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Terms like ‘national forests’, ‘national resources’ and ‘national property’ have been part of  academic and policy discourses since the turn of this century. However, in the early 1800s, any talk of using the adjective ‘national’ with forest land and resources would have raised many eyebrows. The question then is, how did forest land come to be nationalised? What was the rationale behind having State ownership of forests? These questions demand not just a clear historical analysis but also an examination of whether the State executed idea of conservation has actually helped preserve forest cover. If it has, what has been the human cost of it?  

This essay analyses the historical context of present-day understanding of environmental conservation. The apparent ‘human-nature’ conflict which is seen in the struggle between livelihoods and conservation, between ‘humans’ and ‘wilderness’ is the result of institutions that can be traced back to the 19th century. This essay seeks to deconstruct the ideas, the philosophy and implications of those institutions on modern-day environmentalism and on the rights of indigenous communities such as the forest dwellers. 

Conservation and the Role of State

The industrial revolution created numerous upheavals in the social, political, economic and natural landscape of Europe and North America. The first wave of environmentalism was led by a resistance to undo the industrial revolution and return to the age of simple village life and the beauty of the countryside. British poets such as William Wordsworth, John Ruskin and William Morris spearheaded the initial rebellions against the industrial revolution. Their call was to undo the effects of the revolution and return to the land (a metaphorical phrase for preservation of country life). However, by the mid-1800s, there was a growing realisation that the benefits of industrial revolution to humankind were too great to consider a call to undo the revolution itself. 

In 1864, an American Conservationist George Perkins Marsh published his seminal work Man and Nature. Hardly foreseen by Marsh himself, his book would go on to change the socio-economic undertones of the global environmental movement. A realisation dawned upon humankind that the answer to environmental damage does not lay in banning the axe but regulating its use. Man and Nature would go on to become a truly universal book. Its message of scientific conservation accompanied by principles of sustained yield management would go on to be adopted by many countries, including Germany, France and the USA. Proponents of scientific conservation were of the firm belief that science can help undo the damage done by unbridled industrialisation. They argued that scientists could accurately predict and plan sustainable resource management. However, the most significant aspect of scientific conservation was its implementation mechanism – it involved the transfer of ownership of forest land and natural resources to the State. Conservation of forests would go on to become a ‘national responsibility’. The State was deemed to be the only instrument through which such change was possible. The State and its agents were presumed to prioritize public interest, in contrast to profit maximization tendencies of private individuals. The talk of national forests and national resources became an acceptable part of discourses on environmentalism and would soon become unquestionable aspects of global environmentalism. 

The ‘Green’ Refugees – Victims of Scientific Conservation

The Germans with their scientific expertise and conservation model would go on to spearhead the development of national forest services not just in Germany but also across the globe. At the peak of the German-British rivalry, the British Government in India did not shy away from appointing a German Botanist, Dietrich Brandis, to head and organise India’s first national forest department. This was the Imperial Forest Department, established in 1864. It is pertinent to mention Brandis’ links to George Perkins Marsh given that there was active correspondence between the two. Brandis shared with his American counterpart an abiding faith in the power of scientific expertise to reverse deforestation. Proponents of scientific conservation were hostile towards not just industrial exploitation but also indigenous forms of land use. These included pastoralism, shifting agriculture and harvesting of forest produce, among others.

The establishment of the Imperial Forest Department and subsequently the Imperial Forest Service (1867) went on to have large scale repercussions for the State-forest relationship. More importantly, however, impacted the fate of those who have historically been linked to the forest land and resources. The forest dwelling communities who enjoyed customary rights over forest land and resources were soon replaced by bureaucrats and forest officers. Subsequently, a series of legislative diktats of His Majesty’s Government in India criminalised forest dwellers and labelled them as encroachers on forest land. Effects of this colonial dogma of conservation continue till date as evictions of tribal groups, human right violations by agents of the State, and the struggle for reclaiming lost forest land continues.

The Flawed Economics of Scientific Conservation

The abolishment of customary land and forest rights of forest dwelling communities did not merely pose a human rights issue. It proved to be a medicine worse than the disease in terms of achieving goals of forest conservation and management. The fundamental flaw in the idea of scientific conservation was the presumption that scientific knowledge-based policies implemented by ‘selfless bureaucrats’ will help conserve and manage forests. Both the aforementioned presumptions i.e. the reliance solely on scientific knowledge as well on bureaucrats proved to be self-defeating. 

The Nobel Prize winning economist Frederic Hayek, in his seminal essay The Use of Knowledge in Society, writes about the limitations of scientific knowledge in determining a rational economic order: “Today it is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge. But a little reflection will show that there is beyond question a body of very important but unorganized knowledge which cannot possibly be called scientific in the sense of knowledge of general rules: the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place. It is with respect to this that practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active coöperation.” Extending the Hayekian argument to the issue of forest conservation brings forth the limitations of using science alone to solve environmental problems. 

There exists a body of knowledge, concerning time, circumstance and place, that has been inherited by communities closely linked to the forests. Infact, policies made in furtherance of an alleged scientific rationale and without consultation of local communities may end up degrading the land which they intended to protect. The case of Banni Grassland is a textbook example of the limitations of scientific conservation. The Forest Department, in order to scientifically manage the grasslands, introduced a new plant species in the region to check salinity ingress. The decision was taken without the consultation of Maldharis (the pastoralists dependent on the grassland). The new alien species, prosopis juliflora or ganda babool, has now covered much of the grassland and even increased salinity in the soil. The opposite of what was intended has happened. 

The second presumption of having the State control and manage forest land with the help of forest officers is a classic public choice problem. It is a problem of mis-aligned incentives. The romanticism of bureaucracy and forest department led to large scale corruption, mis-allocation of forest land to corporations and a conflict of interest with the local communities. The bureaucracy, acting in its self-interest to increase its turf and control over forest land, had little incentive in achieving resilient conservation. It neither had any skin in the game nor any economic incentive to responsibly manage forest resources. On the other hand, the communities whose livelihoods were dependent on forest resources have historically been natural stewards of forests. They share an economic, social and cultural bond with the forest. The transfer of ownership of forests from local communities to the State thereby mis-incentivised the bureaucrats as well as dis-incentivised the local community from sound forest management. The end result was anything but conservation. 

The way forward for India’s forest conservation is to rethink the role of the State in forest management and to empower (through forest rights) local and indigenous communities to be good stewards of forests. While some commendable steps have been taken in this direction such as the enactment of the Forest Rights Act – 2006, its implementation has been a cause of concern. To overcome these challenges, there must be an exit from the idea of scientific conservation executed by the State, and an acknowledgement of the role played by incentives and ownership in solving environmental problems. 

India needs a new forest policy which is not governed by the old colonial dogmas of ‘scientific conservation’ but inspired by good economics coupled with respect for the human rights of indigenous communities. In this regard, the words of Abraham Lincoln contain a message worth pondering upon: “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.“ 

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The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.