Inequities in provisioning forest services: Insights from Odisha

Most research linking ecosystems and the benefits local communities derive from them consider overall human well-being as a linear derivative of ecosystem services, rarely paying attention to how ecosystem services are socially distributed. Additionally, most of this research tends to consider ecosystem services purely as a product of nature, thus obscuring the human contribution to their production.

As a result, such studies rarely elucidate the distributional dynamics of ecosystem services, which – as shown by an extensive body of political ecology research- are governed by over-arching access, power, cultural, gender and caste structures. A paper by ATREE’s Sharachchandra Lele and co-authors aims to analyze how these structures affect the distribution of ecosystem services across various social groups, which strive to derive its benefits (either being direct consumers of such services or through the processing and sale of forest NTFPs).

To further shed light on how the distribution of ecosystem services across various social groups can take place on the micro scale, this study examines the Teen Mauza community forest management (CFM) initiative. This initiative was started in 2002 by the villagers of Akhupadar, Basantapur and Lakhapada, by taking into their own hands a degraded patch of about 155 hectares of reserve forest –falling under the jurisdiction of the Forest Department, adjoining Akhupadar village.

The CFM group currently consists of all resident households of Akhupadar (all of whom are scheduled tribes), and the general caste households of Basantapur and Lakhapada, forming a group of 78 households. While access to the forest is available to those who are considered a part of the forest protection communities, many households are considered outsiders (including ‘newcomers’ who have recently migrated to these areas) and are excluded from using the provisioning ecosystem services rendered by the forest. Many of these people are landless and heavily dependent on sharecropping and wage labour.

The research revealed that bamboo provisioning services are heavily skewed against a group of scheduled caste households, who have traditionally been engaged in the sale of bamboo crafts though these are not part of the CFM initiative. Additionally, while grazing benefits are enjoyed by a few households within the CFM community, non-CFM communities and a wealthy town-based herd owner were found to be using a much larger proportion of the grazing services. More significantly, the town-based herd owner accounted for a lion’s share of the grazing services, thus indicating that financial prowess and political clout greatly influence the distribution of grazing provisions in the forest.

While the scheduled tribe (ST) community of Akhupadar (who makes up 20% of the Teen Mauza protection households) are heavily forest dependent and all ST households are engaged in the collection of either Siali leaves, mushrooms or tubers, less than 50% of the non-ST households engaged in the collection of NTFPs collect tubers and mushrooms. Additionally 80% of the women in ST households are involved in the collection of listed NTFP species, while only 4% of the general caste women are involved in NTFP collection. The low involvement of women in general caste households can be attributed to social control.

The position of the STs in Teen Mauza is ambiguous. While they are able to make good use of its provisioning ecosystem services and are materially quite well-off, reliance on NTFPs confirms their lower status in the social hierarchy of Teen Mauza. Conversely, many general caste households of Teen Mauza are very poor, landless and desperately need extra income, but social values and stigmas associated with caste prevent them from making use of the forest's ecosystem services in the same way that the ST households do.

While this case study does indicate clear inequities in the distribution of ecosystem services, as indicated by the distribution of bamboo, grazing and NTFP provisioning services, the results of this study are not meant to be generalized to characterize the interplay between ecosystem use and human wellbeing. Instead this paper aims to point out and empirically illustrate the principle that ecosystem services provisioning and distribution is a function of context-dependent social dynamics, calling on researchers in this field to carefully take these into account in future studies.

Read the full paper: 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.