The Political Ecology of Forest Ecosystem Services and Poverty Alleviation (PEFESPA)

Relevance of the research

Forest peoples are one of the major groups of chronically poor in India. Experts agree that the prevailing governance regime in forested landscapes, mostly unchanged since colonial times, is a principle cause of poverty in this group. Independence and democratization have not lead to reforms, and issues of tenure and governance reform were, and remain, intensely contested in forested areas.

There is no consensus on whether and how forest governance regimes should be reformed. One logic favours state control of forests and limits to local rights as per ‘expert’ direction. This is strongly challenged by a ‘rights-based’ logic; which argues that a democracy should acknowledge and support aspirations of the people to improve their livelihoods through forest use. The ecosystem services framework, championed by biologists and conservationists, takes a techno-economic approach. Political ecologists and institutional analysts focus on governance regimes and the challenges of nesting different levels of governance.

The only meeting point seems to be the gradual acceptance that forests have multiple stakeholders at different scales, and that distribution of benefits across stakeholders and trade-offs therein are as central as questions of long-term sustainability of forests and the services they provide.


In the above context, this Forest and Governance project aims to understand type, magnitude and distribution of benefits from forest ecosystems changes when the forest governance system changes. For this, the research team selected three site clusters in Nayagarh district, Odisha, with similar agro-ecological contexts, but falling under different governance regimes. The three contrasting governance regimes playing out in these sites are state-controlled timber-oriented management (Reserve Forest), state-controlled conservation-oriented management (Protected Area), and community forest management.


State-controlled timber-oriented management Arang/ Barbera, Rampur range community-managed forests and conservation-oriented Baisipalli Wildlife Sanctuary

Questions that the team is trying to answer for each site cluster are:

  1. Who determines tenure and governance, management objectives and management regime?
  2. Who gets the benefits and who gets costs?
  3. What governance regime is ‘best’? Most sustainable, productive, equitable, pro-poor etc

The project will identify the direct and indirect forest ecosystem services and disservices in the different sites. It will aim to gain an understanding of factors determining distribution of benefits of the ecosystem services and costs of the ecosystem disservices that occur in the different management cases. Generate insights into the nature and magnitude of trade-offs between forest ecosystem services and service users or rights holders under different management regimes; understand the influence of changes in rights, institutional arrangements and larger governance mechanism on the distribution of ecosystem services, especially on the poor; and develop a conceptual framework and methodology that incorporates the core concepts of ecological complexity, trade-offs and institutions into an assessment framework.

Forest ecosystem services are important for livelihoods and sustenance.


The multi-layered PEFESPA approach to ecosystem services research (see Lele et al 2013 for details).

The team has employed a multi-layered approach that looks at:

  1. forest ecology—its structure and processes
  2. landscape—topography, soil, climate and rainfall; agricultural practices;
  3. governance arrangements and accessibility to forests and forest produce
  4. service flow: at local, national and global scales


The ecosystem services under study are NTFP provision, timber provision, cultural services (recreation value, token species, spiritual/ religious value), fodder provision, hydrological services, pest control and biodiversity assessment (this falls outside the common practice in ES research). The disservices under study are crop damage, human injury and casualty due to wild life.

The team carried out its social-ecological study throughout 2012 and will continue to do so in the first half of 2013, combining ecological quality surveys in the form of biophysical appraisal, and social appraisal in the form of focus groups discussions, interviews and household surveys. The project has produced a critical review of the concept of ecosystem services and proposed an alternative framework for ecosystem services research in the paper:

Besides this academic output, PEFESPA aims to contribute to forest governance on ground through policy recommendations and empowerment of local forest-dependent communities.

The PEFESPA project is a two-year research project, which began in 2011 and will be completed mid-2013. This project is a University of East Anglia, Vasundhara and ATREE partnership. The people on the team are:

  • Sharachchandra Lele, of the Forest and Governance Programme at ATREE, with
  • Oliver Springate-Baginski, of the School of International Development of the University of East Anglia (UEA), Great Brittain
  • Prasad Dash, of Vasundhara, Bhubaneswar with Yashmita Ulman (postgraduate from Tamil Nadu Agricultural University)
  • Debal Deb, of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies, Odisha
  • Madhu Sarin (independent consultant, Chandigarh)

The research is funded by the U.K-based Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation programme, coordinated by the National Environmental Research Council (NERC).

  1. Lakerveld, R. P., S. Lele, T. A. Crane, K. P. J. Fortuin and O. Springate-Baginski. 2015.The social distribution of provisioning forest ecosystem services: Evidence and insights from Odisha, India. Ecosystem Services 14: 56-66.[pdf]
  2. Carmen, Esther (2011). Visualising the Landscape: Spatial Analysis of Forest Ecosystem Services for Socially Differentiated Groups in Orissa, India. Masters thesis. University of East Anglia, Norwich.[pdf]
  3. Lakerveld R. P.2012. Applying political ecology to ecosystem services. Operationalizing an alternative approach to ecosystem services research, using an empirical case study in Odisha, India. M.Sc. thesis, Environmental Systems Analysis Group, Wageningen University, Netherlands.[pdf]
  4. Lakshmi B, P.2013.Linked Social and Ecological Dynamics in a Managed Forest Ecosystem: Kendu leaf extraction in Baisipalli Sanctuary, Odisha, India. M.A.in Environment and Development, School of Human Ecolog, Dr.B.R.Ambedkar University, Delhi .[pdf]
  5. Lele, S., O. Springate-Baginski, R. Lakerveld, D. Deb and P. Dash. (2013). Ecosystem services: Origins, contributions, pitfalls and alternatives, Conservation and Society, 11(4): 343-358.[pdf]