A recent central government report showed India’s forest and tree cover had World Forestry Day increased by 5,081 sqkm and Tamil Nadu with 2501 sqkm had contributed to 50% of the increase in the country.
The news is heartening and is the result of years of dedicated conservation efforts. But the achievement is only a fraction of what the state has to do to achieve zero deforestation and degradation. These are the challenges Tamil Nadu must work at consistently to achieve the World Forestry Day goals set by Sustainable Forest Management (SFM) by 2020. Since the early 1990s, forest degradation and destruction have been one of the crucial problems of forest management in Tamil Nadu due to years of exploitation of forest land for shift agriculture and infrastructure development.
This has led to reduced land productivity and livelihood opportunities for people living around forest areas in Eastern and Western Ghats. To reduce and rein in the damage, TN has experimented with Joint Forest Management (JFM), a co-management program between forest departments and the local people, in the past 20 years to find solutions to forest degradation and destruction.
The main features of the TAP approach included implementing the program on a ‘micro watershed basis aiding natural regeneration of forests by giving the authority of the upkeep of the forests to the villagers and ensuring alternate job opportunities for them. The forest department, in a first, ensured integration of all the departments for the free flow of funds. For instance, the agricultural and animal husbandry departments provided villagers with high-yielding crops and cattle to wean them away from shift agriculture. The villagers were given a bigger role in forest management. Instead of World Forestry Day enforcing laws, they were asked to form groups to work with the forest department. Alternative skill-building exercises like handicrafts and tailoring for women helped in providing a livelihood to the families who were over-dependent on their surroundings.
The project was first initiated in Thiruvadisoolam village, located close to the reserved forest near Puli Kudivanam, in Chengelpet district in 1996.
At that time, the forest was degraded due to overuse by the forest department and villagers. It became a barren land, but the participatory management practiced over the years has resulted in a rising water table, World Forestry Day restoration of the forest, and development of the village. Native species of plants have reappeared and animals like deer, rabbits, porcupine, have returned. The return of World Forestry Day of puli (panther) in 2014 to Puli kudivanam marks the success of the restoration. The agricultural production has improved and the socio-economic condition of the villagers has changed for the better with better alternative incomes, better literacy, and access to healthcare.
Forest management in TN is complex and challenging due to the existence of varied and multiple stakeholders, conflicts over resources, the demand for land and forest product, and low priority for the sector. So, forest management needs to gear up to respond to present-day needs with a priority on participatory management over enforcement of laws. Tamil Nadu needs to have a clear vision with sound policies and legal and regulatory frameworks, practical World Forestry Day planning and decision-making processes, and effective implementation of projects. The basic principles of good governance like accountability, effectiveness, efficiency, fairness, and transparency must become an integral part of forest management in all aspects.
Apart from a healthy environment, forests will ensure high-quality soils to enable sustained food production and clean and abundant water. The JFM is perhaps the answer to make Sustainable Forest Management a reality in the state. It should be followed more emphatically to make ensure a zero deforestation and degradation state. The JFM model has been a successful strategy in World Forestry Day arresting forest exploitation by integrating conservation with the socio-economic development of forest fringe villages in India. In 1996, the state adopted the JFM model to introduce the Tamil Nadu Afforestation Project (TAP). The project was undertaken with the assistance of the Japanese Overseas Economic Co-operation Fund (JICA) for 4,744 million.