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Herbal dreams amongst forest nightmares

By: Rahul Saxena

The Himachal Pradesh forest department is in the final stages of executing a plan to have more than 12 lakh families plant upwards of 14 lakh medicinal plants on their private lands on the 3rd of August, 2008. The state forest minister has taken a personal initiative to promote this campaign, named Ghar Ghar Sanjivani Abhiyan, and has been touring various district headquarters to garner public support for making the programme a success.
Though on the surface this seems like a noble cause, the reasons that are being projected for the forest department having taken up this programme are difficult to understand and digest. The first thought that came to the mind when one heard of this programme was why is the forest department going out of its way to have trees planted on private lands? Has the department given up on forest lands of the state?
The rationale given by the forest minister for the genesis of this campaign at different occasions are that:
1.    The survival rate of the trees planted during Van Mahotsavs and department’s own afforestation drives is low.
2.    This drive shall contribute towards making Himachal Pradesh a ‘herbal state’.
3.    This plantation drive is an endeavour by the forest department to connect directly with the people of the state with a programme that really benefits them.

Let us analyse each one of these points separately:

It is a well known fact that the survival rate of trees planted during department’s own plantation drives is low. According to some reports the overall survival rate in government plantations is as low as 40%, which is sad indeed. The forest lands in our state are common property resources over which local people have rights of usage. In the absence of robust village level mechanisms to take care and protect the government’s plantations in the long run, these plantations are destroyed by the very people they are supposed to benefit. With the forest department facing a shortage of staff and the wide areas that each forest guard is supposed to monitor, it is only if the local people and the department come together to protect the forest resources can they survive.
This holds true not only for the new plantations but also for the existing forests that provide people with fodder, fuel wood, herbs and timber – critical resources whose contribution is getting more crucial in times of rising fuel prices. Most of these forests are under pressure due to unsystematic usage by the people who have the rights over them and also due to poaching of forest produce, especially that of timber and medicinal herbs. Usually, these offences start at a small scale in the beginning but assume huge proportions if no action is taken against the initial offenders (which is usually the case). As a result, there are hundreds of villages across the state where some of the villagers are fighting a losing battle to protect their existing forests through efforts inadequately supported by the forest department. The author has interacted with many such villagers in Karsog, Gohar and Dalhousie forest divisions of the state.

The depletion and degradation of existing forests is a sad story but sadder is the fact that the department, instead of introspecting into and rectifying the causes behind this has embarked on ‘afforesting’ private lands which already have a variety of useful plants on them.

The second contention that this plantation exercise would make Himachal Pradesh a herbal state is grossly farfetched. The state would indeed become a herbal state either if the majority people start living a ‘herbal lifestyle’ or if the herbal wealth of the state’s forests becomes the basis of a thriving rural economy. Though this plantation drive would result in many new households acquiring a medicinal plant, a large proportion of them already have medicinal plants like tulsi and drub grass in their premises that they may not know the use of. Considering that the majority of the planted saplings survive, the first step towards peoples’ good health would happen only when the produce of the plants is regularly used by the households planting them, which in itself is a substantial goal to be achieved. That this drive alone is going to make the people start believing in the Ayurvedic medicine and take to herbal alternatives in a big way is a distant dream.
On the other hand, there are a variety of medicinal and aromatic plants that are found in our forests, especially in the temperate areas. The roots or rhizomes of most of these plants are collected by the local people for selling to their local traders and they finally end up in the wholesale markets in Amritsar and Delhi from where manufacturers of Ayurvedic medicines procure them. These herbs form the basis of livelihoods for the majority of poor people in the higher reaches of the state who sell them against cash or in return for commodities of daily use.
Sadly, these plants are facing the threat of extinction due to lack of ‘collector accepted’ mechanisms for ensuring that there is no unhealthy competition between the collectors and that the benefits from harvest are shared equitably between them. As a result, premature harvesting, over-harvesting and illegal harvesting are rampant, gravely threatening the livelihoods of people dependent upon herb collection.
The Churah valley of Chamba region has been stripped of a number of medicinal plant varieties to the extent that the poor collectors from this area have to risk limb and life to go across Pir Panjal and collect herbs to sell to their local trader. 21 of the 44 commercially traded medicinal plant species of the state are on the Red Data list issued by the IUCN. This is the real herbal wealth of the state which not only sustains the poor people of the state but also adds to the richness of the biodiversity of the country. If there is any resource that needs immediate attention, it is these herbs that hold the potential for sustaining and enhancing livelihoods opportunities for the poor for times to come. And yes, initiating a programme that envisages production of these herbs in agricultural lands would not serve the purpose. Most of these herbs have a gestation period of about 3-4 years and it is too much of a risk for the marginal farmers to prefer them over conventional crops. A number of these herbs are found at altitudes where hardly any agricultural lands exist. As a result, if there is any place where these medicinal plants can be commercially produced in a big way, it is only in the forest lands of the state that constitute 67% of its geographical area. Without community based institutions for planning and managing the plantation, protection, sharing the benefits of and harvesting of these herbs, any measure of success would be impossible to achieve.

Thirdly, the forest minister has stated that this is the first time that the FD has tried to really connect with the people of the state. Can there be bigger attempt at degrading government’s own Joint Forest Management (JFM) programme, started with much fanfare more than 15 years ago? The biggest reason for new plantations getting, or for that matter existing forest resources, destroyed is the absence of any community based mechanisms for ensuring that these assets are protected till the time they attain a state when the trees start providing benefits to the people.
Also of critical importance is the presence of village-level institutions of forest users with adequate legal powers to ensure adherence to these mechanisms and also evolve these mechanisms (for benefit sharing etc.) whenever the need arises. Acknowledging the fact that it was impossible for the forest departments across the country to protect existing forests as well as new plantations without the help of the local people, JFM was initiated by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) in 1990 as a framework for involving the local people in the management of forests. The paradigm had largely been successful in the village forests of Uttarakhand, user group forestry in Nepal, the initial JFM trials conducted in West Bengal as well as our own Kangra Forest Cooperative Societies that were doing a commendable job of managing forests under their charge until they were systematically weakened into insignificance during the seventies by the government itself.
However, JFM, since its inception in the state in 1993 has till date been used only to obtain foreign funds for projects worth crores by the state forest department and many lacunae have contributed to its not having achieved the shining goals with which it was envisioned. First of all, the programme has been implemented in only short-term project mode that lasts for three to five years. After the project winds up, all the assets (like plantations) and the village level institutions that have been formed just whither away as they have not been sufficiently enabled for independent functioning. Even in these projects, only new plantations have been undertaken.
Can one expect villagers to protect a new plantation when the existing forest that they are deriving benefit from is being poached and degrded? The MoEF has been issuing guidelines from time to time for making the programme more pragmatic and result oriented. These guidelines recommend agreements to be signed between JFM committees and the Forest Department, undertaking the management of good forests, preparation of microplans for forest management and constant monitoring of the JFM programme, amongst other things. However, the HP Forest Department has yet to translate most of these guidelines into action on the ground. A good prescription in the form of HP Participatory Forest Management Rules, 2001, which were formulated in the year 2001 by the Forest Department itself to provide framework for the formation and functioning of legally enabled village-level JFM committees has not been implemented in totality, not even in the villages where people are clamouring exactly for this kind of support to protect their forests. The Forest Department as an organization has failed to learn from experiences of previous projects and same mistakes that lead to unsustainable institutions and assets are being repeated in new projects like Mid-Himalayan Watershed Development project.
The current plantation drive at best seems like taking the easy way out to circumvent the problem of failing plantations and increase the ‘tree cover’ in the state while closing ones eyes to the real issues that cause these failures in the first place. Had the state Forest Department shown half the promptness and diligence to adopt the JFM as it has done in the case of the current campaign, the very need of this campaign would not have arisen. It is sincerely hoped that the department and the political leadership undertake serious introspection after the 3rd of August to find real solutions to the massive problems that face forestry in the state today.

The author is a social activist working in Himachal Pradesh

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