|Who Participates? The Case of Rural Women, an NGO and Joint Forest Management in Gujarat (IRMA, 1995)|
AKRSP was established in 1984 with the overall objective of organising the rural people into viable and self-sustaining institutions so that they can manage their natural resource base, determine their development priorities and enhance their ability to deal with agencies of the state. Essentially, AKRSP promotes participatory natural resources management through income-generating activities in three tribal districts of Gujarat, namely, Bharuch, Surendranagar and Junagadh. In addition, it provides technical and professional managerial support to local communities through a decentralised process of social mobilisation which includes the appropriate use of participatory methodologies (PRAs), the development of village institutions (Gram Vikas Mandals, Lift Irrigation Cooperatives, Tree Growers' Cooperatives, etc.) and skilled local resources who can act as extension volunteers or community organisers (para-professionals).
Since 1985, AKRSP has been working with village communities in afforesting and protecting degraded wastelands (revenue lands). These activities have provided both income earning opportunities, which has had an impact on migration, as well as secured access to adequate sources of fuelwood, fodder and timber for the participating villages. In selecting sites for protection, AKRSP uses the following criteria: nearness of the village, its forest related needs, time available for forestry and its ability to protect the site.
With the official notification on Joint Forest Management issued by the Gujarat state government in March 1991, AKRSP has been replicating its afforestation efforts on forest lands in collaboration with the Forest Department. However, this new partnership is not unproblematic. Despite the formation of a high level State Working Group on JFM which meets quarterly, the Gujarat Forest Department has yet to internalise and activate a participatory approach to forest protection. Thus, JFM is simply one among other forest schemes and programmes, providing temporary employment, rather than an approach or strategy towards working with local communities (AKRSP Annual Report 1993).
For its part, AKRSP is trying to act as a catalyst in facilitating the relationship between the FD and local communities. In August 1993, for example, it organised a workshop at its regional campus in Netrang (Bharuch district) where villagers had an opportunity to meet (senior) forest officers, including the Chief Conservator of Forests, to discuss technical, financial, legal and institutional issues resulting from the operationalisation of JFM. AKRSP is trying to standardise the procedures involved for villages adopting JFM so that there is clarity about the sharing of benefits and the distribution of rights, both within and between villages and between villages and the FD. Fifty per cent of the produce belongs to the Forest Department while village institutions determine the distribution of benefits within the village.
According to the state government orders, all adults are technically eligible to be members of the village level forest protection institution, while there must be a minimum of two female members on the managing committee. In practice, membership of village level institutions is largely male dominated, partly because for voting purposes (one vote per member and therefore, per family) the head of the family is registered, who is de facto male. In the case of joint or extended households, each family (defined by having a separate kitchen) is eligible for membership. Though two women are appointed to the executive committees, they remain largely names on paper rather than active members for a variety of social and cultural reasons.
Since the appointment of a full-time Women and Development Programme Executive in November 1990, AKRSP has been promoting separate informal women's groups (Mahila Vikas Mandals) which undertake a number of activities ranging from savings, to biogas promotion and nursery raising (see below). In addition, AKRSP has tried to sensitise village men, by conducting PRAs with them so that they can understand the arduous nature of women's daily tasks. It is hoped that through both these simultaneous processes women will eventually feel empowered to participate in the Gram Vikas Mandals (GVMs) and that men will support their participation.
At the organisational level, AKRSP has been slowly sensitising its staff through a series of district specific, gender awareness workshops. The workshops aimed to distil policy concerns for gender sensitive development, expressed by the top echelons in the organisation, to the middle and lower levels who are responsible for programme implementation. At a recent forestry programme meeting, male staff members (community organisers) did not seem to be clear about their roles - how and what were they supposed to talk to women about. They maintain that although women are informed about GVM meetings, they do not attend. Moreover, because of their already heavy workload with GVM membership, meetings and JFM projects, male programme staff argue that they do not have the time to take on the responsibility for involving women.
In Bharuch, a Programme Organiser for Gender Issues was recently appointed to support the Programme Executive and strengthen local efforts at building women's groups. Increasingly, young married women from the villages are being trained as Extension Volunteers (Biogas and Forestry programmes) and it is hoped that some of them may gradually become effective community organisers.
The next few sections look at the interphase between gender relations, village institutions and forest regeneration in the context of one village where AKRSP would like to promote women's participation in forest management.