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Part I Forest Conflicts

2 Forest ecology and forest conflicts

The crisis in tropical forest resources is today recognised as the world's most severe ecological and economic crisis. This is primarily because of the linkages between the genetic resources and diversity of tropical forests and food security of the entire world, and the linkages between the ecological stability of tropical forests and the economic well-being of the majority of the world's people who live in the tropics, in what is called the Third World. These Third World countries, the erstwhile colonies of the industrialized coun tries, provided natural resources on which the industrialization of the latter was based. Both industrialisation and economic growth in the colonial and post-colonial periods have been based on the reckless exploitation of tropical forests. Today, the cumulative impact of this over-exploitation has led to critical and almost irreversible ecological degradation. The famine in Africa and other arid regions has shifted the world's attention to the high ecological and social costs of tropical deforestation. It has become the central concern of governments, development agencies and ecology movements. Yet the focus on tropical deforestation and its reversal is not automatically translated into the protection of tropical forests and those who depend on them for survival. As long as misconceptions about the nature of tropical forest ecosystems prevail, as long as conflicting demands are ignored and as long as the causes of tropical deforestation are inaccurately located, this degradation cannot be arrested. As a result, tropical ecosystems will continue to be degraded, the survival of people of the Third World will continue to be threatened, and forest conflicts will continue to grow.

Normally, forests are identified only with the economy associated with the commercial-industrial use of forests. lowever, the crisis of tropical forestry needs to be understood in the light of the conflicting demands for forest biomass, by the three fundamental economies associated with forests:

  1. Nature's economy of essential ecological processes.
  2. The survival economy of basic needs satisfaction of the people.
  3. The market economy of industrial-commercial demands.

Nature's economy of essential ecological processes generates a demand on the products of the forest in terms of the maintenance of the stability of soil systems and the hydrological balance of the forest ecosystems. In ecologically sensitive ecosystems like upland watersheds, this economy becomes the most crucial one and should be given the necessary attention in forest management. Neglecting this economy in upland watersheds will imply tremendous negative externalities to the national exchequer as relief for regular floods and drought, which are easily described as loss due to nature's fury.

The survival economy of basic needs satisfaction reflects the requirement of forest biomass of the people living in and in the vicinity of forests in terms of fuelwood, fodder, fruits, nuts, green manure, small timber, etc. In forest areas where human settlements have either existed or are in the vicinity, the requirements of the survival economy have been satisfied all along without any major ecological damage. However, under certain situations, the pressure of the survival economy can be substantial and its neglect can lead to the unexpected and rapid degradation of forest resources.'

The market economy of industrial-commercial demands coastitutes the forest biomass demand of the total market system in the formal market economy. It includes the demand for pulpwood. plywood. furniture, house construction, etc., as well as fuelwood for the urban market. The demand for biomass from the urban industrial sector as well as the survival requirements of people have increased dramatically in the last century in India. There are many examples which illustrate that the growth of forest based industries is disproportionately beyond the ecological limit of the renewable productivity of nature. under the present system of management. The growth in population adds another significant demand for biomass for domestic purposes. It has, however, not been recognised, quantified and internalized in formal forest management. In the perspective of the increasing demand from survival and market economies, the biomass requirement for nature's economy are systematically sacrificed and nature's needs remain totally unfulfilled. In due course, this leads to the ecological destabilisation of the forest ecosystems. Again, the conflict between survival and market economies assumes large proportions when most of the biomass produced is cornered by the economically powerful groups through the formal official mechanisms while the basic needs of fuel, fodder and small timber of the economically weak remain unsatisfied due to their weak political and economic status. Obviously, these three diverse economies push for the satisfaction of their demands either silently or loudly, resulting in both overt and covert conflicts over forest resources. The tacit and invisible nature of these conflicts combined with a mistaken or incomplete understanding of these diverse economies can result in the lack of perception of conflicts between them. The failure to perceive conflicts in forest use can only aggravate the forestry crisis. It is thus absolutely essential to understand and perceive the covert as well as explicit demands on forest resources to evolve a forest policy that is ecologically sensitive and socially just, so that our forest and land resources can be used for the overall satisfaction of the needs of the nation and the people in an equitable and sustainable manner. The conceptual framework based on the three economies adopted here differs from the conventional categories related to forest resources. We do not use the dichotomy between quantity/quality as categories of forest use that Hallsworth, for example, has used. According to him,

Human demands on the forest fall into two categories. First a demand for forest quantities; for the actual things a forest can produce: for timber, for food and for space for cultivation or for grazing; secondly, a demand for forest qualities; for the effects that forests have on the environment of man-to protect supplies of water, provide havens for wild-life and maintain the pool of genetic resources, to protect the soil against erosion, and to provide space for recreations

The dichotomy between quantity and quality, as between tangible and intangible, fails to capture the reality of those village women in Garhwal who launched the Chipko movement because for them water from the forest is a more significant product than wood and timber. For them water is not an 'intangible' produce or a mere quality. It is more tangible and basic in their sustenance economy than the commercial wood extracted and exported from their forests.

For similar reasons we have not adopted the local-national dichotomy between local and national interests to understand conflicts over natural resources, because the local subsumes the national interest. The national interest is or should be the integration of all local interests, not just another interest acting over and against local interests. The demands of nature's economy and survival economy are national demands, seen throughout the country, and are not peculiar to a particular region. What has usually passed as the 'national interest' are the large scale demands of the commercial industrial sector, operating through the government. The emergence of ecology movements at the.national level are indicative of the fact that these are demands of a socially narrow sector which come into conflict with socially broader sets of demands that are more appropriately termed the national interest.

We have also avoided the categories of private versus public demands because they fail to show adequately that what are called individual or private needs at the local level are located in the public context of a village community, and what usually passes as public policy in forestry is a government policy which is totally subservient to commercial/industrial interests. The 'privatisation' inherent in a commercially-oriented forest policy is What has been challenged by movements like Chipko which demand a more effective social and public control over forest resources. The official management of forest resources in the name of 'national' or 'public' interest has, in reality, privatised people's 'common resources. This privatization trend which was rooted in the colonial period has survived to the present day. As Chhattarpati Singh observes, 'The class or "public" which more often than not benefits from such acquisitions is the rich. This is patently true in the acquisition of common land, especially forests. The public of the "public purpose" for which forests have been acquired constitutes all but the forest dwellers.

We have therefore preferred to distinguish human demands on the basis of use for survival and use for commerce and industry, and have included nature's demands to avoid an anthropocentric bias as well as to have a context to locate forest movements like Chipko which struggle for forest conservation to respect nature's rights, and not just to assert their own rights to forest resources.

Nature's Economy and Forest Conflicts

An ecosystem is characterised by a set of essential ecological processes on the functioning of which depends the stability of the ecosystem. Forest ecosystems are characterised by essential eco logical processes related to the hydrological and nutrient cycles, on which depends the nature of water output of forest catchments and the sustainability of biomass production of the forest ecosystem.

The Hydrological Cycle or the Water Economy

Forest ecosystems require water which is the most important input for their survival. in particular, under tropical monsoon climatic conditions, forest ecosystems play a vital role in moderating the impact of rainfall and controlling the instant run-off of water.

The impact of forest ecosystems on rainfall has been a topic of popular debate. Meher-Homji (1986) has pointed out that forest ecosystems play an important role in pre- and post-monsoon rain fall. This may not alter the amount of total rainfall significantly, but by providing protective soil moisturisation during a period significant for plant and growth, it plays a very crucial economic role.

The hydrological cycle describes the ecological processes involved after a drop of water has entered the forest ecosystem as rainfall or dew or even snow. In the meteorological conditions prevailing in the forests of India, except parts of Western Himalayas, the most significant form of water input to forest ecosystems is through rainfall. The hydrological cycle represents mainly the physical aspect s of essential ecological processes of a forest ecosystem.

The hydrological cycle (Figure 2.1) is an instrument for a fundamental understanding of forest ecology. On its stability depends the stability of the forest ecosystem. The source of all water required for the survival of plants, birds, animals and human population is precipitation (P) from the atmosphere. Once precipitation takes place, as rain, dew, snow, etc., water enters the forest ecosystem and is first intercepted by the forest canopy. Some amount of the incoming water evaporates back to the atmosphere in the process and does not touch the soil. This is known as interception loss. Some amount of water falling on the canopy flows down to the top soil as stemflow and some falls directly as throughfall. Some amount of water drips down after a delay period and is known as drip.

Of the total amount of water reaching the top soil, some flows out of the forest ecosystem as run-off (R) and is lost to the plant. The rest infiltrates to the soil and percolates to the underground aquifers to recharge the springs (1). Infiltration is encouraged in forest soils with a good cover of litter and a low density spongy humus. Compaction of the top soil by cattle or human intervention greatly enhances run-off and reduces infiltration.

The infiltrating water is first absorbed by the soil which holds moisture (M) in small pores through capillary action, and this capacity of the soil to hohl water against gravity is known as field capacity. When water availability exceeds field capacity it flows down under gravity and reaches the rock system to recharge the underground aquifers. The aquifers recharge the outflows through springs, and on forest slopes saturated soils give rise to seepage streams, which together with the surface run-offs join to form rivers. The moisture retained in the soil goes back to the atmosphere either as direct evaporation or as transpiration through green plants (ETR). Thus, the hydrological cycle leads to the water balance equation:

Figure 2.1 Hydrological Cycle Associated with Trees

P = R + I + M + ETR

Where, P = Precipitation, R = Run-off, I = Infiltration Percolation, M-Soil Moisture Change, ETR = Evapotranspiration.

The relative amounts of.water flowing through the various routes in the cycle are influenced by the state of the canopy, the state of the ground cover and humus, type of soil, etc. The management of forest ecosystems will thus depend on the main economic objectives that the water output of forests are to satisfy. In the temperate regions of the world where precipitation is well distributed and in many parts the ground is covered by snow for a few months in a year and slopes are gentle, complete denudation of the catchment forests is recommended as a method of maximising water yield. On the contrary, in tropical and monsoon climate, forest ecosystems play a vital role in reducing run-off and encouraging infiltration through leaf litter and humus formation, thus ensuring a stable water yield. The management objective of a forest ecosystem will thus depend on the meteorological conditions and the manner in which the water economy is to be developed because under certain conditions water and not biomass is the most important economic output of forests.

The Nutrient Cycle and the Soil Economy

The flow of water in the forest ecosystem plays the vital role of carrying the nutrients required for plant growth from the soil and controls the rate of uptake of nutrients. The nutrient cycle thus represents the chemical aspects of ecological processes of a forest ecosystem (Figure 2.2). In economic terms, the nutrient cycle describes the economy of the soil, describing and quantifying the nutrient uptake from and the soil on which the forest grows.

The botanical process of plant growth requires a large number of elements like hydrogen, carbon and oxygen, macro-nutrients like Calcium, Potassium, Magnesium, Nitrogen, Sulphur and

Figure 2.2 Nutrient Cycle Associated with Soil-Vegetation System

Phosphorus, and micro-nutrients like Boron, Copper, Iron, Manganese, Zinc and Molybdenum. Elements like CH and O are available from water and Carbondioxide from the atmosphere. These nutrients with the exception of N are available from the weathering of rock mineral and Nitrogen is available from the atmosphere. Apart from the biomass exported out of the forest ecosystem, these nutrients eventually return to the soil surface through deadwood and litter fall as well as washing of foliage by rain water. On the soil surface a variety of forest floor fauna including micro-organisms and bacteria transform the biomass through decomposition and release nutrients for further plant nutrition.

The uptake and return of nutrients in the forest ecosystem is well studied in the temperate regions of Europe or the USA. Unfortunately, the soil economy associated with indigenous tree species in tropical countries like India is least understood. This obviously leads to wide gaps in knowledge for the proper choice of species and their management in afforestation programmes.

In every forest ecosystem the nutrients that are used by the trees are normally returned to the soil completely. When forest biomass is extracted and transported for the satisfaction of sustenance needs or industrial/commercial demands, substantial amounts of nutrients go out of the forest ecosystem, and for intensive forest exploitation artificial fertilisation of the forest soil becomes essential.

Nutrients are supplied to the forest trees both from the atmosphere and the soil. Nitrogen is available from the atmosphere directly, as dissolved nutrients in the rain water and as particulate deposition which gets washed down to the forest floor through rainfall. Rain and wind erosion transport the nutrients from the parent rocks to the soil and the moisture in the soil dissolves them and transfers them to the body of the trees.

The nutrients are returned to the soil through the litter which contains organic remains of plants, like leaves, barks and twigs in exploited forests and organic remains of animals on the soil surface or in the top soil layer. In tropical rain forests leaf litter is about 10 tons per ha while in the open conifer forests it may be only I ton per ha. One part of green plants combine with the litter as animal waste through the consumption of green matter by the herbivores.

The accumulated leaf fall and other forms of litter then begin to decompose on the forest floor through the action of micro-organisms present in the soil. In tropical conditions where soil biotic activity is encouraged by relatively higher temperatures, the rate of decomposition is quite rapid. Due to the content of the leaves and the soil chemistry, the rate of decomposition of litter in rapidly growing tropical forests is several times greater than in the conifer forests in the temperate regions.

The soil organisms that decompose the litter are mainly bacteria and they multiply in soil with earthworms. The soft parts of the plant are normally decomposed by micro-organisms alone but woody biomass are broken. down by a complex interaction, thus the return of the nutrients back to the soil is an intricate process involving many actors. As decomposition proceeds, the nutrients are released in the form of soluble ions that can be directly absorbed by the root system and the cycle starts once again.

The nutrient cycle is disturbed by the destabilisationof the hydrological cycle. With the opening up of the forest canopy and instant surface run-off increasing, the leaching of the nutrients increases and the nutrients available for new plant growth become less, thus setting in motion a process of decay in the forest ecosystem. In extreme cases of nutrient loss and continued exploitation of the forest biomass, the vegetational evolution is reversed and a full canopy forest gets degraded to scrub forest or grasslands.

Both the water economy and nutrient economy constitute nature's economy in forest ecosystems. They need to be stable in order to sustain the productivity of forest ecosystems. The two other economies, i.e., the survival economy of the basic needs satisfaction of the people and the market economy of forest product demand of the industrial/commercial sector compete for the same resource base, forest biomass and generate conflicts over forest resources between the needs of nature and the people on the one hand; and between the needs of nature as well as people and market demand, on the other.

In the context of the forests of India, nature's economy and survival economy have always been overlapping and were simultaneously functioning without major conflicts as the small survival needs of the people were satisfied through a conservation-oriented utilisation managed by an informal but strict code of conduct towards forests. It is thus reasonable to assume in the context of forest resource utilisation in the precolonial periods, that the satisfaction of survival needs was an intrinsic part of the functioning of forest ecosystems. This was particularly so because human settlements in India grew as an integral part of the forest ecosystem and not at the cost of it as was the case in industrialized countries in the last few centuries.

With the introduction of large-scale commercial exploitation of forests by the British this situation underwent a drastic change. A schematic picture of the three competing biomass requirements of the three economies is presented in Figure 2.3. The horizontal axis represents the distance (D) from the core of the forest ecosystem while the vertical axis represents the quantity (Q) of biomass required by the three competing economies. Nature's requirement (ON) is spread throughout the forest ecosystem while the survival requirement (QS) is divided between inside and outside the forest ecosystem. It should be noted that the spread is not too far away

'from the forest ecosystem's boundary since only the local population can collect the' forest biomass. The requirement of the market economy (QM) is high as well as spread over long distances far away from the forest ecosystem, since it can be transported over long distances. This indicates a continuous long distance transfer of large quantities of forest biomass outside the forest ecosystem. All forest related conflicts are thus based on conflicts between the above mentioned requirements-ON, QS, and QM. The objectives of forest management decide as to what should be the actual biomass quantities allocated to these diverse requirements.

Figure 2.3 Schematic Description of the Economies Associated with Forests

When forests are viewed as a complete ecosystem and not as a mechanical collection of wood producing trees, the management strategy of forests has to evolve along the ecosystems concept. The ecosystems approach has the objective of ensuring sustainable production of an optimum biomass mix so as to satisfy the demands of nature's economy and survival needs and produce biomass for commercial/industrial purposes to the extent possible. Accordingly, such an approach should

  1. Lead to a harmonious utilisation of resources not resulting in external diseconomies (exploitation of forests for timber should not lead to floods and silting).
  2. Provide for the equitable returns to various sections of society depending on the same resource system (exploitation of forests for timber should not conflict with the domestic requirements of fodder or wood as long as alternatives are not made available at a low cost).
  3. Wherever externalities cannot be eliminated, the logic of costs and returns needs to be worked out for proper methods of compensation to those who bear the costs generated by activities that benefit others.

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