Home to a number of indigenous  and other endogamous population groups, the Uttara Kannada region of the Western Ghats biodiversity hotspot in Karnataka, India, is a mosaic of various habitats and sub-habitats supporting tremendous biological diversity. Numerous endemic plant and animal species, non-timber forest products (NTFP)  and medicinal plants can be found in this region. No other global hotspot has been surveyed as intensively as the Western Ghats, yet little is known of the consequences of biodiversity loss and subsequent conservation actions on forest-dependent population groups who call this area home.

Around 400 NTFP species are seasonally harvested in Uttara Kannada of which 45 are collected for commercial purposes and the rest for sustenance, medicinal or non-agricultural purposes (1). NTFP extraction is important to local livelihoods in this region and accounts for 33% of the total household income. Local forest-dependent peoples of Uttara Kannada have traditionally harvested natural resources for their sustenance and livelihoods. Their traditional forest management practices ensured that various ecosystems and resource populations were maintained in sacred groves, sacred ponds, communal forests and wetlands and were instrumental in ensuring sustainable harvests while also preserving the rich biological and species diversity (2).  The multiple land-use approach that underpinned traditional forest management systems was both a livelihood strategy and a source of resilience against climatic change and resource fluctuations.

Land-use changes caused by agricultural expansion, conversion to plantations and infrastructure developments such as road construction, mining, hydroelectric power projects, have resulted in loss of forest cover and biodiversity in Uttara Kannada. To protect wildlife and biodiversity, forests have been transformed into National Parks, Wildlife Sanctuaries and Conservation Reserves. The resulting impact on the lives and livelihoods of indigenous and other local community groups is poorly understood. Restricted access to forest resources, changes in land tenure, land-use conflict, poverty and cultural decline are some of the impacts that have been documented (3,4).

The current Joint Participatory Forest Management (JPFM) system allows for local community participation in forest management through the Joint Forest Management Committees (JFMC) but whether indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups actually participate in these committees and are able to influence forest management and resource-use decisions is the question. The enactment of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) by the government of India in 2006 asserts traditional rights over forest resources and forest lands to indigenous peoples and other traditional forest dwellers and bestows traditional rights of ownership and access to collect and use minor forest produce, products of water bodies, and rights to grazing. It also gives rights over disputed land, recognizes ownership of land by forest dwellers, and among others, grants them right of settlement. While the FRA can initiate the recognition of the diversity of forest resource-use, resource-access, conservation practices and local traditional ecological knowledge, studies suggest that recognition and exercise of forest rights under the FRA is actually constrained by other existing laws (5).

Forest resources support the livelihoods of over 100 million poor and marginalized people in India (6). Studies indicate that the gathering of fuel wood, fodder and NTFPs is an important subsistence and economic activity with 60-70 percent of NTFP gatherers being women (7). This is especially the case among indigenous peoples where women are a crucial link between household livelihood strategies and forest resource-use. Open access NTFPs such as fruits, seeds and plant materials that required little processing or needed traditional low cost processing contribute heavily to total household income.

There is a need to study, document and publish current information on the livelihood strategies employed by indigenous and other forest-dependent groups and the contributions timber and non-timber forest products make to their household economy and livelihoods. Details of resource access, resource availability, locations of extraction and livelihood diversification employed are also required. Before sustainable resource-use can be considered as a forest management strategy it is necessary to understand how local governance mechanisms work and the local stakeholders involved. The involvement of local indigenous and non-indigenous communities towards ensuring the long-term health of their forest habitats is critical to the success of conservation planning and to ensure the future sustainability of livelihoods and well-functioning ecosystems.

This University of New England doctoral study will help understand the extent of livelihood impacts of conservation strategies on forest-dependent groups of Uttara Kannada. It will also explore livelihood diversification mechanisms amidst institutional change. For those of you interested in knowing more about this study, the researcher’s contact details are given below. Any thoughts and ideas from SuLi members that may add value to the study are welcome.

Kiran Mallapur is a resettlement specialist, currently pursuing a Doctoral study at the University of New England. She can be contacted at gmallapu@une.edu.au

References

(1) Kohli, K. and M. Menon. (2006). Deforestation in the Uttara Kannada District, A Preliminary Report. Sirsi, Uttara Kannada: Malnad Home Garden and Seed Exchange Collective.

(2) Gadgil, M. (1998). Traditional Resource Management. Lifestyle and Ecology. (Ed) B.Saraswati, Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts: New Delhi.

(3) D'Souza, O. and N.D. Rai. (2011). Protected Areas and the Impact of Restricted Access on Local Livelihoods: The case of Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary, accessed from SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1793086.

(4) Biswal, R. (2009). Exploring the Contributions of NTFPs to Rural Livelihoods: The Case of Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, India. PhD diss., University of East Anglia. Retrieved from http://keystone-foundation.org/download/331/ on July 7, 2012.

(5) Dash, T. (2010). The Forest Rights Act: Redefining Biodiversity Conservation in India. Policy Matters, 17:33-40.

(6) Lele, S. (2011). Rethinking Forest Governance: Towards a Perspective beyond JFM, the Godavarman case and FRA. In The Hindu Survey of the Environment. (eds. Anonymous).  95– 103. Chennai: The Hindu.

(7) Gera, P. (2002): Women’s Role and Contribution to Forest-Based Livelihoods. UNDP: New Delhi

Photo: above right - processing Garcinia gummigutta. Credit: Mr Narasimha Hedge