Jeremy Seabrook speaks with Pandurang Hegde, a dedicated Indian activist
fighting for local control of forest lands in his native state of Karnataka.
‘There are no dead bodies to capture the attention of the world media, no scenes of carnage,’ says Pandurang Hegde, Indian activist with the Appiko Forest Movement in Northern Karnataka. He is talking about a joint forestry-management programme funded by Britain’s Overseas Development Administration (ODA) in the area where he was born and grew up in southern India.
Hegde calls the project ‘disaster by stealth’. The poor become slowly dispossessed and the environment exploited – all under the guise of ‘social forestry’ and ‘democratic participation’. Appiko was inspired by Chipko – the now famous forest-protection movement of the lower Himalayas. Hegde was involved in the early days of Chipko and remembers the experience as: ‘simply unforgettable. Women protected the trees with their bodies to prevent them from being cut down.’
After a stint with Oxfam in Madhya Pradesh he returned home and has been working to protect the rich forests of Karnataka ever since. ‘I learned that you cannot become a positive agent for change in a community that you do not know,’ he recalls. Now he focuses all his energies on halting the ‘legal and illegal clear-cutting of forests on which people depend for their livelihood.’
Hegde is a modest, unassuming man from a family of areca-nut farmers near Sirsi on the Western Ghats. It is an area where sacred groves and inviolate forest alternate with barren monocultures of eucalyptus and teak – monuments to misplaced ‘social forestry’ experiments of the 1970s and 1980s. ‘It was the next fashionable trend,’ Hegde recalls. In fact it turned out to be ‘another kind of commercialism – plantations which bear no relation to local people’s need for biomass’.
Today he lives on a small farm at the edge of the Ghats, a simple building with no modern amenities. But other things have changed. Appiko has few direct confrontations with loggers these days. ‘It is harder to organize resistance now,’ he says, ‘because people are seduced by the promise of cash. As their control of the forest resource is loosened, they fall into deeper dependency on the cash economy.’
The new $25-million ODA scheme is supposed to put right all past mistakes, to be real people-centred development. The central goal is to set up Village Forest Committees which would work with the Government Forest Department and share the benefits of replanting on a 50-50 basis. The reality? ‘A few high-profile village committees,’ claims Hegde, ‘while in most places the majority have been excluded from any decision-making’.
In addition, he claims the species planted are up to 80 per cent teak and acacia. ‘They have evicted people who were protecting natural regeneration so they can plant exotic monocultures like acacia from Australia. What does that have to do with maintaining biodiversity?’
‘The reality is that, far from seeing their livelihoods improve, people who have been cultivating rice are being evicted. They are denied access to forest produce which once cushioned them against destitution. Without space for their cattle to graze many have been forced to sell their animals. As far as I can see this so-called popular participation is just another gimmick. People need the security of being able to use the forest, not future promises of cash from timber sales.’
Pandurang Hegde raised his concerns with senior officials and consultants from the British ODA last November. He told them the poor were excluded from decision-making, that evictions were widespread and that species biodiversity was being threatened. The response was open, even sympathetic. But Hegde will wait to see what happens. ‘The new buzz-word is “site-specific models”. They seem now to have abandoned the whole basis on which the project was set up. You can’t pin them down.’
Ironically, the villages in Karnataka where people do control the resource-base were set up by the British themselves. ‘These forest panchayats were established in the 1920s, mostly on poor lands, where villagers allowed the forests to regenerate naturally. This kind of village-based control can work’, says Hegde. ‘But the people must be trusted to manage the forests themselves. The best projects don’t involve outsiders at all, but to say so is seen as a blasphemy against “development”. We can show them the places where the forest provides everything the people need. That was the point of Appiko: self-reliance and a respect for the environment that sustains us. We know. Trust us.’
When Appiko was at its peak, vil-lagers would unite against timber contractors who came in the night; they would confront smugglers and illegal loggers. But to pit themselves against the current project when the prestige of Britain and a host of consultants and experts is at stake is much more difficult. Nonetheless, Hegde believes that as more and more people realize that they are being excluded from the dubious benefits of the scheme they will come to see mass organization as the only response. ‘The Forest Department is the biggest employer. People are frightened. Everywhere in the world it is the same story – the market invades self-reliance, it sets livelihood against life. But for the people of the forests these are the same thing.’
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996
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