|Who Participates? The Case of Rural Women, an NGO and Joint Forest Management in Gujarat (IRMA, 1995)|
There is perhaps no other professional, natural resource management institution in India which has been so extensively criticised, but little researched in the post-colonial period, as the Forest Department, represented by the Indian Forest Service (Gadgil and Guha 1993). Not only has the FD been blamed for its adaptation of "scientific management", a legacy of colonial rule, to suit industrial and commercial timber interests, it is also held responsible for extensive deforestation as a result of the increasing reservation of public, open access, forests. This, in turn, has put pressure on the rural poor, particularly tribals and women, in meeting their basic needs and has led to considerable encroachment of both people and cattle on demarcated forest lands (Pathak 1994).
Realising the urgency of the forestry crisis and its implications for the poor as well as the environment, the state launched a number of initiatives in the 1970s under the rubric of community or social forestry. Essentially these were collective efforts on non-forest lands (including wastelands, roadsides, canals, etc.) aimed at meeting the fuel, fodder, timber and non-timber needs of local communities through their participation. The initiative to augment fuelwood supplies was intended to alleviate pressure on forests, while people's participation was deemed necessary for the protection and management of plantations. It was a symbolic response to the emerging conflicts between people and the state over the use of forest resources. However, for forest officers accustomed to running things from above the sharing of decision making power and authority with local communities was both personally painful and institutionally difficult. In practice,
"Local people, assumed to be ignorant, were subjected to disciplinary technology: extension programmes were designed to 'educate' farmers, women, schoolchildren and cooperatives about the benefits of tree planting. Farmers were taught how to plant and lop trees 'correctly' and how to manage forest plantations," (Hausler 1993: 86).
Little attention was paid to people's knowledge about trees or soil conditions while the distrust and antagonism between forest officials and communities persisted. The traditional "policing" role of the FD, coupled with their faith in their professional expertise, meant that there were very few channels through which the community could effectively participate. Moreover, the community is not an undifferentiated collective - those that did benefit were invariably the middle and large farmers who had access to economic resources or local political arenas, and could influence the choice of species and the distribution of benefits (Skutch 1987; Singh and Ballabh 1989).
Not surprisingly, many of the social forestry initiatives were soon superseded by farm forestry, on and along the boundaries of individual fields or farms. Unlike social forestry, farm forestry did not raise complex questions of land ownership, and the management and utilisation of resources. It required little investment or institutional effort and the returns were easily visible in a short period of time. However, there were many attacks against farm forestry because of its tilt towards industry and the market through the promotion of quick growing species such as eucalyptus, which environmentalists considered to be ecologically damaging (Shiva 1991: 146-167). But it was not long before there was a glut in the timber market and many of the middle and large farmers who had earlier profited from farm forestry returned to agriculture (Pathak 1994: 146-155).
It is in this context that women's role in state initiated forestry programmes has to be situated. Given the Forest Department's top-down approach to participation, it is hardly likely to be sensitive to the different needs of men and women. A review of the evaluation literature on social forestry programmes suggests that women's main role has been that of wage labourers and even in this limited sphere they have not acquired new skills, but have simply been doing tedious work such as weeding, watering and preparing polythene bags for saplings. Thus, the benefits they have gained, such as income, "...have not been so much the result of efforts to target them, but because poor women constitute a substantial part of the daily wage earners in the countryside," (Venkateswaran 1992: 68). Employment is short term, inadequate or underpaid, and depends on the kind of land on which plantation is undertaken and the choice of tree species.
In addition, the equation of women's interests with fuelwood and fodder trees (their assumed choice) overlooks their larger interests and needs outside the subsistence domain, for example, income generating species, such as various fruit trees and even eucalyptus (Leach 1992: 15).
At the level of the organisation (the FD), there are very few female forest officers or extension workers in the various State Forest Services. The Gujarat Forest Department, for example, has one lady forest officer at the rank of Conservator (in charge of a division), but five women beat guards who were recently hired have subsequently, left (Narain 1994: 15). According to (male) forest officers, women find fieldwork too demanding, and domestic responsibilities, particularly childbearing and childcare, impose restrictions on their mobility. Thus, women's reproductive roles are seen as constraints by the organisation, rather than challenges to be adjusted by institutional structures.
However, the deployment of women extension workers is not an end in itself with respect to encouraging rural women's participation in forestry. Unclear job descriptions have led many female extension workers to either be relegated to stereotyped office jobs (typists) or focus on men, using women only as an entry point to the village. Moreover, the use of women is not a guarantee of "natural" solidarity with poor rural women, for research shows that "... whatever the class background of women fieldworkers, their primary reference group is likely to be their superiors or colleagues, not their clients," (Goetz 1992: 14).
NGOs in contrast, are theoretically at least, more flexible and responsive to local level needs, particularly women's priorities, and have been involved in numerous efforts to increase women's active participation in the collective management of community land and forest resources (Singh and Burra 1993). Whether working with separate women's groups, both informal (Mahila Vikas Mandals) or formal (Tree Growers' Cooperatives), or in seeking representation for women on mixed local governing institutions (forest protection committees), NGOs have stressed the importance of securing usufruct rights for women, as well as decision making in terms of the management of community plantations. Despite the success stories, there are problems, for example working with exclusive women's groups can generate suspicion or hostility from men in the village and even male staff. Or what the NGO identifies as important gender concerns (the need for fuelwood, or women's participation) may not necessarily be seen as significant by the women themselves (Ahmed 1993).
The nature of gendered space within the organisation, though not adequately documented in the case of NGOs who are seen to be working for the "social good", is also the subject of increasing debate. Like the Forest Department, NGOs find it difficult to employ and retain women at the organisational level, particularly field staff. Parental pressure over young, single girls working and living in rural areas is often strong and when they get married, girls tend to leave the organisation as they inevitably have to follow their husband to new destinations. Some NGOs, albeit with resources, have responded by providing office transport for women when they have to attend distant or late night village meetings, or ensuring that they are accompanied by male staff. Attempts are made to provide basic housing for single women (or groups of women), not far from the office, while a few NGOs have creche facilities (for example, Sadguru in Gujarat and Seva Mandir in Udaipur).
However, the limited number of women at the field level in NGOs does constrain their ability to reach out to rural women. Male staff members for their part, have either found it difficult to talk to women because of social and cultural norms in the villages, or they have been unwilling (reluctant) to do so.
These issues have been thrown to the fore with the initiation of JFM efforts where the partnerships between local communities, NGOs and the FD have implications for women's participation in forest management. On the basis of some, albeit limited, documentation on the implementation of JFM, NGOs, social scientists and donor agencies maintain that where women have not been involved in decision-making, they have in fact been adversely affected (Sarin 1994; Singhal 1994). Not only have their fuelwood needs been overlooked, largely by male villagers interested in timber, the enclosure of traditionally open access forest areas has meant that many women have had to walk a greater distance to collect fuelwood, sometimes to other villages where they could be caught as "offenders." In addition, forest protection may affect women's access to and income from non-timber forest produce. Thus, women's involvement as decision makers in JFM is considered to be a small, but critical step, in the process of empowerment (Narain 1994: 8).
It is on the basis of these arguments that AKRSP commissioned IRMA, to try and identify if and how women's participation in JFM could be enhanced. While not doubting the validity of these arguments, we maintain that any attempt to understand women's participation, or lack of it in JFM, must be situated within the framework of men and women's gendered relationship with forest resources in a specific socio-economic context. The rest of this paper looks at how JFM is unfolding in one village where AKRSP is engaged and argues that the reasons behind women's seeming lack of participation are both structural and a result of their ecological adaptation to the deforestation crisis.