Issues related to Sustainable Management of Forests of Northeast India
BY: B.K. Tiwari*
Forests of India are a source of a variety of goods and services, which range from medicinal herbs and leafy vegetables for the rural poor to timber for the construction purposes; from sources of drinking water for the rural communities and megacities to sequestration of carbon contributing to mitigation of global climate. Environmental economists are increasingly realizing that, in regions with high forest cover, forests play an important role in the livelihoods of local communities even more than estimated by conventional methods of economic survey, because a significant portion of goods and services provided by forests are non-commercialized and non-marketable. The north-eastern region of India comprises eight states (Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura). The region is considered a geographical entity as it shares many commonalities of geographical features, political history, and culture of the people. The region is joined with the rest of India through a 20 km wide passage called the Siliguri Corridor, or chicken’s neck. As a result, the region appears to be geographically separated from the rest of India. North-east India is primarily inhabited by people having predominance of Mongoloid elements. The states of the region have some other common characteristics: the infrastructure is poor; agriculture is subsistence and traditional; and except for Assam, the region has no large industries. The region is hilly or mountainous and predominantly inhabited by tribal people. Except for Assam, all the states have very high forest cover and they together account for about 25 percent of India’s forest cover. The region is very rich in biodiversity and as much as 50 percent of India’s biodiversity can be found in these states. The region is also rich in endemic flora and fauna but the biodiversity is experiencing severe anthropogenic pressure.
In the northeast India the forests are under severe pressure due to population growth, encroachments on forest lands, loss of forest cover for non-forest uses, shifting cultivation practices and degradation caused by illicit felling, lopping for fuelwood and fodder, removal of forest cover for litter, forest fires, and expansion of human habitations. Given the rich biodiversity of the region, dependence of people on the forests and the ecological services emanating from the forests`, as well as forest conservation and sustainable management are prime concerns. A number of strategic actions are required at various levels to address the underlying causes of forest degradation and to ensure that important environmental services are sustained and the livelihoods of 45 million people of the north-east are not undermined. Some important issues that come in way of sustainable management of forests of northeast India and need to be addressed are discussed hereunder.
i. Sixth Schedule of Constitution of India
The states of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Tripura enjoy certain rights and concessions provided to the tribal people of the region under Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India. Most of the important provisions in the Constitution relating to forest management have been given to Autonomous District Councils (ADCs), which have power to formulate and implement Acts and Rules relating to forest management. The ADCs have control and jurisdiction on all forests of the states that have not been notified under the Indian Forest Act, 1927. For example, in the state of Meghalaya, less than 10 percent of the forests is under the control of State Forest Department, and the remaining forest areas are under the control of ADCs. This poses a great challenge for management of forests by the states. The irony is that the government, which has ample expertise and resources, has less area under its control, and ADCs with scarce resources control most forests of these states. It poses a challenge to the sustainable and scientific management of forests under the control of ADCs. The District Councils often exercise their authority through traditional institutions. At least two-thirds of the region’s forests are officially under the legal authority of the ADCs and maximum degradation of forests is taking place in these forests.
ii. Forest Governance and Community Institutions
Forest administration in northeast India sharply differs from the rest of India because vast area of forests are under “community control” and “community ownership”. It is difficult to generalize the capacity of local and indigenous resource management institutions in northeast India. Not all forests under the control of communities are in good condition; however, not all are experiencing deforestation and degradation. It has been observed that the weakening of local community institutions is occurring in many places across the region due to changing values and belief systems. Other major changes have been the commercialization and privatization of land resources once held by the community, both of which have led to unsustainable forest management. To ensure sustainable management of community forests, it is necessary to grant formal recognition to all the community forest areas and to enhance their growth by supporting and strengthening the traditional and customary laws for forest conservation. Further, external support in the form of financial and technical assistance to indigenous community institutions from government agencies will help conserve the forests under community ownership for many years.
iii. Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights Act) 2006
The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights Act) (FRA) 2006 was notified on December 29, 2006. The FRA extended to the entire country except the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The FRA seeks to recognize and vest rights for habitation and occupation in forest land for forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes, as well as for Other Traditional Forest Dwellers who have been residing in such forests for generations but whose rights could not be recorded. The Act was considered an enabling legislation to undo the historical injustice done to these communities.
In the northeast region, the Act has been implemented in the states of Assam and Tripura. Large areas of forest lands have been allotted, through patta, to the forest dwellers in these states. While this may have a positive impact on the livelihood of the people, this has resulted in further encroachments, along with conversion of forest land into agricultural fields and human habitations. The Act contained provisions with noble objectives and included language about sustainable management of forests by involving the forest dependent people in the process; however, it has emerged as a tool for giving patta of forest lands to people living in and near the forests. The Rain Forest Research Institute, Jorhat, revealed in a study that the Act has not achieved its objective relating to conservation of forests.
iv. Shifting cultivation
According to MoEFCC, 600,000 families are practicing shifting cultivation on 3.8 million hectares of land (Kishwan et al. 2007). According to FSI (2015), shifting cultivation was the major cause of loss of forest cover in north-eastern states during 2013 to 2015. Even in areas such as Sikkim, where shifting cultivation has not been officially reported, the reason for loss of forest cover has been determined to be shifting cultivation. It is often described as “cafeteria system of cultivation” where dozens of varieties of cereals and vegetables, together with tree crops, are grown in a single field. Shifting cultivation continues to remain an important food production system in the hill regions of north-east India. Through their experiential knowledge gained over thousands of years, people of the region have found that in their climatic, edaphic, topographic, and socio-economic settings, this form of agriculture was the most appropriate. Further, shifting cultivation is prevalent because the modern agriculture, characterized by high input of energy and extraneous materials, does not fit into the socio-ecological system of the region.
Since independence, the government of India, as well as state governments of the region, formulated policies and enacted laws to reduce areas under shifting agriculture. Shifting cultivation has been a contentious issue in forestry management in the north-east. The government considers shifting cultivation as “a privilege subject to control, restriction and abolition by the state government and not to be a right” (Assam Forest Regulation 1891, 1995). At the same time, the laws enacted by the Autonomous District Councils considered shifting cultivation as a right held by the communities. Thus, the two law-making bodies look at shifting cultivation differently. Conflicting laws and policies affecting land and forests are numerous in the north-east due to its complex legal history. There is a need to bring greater consistency to the legal framework operating in the region. Nevertheless, in recent times the policy makers and researchers have felt that, in addition to encouraging farmers for settled cultivation, it is important to adopt technology, such as site-specific innovations and inventions, to enhance productivity of land under shifting cultivation. Several national and international agencies have implemented schemes and provided funds through the state governments and non-government organizations to enhance productivity in shifting cultivation areas and to control the degradation of lands. However, little has been done to collate and compile the policies and alternative options to shifting cultivation being promoted and presently being practiced in north-east India. To summarize, in most cases, two departments of state governments look at shifting agriculture differently: while agriculture department considers jhum fields as a “jungle growth on agricultural land”, the forest department considers the same land use as “agriculture on forest land”. Thus, for sustainable management of forests of northeast India, the issue of shifting cultivation needs to be resolved.
Another issue hampering sustainable forest management in the north-eastern region is the ongoing dispute related to inter-state borders, which affects forest management. It is reported that the forests on the disputed land on the Assam-Mizoram, Assam-Nagaland, Assam-Arunachal Pradesh, and Assam-Meghalaya borders are degrading due to improper management. According to some estimates, about 2,500 sq. km. forests exist within those disputed lands.
vi. Smuggling of Forest Produce and Insurgency
The north-east region contains 4,500 km of international border land, which is still open in large stretches. Illegal trade and smuggling of forest products drain the scarce resources of several states. This is particularly serious in the states bordering Bangladesh. In addition, the insurgency prevailing in several states interferes with proper management of forests; there are many examples where militants have caused destruction to forest resources. Also, militant hideouts are mostly found in forest areas, inhibiting movement of forest officials in such forests.
Forests of northeast India are the most valuable asset of the country and deserve greater attention of the governments and public at large. The India State of Forest Reports of 2015 and 2017 have revealed that the region has lost 1258 sq km of forest cover during past 4 years. While in several states outside the region, the forest cover has increased during the same period most states of India’s northeast region are steadily losing the forest cover. A serious analysis of causes and consequences and mitigation measures is required. The above analysis of issues relating to sustainable management of forests of the region puts the problem in perspective.
*Professor, Department of Environmental Studies, North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong, Meghalaya, India,