Forests for biodiversity and wellbeing

South Asia's globally unique forests are changing rapidly and changes in forest cover correlate with radical alterations in people’s interactions with them. Such interactions include changes in land use and land cover, population growth and demographic change, technological developments, growing economic integration of rural and urbanizing areas, spread of invasive species and changes in local and regional climate regimes. To address some of these issues, the USAID-funded Forests for Biodiversity and Wellbeing project is being implemented at three sites in Western Ghats – the Biligiri Ranga Temple Tiger Reserve, Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary and Malai Mahadeswara Wildlife Sanctuary. The main issues this project addresses are increasing the income of forest-dependent communities through improved management of agriculture and NTFP species, introducing innovations in strengthening systems of forest resources management and monitoring the resources with the community participation.

The project not only focuses on introducing new agricultural products and techniques so as to help villagers add value to NTFPs, but also helps them understand and mitigate to reduces over harvest.

Secondly, in a bid to reduce fuel wood consumption, the project has scaled up the sale, marketing and distribution of Improved Cook Stoves (ICS), in the Darjeeling Hills, via private-sector collaborations in Eastern Himalaya.

Thirdly, the project also helps strengthen systems of forest resource management, at the local level, through research on the population genetics and management of important NTFPs. This entails working with local and district-level governmental planning agencies to improve environmental governance, assessing current and likely future impacts of tourism on forests and resources and leading a new regional stakeholder forum for climate awareness across the Eastern Himalayas.

A. Problem

South Asia’s globally unique forests are changing rapidly. Indeed, extensive changes in forest structure, function and in species composition continue to accelerate, despite considerable official efforts over recent decades to maintain overall forest cover in the sub-continent. Even the Forest Survey of India, while maintaining that the overall forest cover in India is increasing, concedes that the area under closed natural forest cover is slightly decreasing, especially in northeast India (FSI 2009, FSI 2011). Other estimates put deforestation rates much higher than FSI (e.g., Pandit et al. 2007, Ravindranath et al 2012). Changes in forest cover are correlated with radical alterations in peoples’ interactions with forests, including changes in land use and land cover; population growth and demographic change; technological developments; growing economic integration of rural and urbanizing areas; spread of invasive species; and apparent changes in local and regional climate regimes.

Neither the nature nor the magnitude of these changes is well understood—partly because they are occurring so rapidly and over such a large and diverse area, and partly because the causal relationships and influences driving them have not been elucidated. These trends are, however, extremely significant, both because of the unique nature of the ecosystems involved, and because of the vast number of people affected: India alone has at least 275 million people living in and around forest areas, depending directly on forest resources for at least part of their livelihoods.

Inadequate institutional responses: Lack of understanding has unfortunately contributed to generally uncoordinated and inadequate institutional responses to mitigate the effects of these changes. It is true that many aspects of change are being driven by macroeconomic trends at the global scale. Yet we assume here, as a normative matter, that national and lower-scale institutions have both the responsibility and the power to manage these large-scale changes in the interests of their constituents. Institutional failure has severe consequences: quality of life and livelihood security in many parts of rural India continue to decline, even as overall economic growth remains rapid. Factors contributing to institutional failures include the lack of knowledge, particularly about changing people-forest interactions; centralized and inflexible forest governance; and weak local forest management institutions. Thus, multiple pressures and stresses on forest ecosystems—and on their ecosystem services—continue unabated.

Overall ATREE objectives: The overall objectives of ATREE’s program of research on forests and rural livelihoods, and of this proposal, are 1) to contribute to the understanding of these trends in several parts of India; and 2) to help build robust policies and governance to increase the ecological, social and economic resilience of ecosystems and human communities.

B. Proposed program: Purpose and outputsThis proposal builds on many years of past work, focusing on two biodiversity hotspots of India: Darjeeling Hills in the Eastern Himalaya, and three Protected Areas in the Western Ghats. We are proposing a program of research and action that addresses all three of the USAID InFoRM program’s priority areas: (1) increasing income of forest dependent communities; (2) supporting innovations for fuel wood management; and (3) strengthening systems for forest resources management. For each of these priority areas, we set specific targets for the next four years.

We take a comparative approach, integrating a diverse set of research agendas, some of which are ongoing and others to be newly established. These agendas are clearly interlinked: for instance, improved fuel wood management is essential to improving overall forest resource management; while streamlined resource management systems contribute to raising incomes of forest-dependen communities. Yet the agendas are also to some extent independent, since they are carried out by separate ATREE staff teams and are located in several research sites across India. This enables us to undertake a relatively comprehensive program, consisting of a series of research-and-action components that together will yield a broad picture of the multifaceted changes Indian forests are undergoing. It allows us to pilot solutions to some of the problems.

Outputs: Our ultimate research goal is to develop a robust and innovative model of managing forest ecosystems and societal interactions in the face of global environmental and economic change. This model will integrate scientific knowledge, local community knowledge and perceptions, action-oriented research findings, and initiatives for the co-management of natural resources. Recent policy changes provide considerable space for potential applications of such a model; this model will be applicable to the management of many forest landscapes in India.

C. History of past interventions
One of the proximate reasons for the limited success of previous interventions in the Indian forestry sector has been the general dependency on (externally funded) short-term projects attempting to ‘inject’ an innovation, on the assumption that a good idea will gain its own traction and momentum. The power of socio-cultural and ecological diversity has been underestimated.

In contrast, this proposal is founded on long-term research and action programs. ATREE has a permanent presence in several parts of the country and therefore does not suffer from what Sayer & Wells (2004) labelled the ‘Pathology of Projects’. As Sayer & Wells remark, “If…institutions in developing countries were stronger and more effective—with better technical capacities, human resources, financial controls and service delivery mechanisms—there would be no need for projects.” Indeed, ATREE was founded partly to combat this problem in India.

A related problem concerns the need to provide programs with long-term capacity-building and relationship-building components if they are to succeed in generating changes in patterns of behavior, either among communities or the administrative machinery. Because of ATREE’s long term presence at the sites where it undertakes its work, we have the capacity to build long term relationships with local Non-Government Organizations, civil society, and government agencies. At the four of the five proposed sites, we have been working for more than 10 years, turning projects into sustainable programs, often achieving concrete results only after termination of the “short term” projects. ATREE is committed to working at the proposed sites, regardless of project funding, as long as it can make contributions to interactions between nature and society.

D. Target SitesATREE proposes to undertake this program at five sites, two in Darjeeling Hills in the Eastern Himalaya and three in the Western Ghats.

1. Eastern Himalaya (EH) SitesSingalila National Park (SNP) is located in the western part of Darjeeling district, on the border with Nepal. The park is known for its rich floral and faunal diversity, which includes many species of rhododendron, birds and mammals like the endangered clouded leopard, red pandaand Asiatic black bear. It was designated a National Park in 1992, covers an area of 80 sqkmand an altitudinal range of 2300-4000 masl. The Park is contiguous with two reserved forest ranges.There are 24 villages in and around SNP, of which 10 are forest villages and 14 are forest-fringe villages (khasmal). Each village has average 20-25 households, average household size 5.

Senchel Wildlife Sanctuary (SWLS), located on the outskirts of Darjeeling town, was designated in 1915 and is one of the oldest wildlife sanctuaries of India. It covers an area of 38.6 sqkmand an altitudinal range of 1700-2700 masl. It is home to many species of plants, birds and mammals. Most importantly, SWLS is the source of water for the Darjeeling urban agglomeration. There are 18 villages within the park and on the periphery, of which 8 are forest villages. Each village has average 30-35 households, average household size 5.

2. Western Ghats (WG) Sites

The Biligiri Ranga Temple Tiger Reserve (BR Hills) is a hill range on the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border, S. India. The site was declared a Tiger Reserve in 2010. The hills form a ‘biological bridge’ between the E. and the W. Ghats, facilitating gene flow between populations of many species. BR Hills (540 sqkm , alt. 900-1800 masl) is home to the indigenous Soliga tribal group, population 6000 in the park and 12000 on the periphery. The site is rich in biodiversity:1000 spp higher plants, > 36 mammals excluding bats and rodents, 245 birds, 145 butterflies.

Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary (CWLS) is a protected area located in the Mandya, Chamarajanagaand Ramanagar districts of Karnataka, South India. Established in 1987 partly to protect Cauvery River, CWLS is one of the important large wildlife habitats of Karnataka (1027 sqkm).

Malai Mahadeswara Wildlife Sanctuary (MM Hills) is located in Chamarajanagar district of S. Karnataka. MM Hills is a pilgrimage centre and contains large tracts of forest, from evergreen forests in Ponnachi Boli to dry deciduous forests in most other parts. The MM Hills Reserve Forest (291 sqkm), designated in 1913, has population of 20,000, including Soliga and Lingahit communities living in villages located within the reserve forests and around sanctuary borders. The important NTFP species in this region are Phyllanthus emblica, Sapindus spp, Terminalia chebula, Acacia concinna, Decalepis hamiltonii and Boswellia serrata.

E. Overall ATREE Goals

1. Understand the rate and magnitude of changes, and the underlying drivers2. Build capacities of local communities using forest resources to manage changes, bya) Understanding people’s perceptions of changes b) Increasing incomes through improved management of agriculture and NTFP speciesc) Introducing innovations in fuel wood managementd) Strengthening systems of forest resources management.

Dr. Ganesan Balachander
Dr. Siddappa Setty
Dr. Ravikanth G.
Dr. R. Ganesan
Dr. Sarala Khaling
Dr. Madegowda C.
Paramesha G.
Harisha R.P.
SriRama R.
Geethika E.
Soumya K.V.
Kailash B.R.
Shiva Subramanya S.
Vanaraj Ganapathy