree to GEF terms are barred from funding.
In 1994, the GEF moved out of the World Bank – but only tactically ‑and became a permanent and separate institution. However, the World Bank continued to serve as its Trustee and provide administrative services. Because of its continued affiliation with GEF, the World Bank has custody of GEF archival records.
In 1995, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in one of the editions of its internationally acclaimed magazine Down To Earth had run a cover story titled “Keep Forests, Shall Feed!” on the GEF demanding the complete elimination of centuries of forest dwellers and uprooting them from their habitats.
It had forewarned of an ecological disaster if this was done. Late that year, during the then GEF president’s visit, the CSE participated in a protest march held by the gujjars who till then had lived inside the Rajaji National Park in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand. The GEF demanded that they be thrown out as a clause for the release of funds.
Time to Rethink
The Gujjars were essentially cattle herders, grazing cows for hundreds of years inside the forest. The GEF said that grazing cows inside a national park would mean depletion of vegetation.
The GEF said it would withhold funding that the state forest bureaucracy was eyeing. But Anil Agarwal had countered the GEF’s specious argument, saying that the Gujjars had been living in the forests for millennia and the forests had remained intact. He also said that rather than cows depleting vegetation, their walking through forests meant
The Usufruct Approach to forest management emphasises the sustainable use of forest resources, considering the long-term ecological and social impacts. It aims to maintain the productivity of forests while minimizing environmental harm and maximising social benefits.
All of India’s tribals have been following this mode as their natural way of living and managing forests in the usufruct model, whereas the forest bureaucracy from British times wanted to eliminate forest dwellers and fell forests for timber and for medicinal plants, though even the best knowledge of such plants and their curative qualities lay with the tribals or Adivasis.
Lessons from history being ignored spells disaster, and this is evident from the rebellions of Birsa Munda and the Santhal Rebellion against the British Raj even prior to the Sepoy Mutiny. Those rebellions were triggered by the new forest laws enacted by the British to eliminate tribals from entering forests.
Trained in biology and other modern disciplines, foresters understand plant qualities, but they still lack the native depth of knowledge ‑that the tribals have‑of the interlinkages within the forest ecosystems. This, is despite the forest officials’ most sincere commitment to wildlife protection.
There is a dire need to rethink these paradigms and misconceptions that guide forest laws and the forest bureaucracy.
The Wildlife Issue
This issue of wildlife protection has caused perhaps the most serious ideological damage to sustainable forest management. The GEF has fuelled this with funding, or the threat of denying it.
This vision is enshrined in such schemes as Project Tiger, where the tiger is seen almost in isolation of the forest and forest dwellers. Forest dwellers are taken to be the enemies of tigers. A rare animal is seen as a distinct object of concern and its ‘survival’ is “projectivised”.
Facts have always shown that forest dwellers have killed tigers or elephants – only when these animals have entered the villages and killed humans only because of their habitat depletion.
But the true enemies of animals are not tribals but poachers, who work in tandem with the villagers living at the peripheries of forests, without whose assistance poaching is impossible.
We shall now discuss two cases of ancient forest management systems and a way of involving villagers in stopping poaching.
The Sikkim Dzumsas
The Chogyals, or kings of Sikkim ‑ when it was a kingdom before the 1975 annexation ‑ had sanctified by law an ancient system known as the Dzumsa (pronounced Zumsa).
The Dzumsa is essentially a village panchayat system but with a system of democracy and forest management that is centuries old. In this, every village in the two areas of North Sikkim’s Lachen and Lachung was run by an elected body, the Dzuma. It was headed by an elected Pipon and assisted by two or more deputy Pipons. Election to the Pipons’ posts were held at regular intervals.
The Dzumsa, among other things, had to mandatorily give its written consent if anything at all had to be done in these areas, because both Lachen and Lachung are even now largely forested villages.
From logging for timber needed for home hearths to those for weddings or for cremation, the Dzumsa had to give its consent. Violators were severely punished, and as per rules, for each tree felled, a certain number of saplings had to be planted and cared for till they became trees.
Besides, the Dzumsa alone could decide where in both summers and winters cattle could be grazed. Lachen and Lachung being subjected to heavy snowfall in the winters, transhumance was the natural recourse. That means cattle, which there is mostly the massive yaks in these high mountains, were allowed to feed only in the upper reaches in the summers.
In the winters, the yaks were allowed to move out to lower reaches, but after the Dzumsa had identified which areas had sufficient vegetation carriage and grazing the voracious eaters, the yaks, would not lead to depletion. Each family is given a permit only for a specific area to be used for a specific period only.
“This is our home, so we deal with forests on the basis of the deep knowledge that our forefathers had gained over the centuries. Before felling even a permitted tree, we conduct a special Buddhist prayer asking for forgiveness from the tree and the forest deities,” Dorje Gyaltshen, my tour operator had told me when I first visited Lachung way back in 2000. That system still continues.
This was an age-old system of environmental governance. Around 1911, the ninth Chogyal of Sikkim, Sir Thutob Namgyal, Knight Commander of the British Indian Empire, passed a law that protected the Dzumsa system for perpetuity.
However, some years ago, a famous economist of North Bengal University, Dr Anjan Chakrabarti showed in a research paper that the forcible introduction of the modern Panchayati Raj and forest protection laws has actually harmed that protected ecosystem.
This Dzumsa model can still be replicated in most parts of the country, provided the forest dwellers are given back their ancient rights through a well-thought-out Constitutional amendment.
Assam: A Unique Model
Guwahati is the capital of the largest northeastern Indian state of Assam and is home to three major reserve forests and world heritage sites: Manas, Nameri, and Kaziranga National Parks.
Mitali G Dutta was originally a bakery master and used to teach cake making. Then she started what was a unique idea: a rural food tourism trail. Diverse tribes like Bodo, Kachari, Karbi, Miri, Mishimi, Rabha, etc., co-exist in Assam, each having their unique cuisine.
Mitali visited these villages on the peripheries of the forests and trained them how to treat tourists. Then she started a series of exotic trails for foodies to these villages. There the tourists try their hands at get trained by the village ladies in their cooking their traditional cuisine, right from making the spices.
Then the tourists are served the food items in the traditional manner, with the ladies wearing their traditional attire. The enthralled guests relish the savoury and go back paying these women for this rare treat. This has become quite a rage now.
I was talking to Mitali some years earlier and she had told me that this had had an unusual fallout. “See, the men in these were the guides to poachers because they alone knew the forests. They did this due to poverty. But when the women started earning well from this traditional cuisine trade, they persuaded their husbands to give up the life-threatening work of helping poachers.”
In fact, the innovation worked so well that the northeastern chapter of WWF-India tied up with Mitali.
Mitali’s model may, like the Dzumsa, can be replicated, or maybe some innovations on such a novel idea can be worked out. But that is possible only if the current forest bureaucracy gives up the Traditional System of forest management and turns to the Usufruct Approach and philosophy.
The evidence is clear from the rapid depletion of forest cover working with the Traditional Approach, as has been recorded over a period of time from space photography. And despite that, new forest law has legitimised large-scale forest felling to the benefit of industry and housing lobbies.
There is an urgent need for a very deep and serious re-evaluation of the lackings in the Traditional Approach, giving the forest lands back to their original inhabitants, and working out such models or innovations based on the Sikkim and Assma models, to create a new policy ideology and framework on forest and environment management.