Participatory Forestry in Bengal: Competing Narratives, Statemaking, and Development

Participatory Forestry in Bengal: Competing Narratives, Statemaking, and. Development

During the last decade, groups of villagers in southwest Bengal were mobilized to protect certain second growth forests in the region. This process of local cooperation with villages and between villagers and the state is called Joint Forest Management (JFM) and has become a participatory forestry development scheme in many parts of India. My larger project explores the ways in which, as a development regime pertaining to forest management, JFM is an historical product of colonial statemaking. Situation specific and historically emergent development regimes constrain and transform the impact of global discourses. Participatory development is thus both a global discourse embedded in internationally aided projects, and a particular outcome of local politics of development.

In this article I will confine my remarks to how JFM creates a contested space for development. JFM is also the consequence of enormous donor investment in certain notions of participation. By briefly presenting and analyzing competing narratives that have been generated about the origins of JFM, I will show how key categories used to define and evaluate participation in forestry projects are challenged and modified in the politics of their implementation.

Examining JFM in Bengal and the changes in peasant-state relations that have followed can illuminate what James Ferguson has called the instrument effects of development discourse. Discussing a development project in Lesotho, Ferguson shows how international development agencies framed the project entirely in terms of powerful stereotypes about the region. The success or failure of the project by its own criteria is not the issue. By transforming social relations in the project area and giving the state a stronger presence there, such projects have unintended, but logical, consequences of strengthening central government control over remote regions. In the following discussion of politics in a region experiencing JFM since the late 1980s, I propose some revisions of the Fergusonion concept in two ways that go beyond regional particularities.

First, I suggest that his systems of knowledge approach seems to institute a separation between development discourse and its assumed opposite - indigenous knowledge - that inhibits our appreciation of the fluid, negotiated ways in which development discourse is formed in specific settings. An attendant reification is then introduced into any notion of what constitutes village community. Recognizing the value of indigenous knowledge has been an important step towards securing greater commitment from development agencies to the participation of targeted populations. But simplified notions of indigenous knowledge - have often frustrated this commitment. Effective local participation in development projects has to be built on prior specifications of "local" and "community", which in turn require us to attend more carefully to the production of salient development knowledge, be it international, indigenous or some hybrid.

This leads to my second point that, when the apparatus of state is repositioned through a development project, it is less likely to be an unintended, if immanent, outcome of the development project, as Ferguson argues, and more the consequence of struggles over the political agendas of development. In other words, when a scheme like JFM provides a venue and an opportunity to negotiate afresh the political arrangements on the ground, it is directly implicated in statemaking, a process that subsumes such schemes. Statemaking here refers not only to the ways in which central authority and control are strengthened through bureaucratic expansion, but also to the ways in which the formal apparatus of state is limited and confined by societal institutions. In short it refers to the delineation of public arenas like that of participatory development.

That is why I am discussing competing versions of the origins of JFM in Bengal. These narratives recreate the past and adumbrate manifestoes for the future through conflicting representations that are mobilized in struggles to shape specific political results. Therefore (as Mark Hobart suggests), "how knowledge, power and agency are represented and responsibility attributed in different situations ... are issues of interest." Development narratives often become institutionally embedded policy paradigms that are difficult to dislodge. But they are transformed historically through changes in institutions and constellations of interests, as well as shifting representations of development.

Through their varying accounts of the same events, these narratives become discursive strategies, working to organize and win property claims, limit social freedom and legitimate state intervention. As powerful representations that mobilize policy on the one hand and local collective action on the other, development narratives participate in the politics of statemaking. This article will provide a glimpse of some of these representations and in the process highlight how related categories of community and expertise are reconstituted in their construction.

When considered from the analytical perspective of state formation, JFM appears to engender three important versions of what we might call its origin myth. The first of these accounts makes JFM indexical of the progressive possibilities of state-sponsored development. Another harps upon the resurgence of innate, long-suppressed community sensibilities among the peasantries of south-west Bengal. A third account stresses the crucial dynamics of NGOs and international agencies in pushing the limits of innovative and participatory forest conservation or development. All these versions contain commentaries on the possibilities for development, the locus of necessary expertise, and the notion of village community so readily employed in development projects.

As the state in India has always assumed responsibility for both maintaining order and initiating change, each of the narratives also becomes an evaluation of the role of state in shaping and implementing development projects that would transfer power from state to society. We, therefore, need to consider these three strands of argument more carefully, for they contain points of disagreement and areas of overlap that illuminate mechanisms of statemaking at work. They also reveal the wide variety of actors - human agents, their institutions and ideas - whose conflicts and coalitions help produce these narratives. For simplicity we may classify the players as villagers, NGOs and government officials, but while doing so we have to remain aware of the internal fractures within these groupings. Competing accounts of JFM origins are generated as much through friction within these groups as they are a product of struggles between them.

Having said that, space constraints allow me to sketch out only two narratives. Narrative as the most spontaneous form of historical representation has a central role in this complex of relations. But narratives also reveal the constrained choices through which they are constructed. By the study of narrativization, we can begin to understand the interplay of constraint and choice across asymmetrical power relations in space and time. Narratives lead us to appreciate all social formations and identities, including the processes of statemaking.

The two narratives I will discuss have been constructed to sustain our focus on issues of participation in joint forest management. One is the distilled product of official discourses on JFM's origins, and the other a sanitized account from villagers belonging to a long-surviving forest protection committee (FPC) in western Midnapore. Such authorized narratives are salient because they become central to policy debates and local politics. Local initiatives

A few months after I had been in the field, I began to collect material on how village leaders perceived the origins of JFM in their area. The story of the Haldanga forest protection committee mirrors, in many respects, the issues they raised and is, therefore, discussed in detail below. I knew I would get the standardized narrative or the polished, carefully crafted public version of why and how the villagers mobilized to protect their forests. I was also aware that such a prepared telling could not cover all that we may wish to know about power. But just as the production of standardized narratives reveals struggles over boundaries that are drawn between what is made public and what is kept hidden, its proffered outcome - of orthodoxy and consensus - can denote the shape of the community, whose boundary is so managed through struggle.

We were seated in concentric circles on the floor, with a few children perched in the open barless windows. The distribution of wealth and standing in the village was mirrored in the way people sat around that day. The members of Singha households, clearly the elites, sat close. Mahatos and Santhals, petty cultivators mostly, brought up the rear. Lodhas, laborers all, were standing in a scatter outside, though many had chosen not to come. The task of narration was assumed by three prime organizers of the committee. The discussion, lasting several hours, was recorded in Bengali, the translations and editing are mine. What follows is a highly abbreviated version of their consolidated story.

About sixteen years ago, there were concerted efforts all around this region to extend cultivation at the expense of the forests. A few young men decided to ask people to clear fields elsewhere, as forests were valuable. There was considerable tension and conflict, but with the support of elders these men were able to prevail. In 1985 the village joined the Zila Parishad rural development research project to prepare village development plans. This proved to be a very educative process, and was a different experience from earlier forest protection which, my informants said, was not based on real awareness.

In 1988 the forest beat officer, pleased that villages were protecting the forest, promised that he would secure government assistance if the committee survived. This was a difficult task, because the committee would have to last longer than the usual village committees, such as those organized for a specific event which disband after the occasion. But work in rural development planning since 1985 had created an organization that came in handy.

At the time forest destruction continued apace. There were scuffles with villagers of neighboring Sirsi that could not be resolved through the panchayat (elected local government). But the department helped solve the problem. Yet again, there was a violent dispute with the Belpahar forest committee. Many people were hospitalized and the forest department helped defray some of the costs of treatment. From the beginning the foresters were sympathetic.

Then the Haldanga committee heard about microplanning and how the forest department would undertake schemes to benefit the villagers. Comparing the JFM scheme with land reforms, where sharecroppers had been guaranteed seventy-five percent of the crop, they asked why JFM would give only 25% of the produce to the village committee. The forester explained in addition to direct profit sharing, another 25% of the net proceeds would be spent on village development. This would be in the nature of indirect compensation. Considering the inadequacy of development work undertaken by the panchayati raj (local government) institutions after 1978, the Haldanga forest protection committee was motivated to continue in the expectation of additional investment in village development. Since then the forest department has prepared two roads to the village. But villagers found that the works have not been satisfactory, and money has not been spent well. They pointed out the defects in the publicworks. After two meetings with the Divisional Forest Officer and the District Magistrate, they were taken on a tour of other FPCs. In Chatnasol Range they saw Hatimara FPC. From 1989 when the Government Order on JFM was passed, progress made under the scheme has been slow and unsatisfactory.

This account (which I have liberally edited and paraphrased) is fascinating for its engagement with development discourse. It traces a path marked by many shared milestones, the social forestry project, rural development research, working through panchayati. While careful to intimate the role of villager initiative, this narrative quickly locates itself within the key metaphors of development discourse - learning, progress and cumulative gain.

Particularly salient, but only alluded to in this standardized narrative, is the way in which the cooperative conservation community is formed and maintained through several exclusions. The violent exchanges with neighbors, the Lodhas who remain spoken for but silent, the poorer villagers who were prevented from encroaching on forests for farm land, are all episodes and absences that are passed over in the story as told. We are reminded by cryptic allusions and strategic omissions in this story that when environmental protection is to be accomplished through the exclusion of certain people from the use of a resource, it will follow existing patterns of power and stratification in society. While my example illustrates social stratification along ethnic and class lines, this argument would hold equally for other forms of exclusion, such as that of women, and hence vitiated community participation.

Clearly, development discourse is being appropriated and modified by village elites in ways that bear the stamp of local political imperatives. To that extent, these agents of community forestry, like the people Stacy Pigg wrote about in Nepal, "do not perceive the ideology of development as culturally foreign." They are also delineating a critique of government policy, even as their local initiative is diffused through prolonged cooperation with foresters into the world of government schemes. This critique is crucial to maintaining the fragile community forged in the face of internal fracture and external hostility, for its declares the need for government support, and chides the government for being tardy in providing the support that would legitimate and make feasible the continuance of the community. Most importantly, this critique is not derived from the anti-modern or pre-modern realm of social identity. Through this critique a new community is being created, by reminding the government of certain populist aspects of development discourse that created the space for forest protection committees in the first place. State reformism

I now turn to the distilled official version of how the forest department in Bengal came to be institutionally disposed towards facilitating the emergence of JFM. In interviews and more casual discussions, foresters of all ranks repeatedly alluded to the recurrent violence and atmosphere of suspicion that prevailed in the first decades following the transfer of forests from landlords to the state government in southwest Bengal. A senior Conservator of Forests in West Bengal recounted the numerous raids on village markets he led in the early seventies as a Divisional Forest Officer, particularly one in June 1973 that resulted in several deaths as the police opened fire on defiant villagers. In the words of Subhabrata Palit, "confrontations and conflicts were so intense that hundreds of forest staff...lost their lives fighting to defend forests from illegal extraction and over-exploitation." Another foresteer recollected his days raiding and destroying head loads seized from villagers en route to local markets. His memory of sustained violent conflict with villagers through the 1960s and 1970s coincided with the introduction of scientific management in southwest Bengal forests, acquired from abolished landlord estates around 1955.

In all these accounts, poor performance under a production forestry regime, the introduction of social forestry and accelerated land reforms under successive Left Front governments after 1977, converged to impel a transition in forest management in southwest Bengal. As a result, in the official narratives of JFM's origins, the period from about 1960 to 1980 has become a time to forget. But some "progressive" foresters do recall this period, for such recollection serves to underscore how an opportunity was lost to break the mould of colonial, custodial forestry and collaborate with people in forest conservation and development. In their story of the forest department's evolutionary progression into the benign enlightened present, the mid century decades mark the passage through darkness, the early learning years. Such learning of course advances through the misty morning light or social forestry. The West Bengal social forestry project of the 1980s has thus gained an important place in marking the transition to JFM though it failed to achieve most of its welfare targets. How did this happen?

Social forestry dictated a shift in departmental working styles, along with a wider political devolution that occurred concurrently in Bengal. It proved to be a major effort on the part of foresters to plant trees on lands outside state forests. In addition the project resulted in farmer nurseries that were created to generate the large supply of seedlings required for the massive afforestation program. Strips were usually planted on government lands along roadsides, canal banks, railway lines and embankments. They were supposed to be protected by villagers, who had to be persuaded, as a modicum of plantation survival was necessary to secure additional funding for the project activities in different districts. Village woodlots utilized panchayat wastes and other community lands. Farm forestry was basically subsidized private tree planting. All these components required in varying degrees the cooperation of villagers and local bodies, thereby placing foresters in a position where they had to sell their schemes. Since all this was done in the name of affording improved supplies of fuelwood, non-timber forest products and wage labor, foresters could now participate in existing rural development discourse as agents and vendors.

As many foresters pointed out to me, they learned and took part in "technology extension", something earlier confined to the agricultural sector. To the degree that extension involved transfer of technical knowledge, foresters mostly seemed pleased to be cast in this wisdom dispensing role. But another face of extension is transparency of government purpose. This requirement was at times a point of contention between senior officials and field staff. The Subordinate Forest Service Association had encouraged its members in the field to draw senior officials on tour into public discussion with villagers about departmental schemes and their objectives. This strategy could often cause considerable embarrassment to the senior official on the spot, given the generalized hostility of villagers to the forest department in the phase prior to social forestry.

While social forestry transformed the forest department into a development agency, it also interacted with the wider political and administrative devolution underway in West Bengal under the Panchayati Raj Act. Since 1978 the Left Front Government had organized elections to a local government structure with three-tiers, called panchayats. Local responsibility for land reforms, education, and a host of social services had been transferred to these bodies. By 1986 they were integrated through a series of government orders into social forestry. An official publicity pamphlet notes with a flourish that "the experience of West Bengal Social Forestry Project, select JFM experiments in Midnapore since 1970s, and motivation by departmental staff and Panchayat officials spread `people's' participation like wildfire in southwest Bengal." Conclusion

To sum up, both villagers and foresters seem to agree that the changing institutional environment of forest management and its relationship to the rhetoric of development were important for the emergence of JFM. Where they diverge is in their account of agency, or the motive force behind the re-arranged social relations that made forest protection committees possible. The disagreements become central to the politics of contestation over forest management because forests are being defined through JFM as sites of development, opening to reconsideration rules and policies framed a hundred years ago.

At the same time, the politics of alternate narratives about JFM origins also hold important implications for the nature and quality of participatory forestry in Bengal or elsewhere. The kind of institutional and cultural transformation of bureaucracy evident in Bengal becomes necessary to enlarge the arena of participatory development. But, as the case we have discussed reminds us, there are concurrent changes in the social institution of political action that occur. These have to be understood, for how local initiative interacts with government reformism becomes crucial to the sustenance of any participatory development project. References Bright, Charles, and Susan Harding, (eds.). 1984. Statemaking and Social Movements: Essays in History and Theory. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. Carr, David. 1986. Time, Narrative and History, Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Ferguson, James. 1994. The Anti-Politics Machine: "Development" Depoliticisation and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Hobart, Mark. 1993. Introduction: The Growth of Ignorance? In Mark Hobard (ed.) An Anthropological Critique of Development: The Growth of Ignorance. London: Routledge. Hoben, Allan. 1995. Paradigms and Politics: The Cultural Construction of Environmental Policy in Ethiopia. World Development 23(6): 1007-21. Ludden, David. 1992. India's Development Regime. In Nicholas Dirks (ed.) Colonialism and Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. Palit, Subhabrata. 1993. The Future of Indian Forest Management: Into the Twenty-First Century. Joint Forest Management Working Paper, No. 15. National Support Group for Joint Forest Management. New Delhi: Society for Promotion of Wastelands Development. Pigg, Stacy Leigh. 1992. Inventing Social Categories Through Place: Social Representations and Development in Nepal. Comparative Studies in Society and History 34(3): 491-513. Roe, Emery. 1991. Development Narratives, or Making the Best of Blueprint Development. World Development 19(4): 287-300. Roy, B.K. Bardhan. 1992. From Wasteland to Wealth: The West Bengal Way. Calcutta: Directorate of Forests. Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Disclaimer

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.

CSQ Issue: