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May 15, 2010

Forests for whom?

Forests mean many things to many people. It is a source for food for some, a supply of medicinal plants for others and a valuable economic source of timber for many. All these are traditional demands that have been met by the forest since life began on earth. There were infact few forests that did not usher benefits to either man or animal. This role of the forest as a mutual agent of assistance is acknowledged by millions. For them, forests are the omnipresent philanthropist.

However, over the past decades, the importance of the forests has been acknowledged by people who receive remote benefits from them. The person sitting in a large urban town is now forced to pay higher amounts for that piece of furniture that was a fraction of the price some years back as compared to the present. He, now realises that forests need to be conserved, for whom is the question. Is it to be conserved for the benfit of him and many like him in distant markets or is it to be conserved for the people who live adjacent and subsist on them, or is to be conserved to protect the invaluable wild flora and fauna that are critical for the health of the ecosystem.

These issues are related to the ownership, use and management of the forests. How will the resources be utilized and by whom, for whom. The state representing many interests including that of the demand of the distant consumer has larger concerns in mind and often brings about changes in forest to meet its goal. Dams, logging, mining and large projects are undertaken to meet larger goals, goals that permenantly alter these areas and their ecology. However, it is difficult to ignore the communities who have traditionally lived by the forests and accessed it for their livelihood. Can they be made partners in forest management and continue to protect its resources, undertaking the least damaging activity of NTFP collection, rather than large scale mutilation of forest regions.

Recent advocates of conservation promote exclusion of forest dependent people from their homes for the large interest of the society as opposed to groups who actively promote encroachment of displaced groups claiming that these forests are their own.

There is a mind numbing variety of choices, people have made to themselves, forgetting that the forest inherently comprises of three elements – flora or trees and shrubs, fauna or animals and man. These three are intrinsic to the very identity of the forest. But in the ideological divide between so many interest groups, it is always easy to focus on the importance of either these three components, though always in conjunction with the needs of the consumer dependent upon the forest for its timber. Lost in the noise is the increasingly less importance being paid to the original concept of the forest that comprise flora, fauna and people. Through an isolated window, focus on either of the three is likely to lead to an immediate collapse of the forest ecosystem, forest will then cease to exist as it does now and remain but a mere plantation or a forest village or a zoo or a research station.