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To Help Conserve Precious Biodiversity, India Needs to Empower its Forest-dwelling Population

Picture for Representation.

Picture for Representation.

Almost 30% of India’s population directly derives its livelihood from immediate biodiversity in the country. The value chain of trade of biological resources and their derivatives are responsible for creating jobs for probably another 30% population.

The theme for International Day for Biodiversity 2020 (May 22) is 'Our Solutions are in Nature'. Interestingly, 2020 is also the culmination year for achievement of 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets. All 196 nations are committed to achieve these targets set by United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity to conserve biological diversity. India has developed 12 National Biodiversity Targets in consonance with Aichi Targets. The National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) established under the Biological Diversity Act, 2002 (BDA) has been the lead agency working towards achieving the National Biodiversity Targets.

Currently, there are more than 2.50 lakh biodiversity management committees (BMCs) across Indian states and union territories. And the BMCs have prepared more than 1 lakh people’s biodiversity registers (PBRs), where the documentation of local biodiversity and associated knowledge is housed for conservation management. As per the BDA, the BMCs are to be established for the purpose of promoting conservation, sustainable use, and documentation of biological diversity including preservation of habitats, conservation of land races, folk varieties and cultivars, domesticated stocks and breeds of animals and microorganisms, and chronicling of knowledge relating to biological diversity. PBR is the main function and tool of BMCs for planning conservation management based on documentation of biological diversity at three levels, namely ecosystems (landscape/waterscape), species (flora and fauna) and varieties or breed of domesticated biodiversity. Formation of such an elaborate functional and institutional mechanism covering the entire country has been part of India’s commitments at Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). But such documentation is the need of the hour.

India has an over 30 crore forest-dwelling population. In addition to this, there are over 10 crores small and marginal farmers and over 8.64 lakh families that are dependent on fishery in India. It means almost 30% of India’s population directly derives its livelihood from immediate biodiversity in the country. The value chain of trade of biological resources and their derivatives like medicinal plants, extracts of medicinal plants, fishes, processed food and pharma industry, are responsible for creating jobs for probably another 30% population of the country. Biological resources are at the centre of local cultures like conservation of sacred groves spread all across India; hence, PBRs and the role of BMCs become extremely important in order to sustain the livelihood dependence of over 30% of India’s population through documentation, conservation, and management of biological resources through this vast network of BMCs. Interestingly, out of over 2.50 lakh BMCs, more than 80% have been formed in the past one year and the same is true for over 1 lakh PBRs. It has taken an enormous amount of time and effort since the establishment of the National Biodiversity Authority to reach this point where we have a robust institutional mechanism and opportunity of coordinated documentation of PBRs.

The importance of BMCs and PBRs does not stop at the level of NBA and ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC), the parent ministry, but it becomes more critical for other related ministries such as tribal affairs, agriculture and rural development as their programmes are directly linked with livelihood and natural resource management for communities. The coordinated functioning of BMCs in Schedule V areas is important since governance of natural resources is vested with gram sabha through Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA), Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act, 1996. Gram Sabhas have ownership of minor forest produce and have rights to govern community forest resources (CFR). The power of gram sabhas in these areas is supreme, and, to a certain extent, gram panchayats become answerable to gram sabhas. Under FRA, 2006, over 11 lakh hectares of forests have been recognised as community forest resource areas, mainly governed by gram sabhas with the help of state forest and tribal welfare departments. From these 11 lakh hectares, minor forest products worth over Rs 8,000 crore have been harvested annually. Similarly, in non-schedule forested and tribal dominated areas PBRs can become the basis of claiming CFR ownership and further benefits at par with Schedule V areas to forest-dwelling population. Hence, the documents such as PBRs become extremely important for managing such resources through updating of status of biological resources, tracking the commercial use and at the same time deriving cess of access and benefit sharing (ABS) arising from the commercial use of biological resources for the local people. Presently, industries such as pharma access raw medicinal plants, and even traditional knowledge and local people do not get due share of benefits; PBRs would facilitate in exercising the ABS regime.

The empowered local communities and institutions such as gram sabha in many parts of India have shown that they are competent to reinvest such money in conservation and regeneration of the biological resources. Such communities have been recognised by NBA through National Biodiversity Awards. Under FRA, 2006, all the gram sabhas would have to form community forest management committees (CFRMCs), which would have overlapping jurisdiction with BMCs. In a few states such as Maharashtra and Kerala, joint forest management committees (JFMCs) have become part of the gram panchayat system. In such a situation, there is an overlap of the working of BMCs and JFMCs. In the glory days of joint forest management in India, we developed more than 1 lakh JFMCs all over India through externally aided projects but they could not be institutionalised like BMCs. At the end of the day, at the local level, the same set of community members keep rotating – from the secretary of one committee to chairperson of another and discussing the same biological resources. Hence, there is a need to reduce these multiple institutional structures through coordination at the uppermost levels as well as at the ground level between the ministries by accepting each other’s institutions. Several committees at the gram sabha/gram panchayat level can be merged in the spirit of participatory and accountable management of natural resources. Tripura, for example, has been able to demonstrate coordinated functioning of JFMCs and BMCs and also has active access and benefit sharing mechanism, helping the local people and resources.

Thus, BMCs and PBRs have to be recognised beyond MoEFCC by ministries such as ministry of tribal affairs (MoTA). At the same time, NBA also needs to understand the direct importance of such an important institutional setup in the larger context of biological resource management linked with MoTA, ministry of rural development (MoRD), and agriculture ministry. A number of rural development programmes such as soil and water conservation measures, agriculture-related activities, MGNREGS activities are directly linked with biological resources and natural resource management. For all such field-level activities, robust institutional mechanism is available in the form of BMCs and PBRs. Now it is the responsibility of the central government to take cognisance of such processes to have a coordinated approach for sustainable development of over 60% of the population of India through proper management of biological resources. So in keeping with the theme Our Solutions are in Nature and provided we understand nature and respect the solutions, we must also recognise the role of solution providers. Empowering the millions of forest-dwelling people of India and a strategic institution such as PBR can help conserve biodiversity before all is lost.​

(The author is Senior Fellow, Centre for Forest Management & Governance, TERI. Views are personal.)
first published:May 21, 2020, 16:02 IST