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Madhu Sarin


Executive Summary

1. Introduction

2. Rural communities as the context for conflicts

3. Conflicts embedded in institutional structures

4. Exploring the issues with two case studies

5. Case 1 : Latent Gender Based Conflicts in community forestry institutions.

5.1 Introduction and questions

5.2 Background and context

5.3 Gender roles among different communities

5.4 Access controls and protection systems

5.5 SARTHI's Interventions for increasing women's voice

5.6 Preliminary understanding of gender relations

5.7 Manifestation of latent gender based conflicts

5.8 Intertwining of Class and Gender Conflicts

5.9 Summary and conclusions

6. Case 2: The role of the marginalised in conflict management under Joint Forest Management : The case of Sukhomajri and Dhamala in north India

6.1 Introduction and questions

6.2 Background : Birth of 'Social Fencing' in Sukhomajri

6.3 The context: Role of fodder grasses from forests in the rural economy

6.4 Socio-economic structures of Sukhomajri and Dhamala

6.5 Chronological sequence of events leading to the conflict

6.6 Evolution of the conflict

6.7 The Conflict

6.8 The issues and questions

7. Hypotheses and questions for discussion Bibliography



Joint Forest Management


Social Action for Rural & Tribal Inhabitants of India


Local terms used



Indigenous inhabitant, a term used for Indian tribal people in India.


Name of a grazier community in north India


Naik Names of two tribes of central India


Name of a tribe in eastern India.


Conflicts related to community forestry are embedded in the nature of communities themselves. Communities are not homogenous but differentiated by caste, class, tribe, religion, ethnicity and gender with each group often having a specific pattern of interaction with the local resource endowment. Each group is also positioned in a dynamic hierarchy of social and power relations. Any community forestry intervention changing the existing resource use pattern will tend to have a different impact on its different constituent groups. In the absence of a commitment to change the balance of power, existing power relations reproduce themselves with the more powerful groups better able to protect and promote their interests through community forestry interventions. Due to the relative voicelessness of the marginalised, and women's subordinate position determined by patriarchal gender relations, resource conflicts related to both groups generated by their reduced access to forest resources often remain latent or hidden.


"On seeing the women (of a lower status tribal community) cutting firewood from our protected forest, we sent some children to tell them to stop. Instead of agreeing, the women threatened the children who ran back in fright. We then went ourselves, caught the women, locked them up and went to bring their households' men from their village. Then we got our women to beat the apprehended women in front of their men. We had instructed our women to confine the beating to below the neck". (A male Munda tribe leader).

The above incident was narrated in February 1995 by a Munda tribe youth leader of a self-organised forest protection community group, located near Jamshedpur city in the east Indian state of Bihar. He was trying to convey the zeal with which men of his community were protecting their forest at a workshop with representatives of similar groups protecting forests in the area.

Although possibly an atypical, extreme case, the above example illustrates the complexity of power dynamics of class and gender which can take place between communities and between different sections of the same community in the way they interact with each other, in a situation of conflict over management of dwindling forest resources. The example provides a pertinent backdrop for examining the theme of this paper, namely the role of marginalised groups and women in conflict management in community forestry. The paper attempts to explore the following questions: what is the specific role, perspective, and interests of marginalised groups and women in conflicts related to forestry and land use management ? How do they differ from other members of the wider community ? What is the nature of their participation and to what extent are they marginalised and/or empowered by conflict management programmes ?


A key element for understanding the context in which conflicts related to community forestry are embedded is the nature of communities themselves. Communities are not homogenous entities but consist of diverse groups differentiated by caste, class, tribe, religion and/or ethnicity and within each of these groups, by gender and age. On the one hand, each constituent group may have a specific and possibly unique pattern of interaction with the local resource endowment. On the other hand, each group is also positioned in a dynamic hierarchy of social relations which determines its relative ability to exercise power and authority in community affairs. Further, the relative positions of entire groups or their individual members can change suddenly due to changes in government policies, natural disasters or changes in personal circumstances. For example, in many patriarchal societies, where women's social status and ability to both access and influence community decisions is mediated through their husbands, sudden widowhood, abandonment by the husband or his getting a second wife can bring such women in conflict with local norms of resource use due to their being compelled to deviate from typical gender roles.

Because of the lack of homogeneity within communities, depending on the nature of relationships between their constituent groups and the differences in the nature and levels of dependence on forest products they represent, conflicts may arise due to internal dynamics of change. For example, increasing market value of timber may provoke the least forest dependent but more powerful groups or individuals to advocate restrictions on use and access to common forest lands on grounds of increasing 'productivity' to control income from the sale of timber. Resulting conflicts with highly dependent grazier user groups, due to their consequent displacement from the resource itself, are common in most regions of the developing world. The growing influence of environmental movements percolating into rural communities may also trigger off unforeseen, largely invisible conflicts within and between communities. Overzealous rural youth club leaders, motivated by environmental campaigns in some tribal areas of eastern India have imposed strict forest protection rules without taking their impact on the livelihood and subsistence needs of marginalised groups and women into account.

Many conflicts, both within and between communities, however, are generated by external interventions. These may include changes in government policies related to land use and forests at the macro level and/or forestry projects or programmes initiated by forestry institutions, or other actors at local levels. Such community forestry interventions, particularly on publicly owned common pool forest lands, whether promoted by an external agency or a product of more autonomous community initiative, invariably have an impact on the often complex diversity of different groups' existing use and access to forest resources. They often entail bringing open access lands under common pool resource management regimes by instituting rules for regulating access. In most developing countries' contexts, where large sections of the population continue to be directly dependent on forest products for some or most of their livelihood needs, often with the most disadvantaged groups having the greatest dependence on the commons, conflict is inherent in situations implying changes in forest access.


The most significant recent trend in forest policy changes in many developing countries has been towards privatisation of state owned forests or decentralizing their management through a variety of partnerships with local community institutions. The two most well known south Asian examples of the latter category are User Group forestry in Nepal and the Joint Forest Management (JFM) Programme in India. Both involve partnerships between state forest departments and community institutions based on the latter gaining access to all or some forest products from forests they successfully protect and/or help manage.

Several factors make conflicts inherent in partnerships between small, scattered and diverse community institutions and state forest bureaucracies. Firstly, conflicts are embedded in the inevitably asymmetrical and unequal relationships between powerful state institutions and supposedly democratic local institutions accountable to their membership. Secondly, the internal structures and cultural norms of both sets of institutions determine the extent to which both are effectively accessible to marginalised groups and women, who often represent the largest categories of resource users. The formal or informal exclusion of such groups from inter-institutional interaction may trigger off subterranean conflicts which are not easily discernible. Thirdly, despite the adoption of participatory approaches at policy levels, state forestry institutions of most countries continue to be strongly oriented towards conventional forest management rather than towards developing management alternatives based on balancing satisfaction of diverse forest user groups' needs with sustainable forest management. The resulting equation of community 'participation', with communities helping forestry institutions to only improve forest protection, can generate conflicts with user groups with no alternative to their existing, albeit unsustainable, forest use. Lastly, due to the common lack of a social science perspective in forestry training, community partnerships with forestry institutions also trigger off conflicts due to forest officials unwittingly changing the balance of. power between different groups within communities and/or between communities or distant users by the nature of their interaction with them.

The role of marginalised groups and women in conflict management within the enormously broad ambit of community forestry, thus, cannot be discussed without understanding where they are situated in the complex and intertwined hierarchies of power relationships based on class, ethnicity and gender in their specific contexts as well as the institutional structures and cultural values of both community and state institutions which reproduce and sustain those hierarchies.

The tribal people of India, about 7 percent of the total population, are considered to be the indigenous inhabitants of the country and referred to as 'Adivasis' (indigenous people). Essentially forest dwellers living primarily in the forest belt of Central and Eastern India, they have suffered progressive marginalisation despite government policies of positive discrimination targeted at them. However, although constituting a disadvantaged minority within India's national fabric, social relations between and within different tribes are equally differentiated by ethnicity and gender. The apprehended women in the example given at the beginning of the paper possibly belonged to one of the originally hunter-gatherer tribes who have lost their traditional access to forests. At the bottom of the socio-economic hierarchy even among tribal communities today, and totally resourceless, their women sell headloads of firewood for a livelihood. Faced with further closure of forest access by self-organised local community institutions, violating the latter's protection rules may be the only means at their disposal for eking a living. On the other side of the fence, another tribal community, equally threatened by multiple pressures on its dwindling resources, mobilised its women to hit the apprehended women where it hurt most, in front of their own men. Ironically, the women made to do the beating had in all probability, themselves experienced a substantial curtailment of their forest access by their men's protection rules and may well be going to other forest areas to collect firewood for household needs. While going to forests outside their own village, they become vulnerable to the same kind of humiliation as their men made them inflict on the apprehended women. This gendered situation, of women being used as instruments for excluding outside women in conflicts over community forest protection, while neither group has a say in community decisions, is emerging as a common aspect of community forest management in India.

The extent to which conflicts become manifest or remain hidden or latent will tend to be a function of the relative access the parties have to available institutional mechanisms for conflict management and for getting their voices heard. At the community level, a key forum for dealing with conflicts is often a formal or informal community institution. However, the structure and functioning of the community institution itself is often a microcosm of the existing hierarchy of power and authority, with cultural norms determining which groups are included or excluded. In the case of partnerships between state forestry institutions and communities, the nature of the larger institution with its own norms and culture also determines who from within communities has greater access to the forestry institution. This in itself often becomes a major factor in determining the extent to which conflicts related to marginalised groups and women get identified and addressed and whether they are empowered or further marginalised by conflict management programmes.


The next section of this paper discusses two case studies of conflicts related to marginalised groups and women from India to explore the questions posed at the beginning of the paper with concrete examples. Both cases deal with conflicts related to community participation in the management of state owned forests due to the greater dependence of resource poor groups on non-private forest resources. Although both the case studies are from India, the nature of the general questions they raise should also be relevant for other regions of the world. These are discussed in the concluding section.


5.1 Introduction and questions

This case study examines how women and men perceive and deal with gender based conflicts generated by women's reduced forest access by new access controls imposed by their own men in an 'undisturbed' community context. As many cultures exclude women from political participation at the community level despite their being major forest users, some of the specific questions the case study attempts to explore are the following: What kind of impact does the introduction of new access rules, designed by essentially male community institutions have on women's traditional access to forest resources for performing their gender based roles? To what extent are such access controls sensitive to women's practical gender needs and strategic gender interests(2)? Given the highly negative cultural value placed on women questioning male authority in many cultures, particularly in south Asia, what avenues do women have for negotiating changes in access controls to make them more sensitive to both their short and long term needs and interests ?

5.2 Background and context

The case study is of a cluster of predominantly tribal villages in one of the least developed Panchmahals district of the Indian state of Gujarat. The male leaders of these villages created consensus among village men to naturally regenerate their acutely degraded forests through collective protection during the last five to ten years. There was no external intervention in the initial community initiatives. A local NGO, Social Action for Rural and Tribal Inhabitants of India (SARTHI), and the author(2) have been interacting with these groups since late 1993.

SARTHI has been working in the area for the last fifteen years. With several years of exposure to local women's worsening situation within the broader dynamics of social changes, it has developed an explicit commitment to promoting gender equality through all its work. From the mid 1980s SARTHI facilitated the formation of strong women's groups which took up the rehabilitation of degraded common lands to increase firewood and fodder availability. It was while exploring the feasibility of these women's groups participating in joint forest management that from the early 1990s, SARTHI became aware of the case study villages.

The population of the village cluster belongs to three or four different tribes and a few other disadvantaged communities. Although practically all households are dependent on cultivating small land holdings, with only a few being totally landless, there is considerable socio-economic stratification within the population. This increased further with about half the cluster's agricultural land getting canal irrigation in the 1970s. Irrigated land owners are less dependent on forests than those without it, irrespective of which community they belong to. Households belonging to the Naik tribe are at the bottom of the socio-economic hierarchy. They own the least land and continue to be heavily dependent on the collection and sale of forest products. Naik women collect various non-timber forest products while Naik men have made and sold charcoal for at least some decades. The largest number of households in the duster belong to different sub-communities of the relatively better off Bhil tribe.

5.3 Gender roles among different communities

The general pattern of gender roles among all communities in the cluster is typical of such forest areas. Collecting firewood and tree leaf fodder from forests is almost exclusively women's work. In addition, women have traditionally collected a wide range of non-timber forest products such as leaves, fruits, flowers and gums for a diverse range of uses (food, medicine, fibre, processing into other products for household use or sale). Men of some communities also collect some non-timber products but their primary responsibility is to provide timber for house construction and agricultural implements.

There are, however, considerable differences between women of different communities, in terms of which non-timber forest products are collected by whom, with strong associations of social status and occupational specialisation with the collection of different products. For example, due to the lower social status of the Naik's, gum of 'Anogeissus latifolia' tree collected by Naik women is not collected by women of most other communities as they feel 'ashamed' to be seen doing the same work as Naik women. Similarly, while Naik women collect the leaves of 'Butea monosperma', women of other communities buy these from Naik women to stitch them into leaf plates for domestic use or sale. Leaves of 'Diospyros melanoxycon', used for handrolling Indian cigarettes, are an important source of seasonal income for the poorer women of most communities. However, Naik women do not collect these apparently because they are unsure of their counting ability to tie them into bundles of 50 leaves, the unit for sale. Instead, some Naik men collect 'Diospyros' leaves when no other source of income is available.

5.4 Access controls and protection systems

The men's primary motivation for initiating forest protection had been to regenerate timber for house construction and agricultural implements for the villagers' own use. Respected male leaders, almost always from better off households, created consensus in favour of forest closure through discussions during social gatherings on the hardships being faced by everyone due to forest destruction.

All the forest protection groups in the case study cluster initially totally closed their forests for the first four to five years. Each family contributes ten to fifteen kilogrammes of grain annually towards compensating full time village watchmen. No one except the watchmen are permitted to take any tools inside the forest. Collection of fallen twigs and branches and other non-timber forest products by hand is permitted. After four to five years of such total closure, most groups have started opening their forests for one upto five pre-announced days in a year, when all member households are permitted to cut one or two coppicing shrub species for firewood. Timber species have not been harvested so far.

5.5 SARTHI's Interventions for increasing women's voice

To increase women's voice within the forest protection groups, SARTHI designed a number of interventions. First, efforts were made to facilitate changes in the male leaders perceptions of women through experiential learning. Some of the men were invited to a workshop with some articulate and confident representatives of women's groups, who had previously undergone training and exposure through SARTHI's, working on rehabilitating degraded common lands. Two days of watching and interacting with these local women talking about land management and the strengthening of their groups, besides singing, dancing and playing games, proved dramatically effective. Most of the men left the workshop saying that they had never imagined that women could do such work and that they needed to involve their own women in their forest regeneration efforts. Similar exposures for male leaders and selected women of other forest protection groups have been made a regular feature of SARTHI's programme.

SARTHI's second intervention was to emphasise women's equal constitutional rights and national policy commitments to women's advancement. While assisting the groups prepare their applications to the Gujarat forest department for participating in JFM, SARTHI advocated that all adults (both women and men) be made members of the groups with fifty percent representation of women in the groups' executive committees. Women's equal rights to access and benefits from state owned forests were used for supporting this stand.

Thirdly, with some space thus created for women and some women beginning to attend village meetings, SARTHI started facilitating discussions on the gender dimensions of the men's forest protection rules.

5.6 Preliminary understanding of gender relations

SARTHI commenced its interaction with the groups by having informal meetings in different villages. During the very first meetings with the determined male leaders of Asundriya and Khutkhar villages, women's role in forest protection had become clear. On being asked whether village women had also participated in the discussions leading to forest closure, the men's response had been that of utter surprise. "Women? What is the need to consult the women ?" they had retorted. On persistent probing whether women hadn't faced problems in obtaining firewood and fodder and whether some women had not tried violating the protection rules, the men's response had been that if any woman broke a rule, it was her man whom they questioned. It appeared that the men perceived women's only role to be that of passive compliance with male decisions. They did not indicate any conflict or problem with the women.

A separate meeting with some women from three of the groups made the impact of such forest closure on women evident. The stringent access controls had increased the regular work burden of firewood and fodder collection for the women of the most disadvantaged households, further concentrated it on the shoulders of the younger and sturdier women, compelled them to partially switch to inferior cooking fuels and transferred some of the pressure of firewood collection to other, yet unprotected forests. In addition, women's vulnerability to humiliation by outsiders had increased as they now had to go outside their own villages for collecting firewood. However, despite such drastic impact on them, as in the case of the men, the women did not perceive or articulate it as a conflict situation requiring resolution. In fact, in the presence of men, the women would not even talk about their increased hardship. Instead, they seconded the need for forest protection as 'all households needed timber'.

Situations like these, in which neither of the parties involved themselves either perceive or articulate any problem or conflict despite a highly gender differentiated negative impact on women's workload by exclusively male decisions, pose difficult choices for non-stakeholder outsiders. Should they play a proactive role in highlighting the gender inequity involved or should they not intervene as it may be an undesirable cultural intrusion ?

5.7 Manifestation of latent gender based conflicts

It was over six months after SARTHI had started interacting with the groups, that it started becoming evident that the male rules had generated a severe but latent gender based conflict. This first became manifest during a village meeting organised for training in which about twenty-five women and twenty-five men were present. When the availability of firewood was being discussed, although the women did not openly acknowledge experiencing firewood scarcity in front of the large gathering, simply raising the issue sparked off an angry outburst at the women from one of the group's watchmen. Subsequently, it started becoming apparent that most watchmen faced terrible problems in preventing the women from cutting firewood against the rules. The women's major weapons during such encounters were dirty abuses, threats of accusing the watchmen of attempted molestation or posing biting questions about how they were to meet their cooking fuel needs with such rules in place.

The latent gender based conflict also surfaced in the process documentation of their group's history by male leaders of Asundriya village. They recorded how they had almost abandoned forest protection due to the recurring, unpleasant encounters of their watchmen with women. With no village men prepared to continue working as watchmen, Asundriya's leaders had finally called an all village meeting to which, possibly for the first time ever, even the women were invited. Women's co-operation was sought on the ground that otherwise the forest would revert to its earlier degraded condition which would increase their hardships. The men acknowledged the difficulties total forest closure had created for the women and agreed to start permitting selective harvesting of a shrub for firewood per day from the coming spring.

However, the first time that the women openly acknowledged, in front of the men, that they were facing acute hardship was only when a management alternative which could increase firewood availability without compromising the men's goal of forest regeneration had been proposed. Annual multiple shoot cutting of teak coppice growth had been suggested as one viable option which could not only increase firewood availability but would also improve the quality of teak timber. Simply becoming aware of an alternative option discernibly empowered the women to start demanding changes in the men's forest management regime. With women becoming more articulate about their problems, with increasing exposure and access to information, even the men started acknowledging that their forest regeneration efforts had been bedeviled with persistent conflicts with the women. Today, many women and the male leaders of some villages laugh, talking about how earlier they were pitted against each other.

5.8 Intertwining of Class and Gender Conflicts

Sustained interaction with the women of different sub-communities, both individually and in small homogenous groups in the privacy of their homes or neighbourhoods, has slowly enabled improved understanding of the subtle class and gender based negotiations for adapting the access controls which had taken place within and between different groups. Thus, as already mentioned, within the Bhil majority community of Asundriya village, the men were compelled to introduce selective harvesting of firewood to win their women's cooperation. In the more mixed membership of Khutkhar's group, it was the humiliation of their women by Khutkhar's watchmen over firewood collection which made the men of an adjoining hamlet of Chari village negotiate inclusion of their hamlet in Khutkhar's forest protection group. However, similar day to day conflicts with their women compelled Khutkhar's Bhil leaders to discreetly look the other way on days fixed for firewood harvesting, while their women cut not only the permitted bushes but also trees of all except the two species considered to have maximum timber value by their men. In the process, 'Anogeissus latifolia', of particular value to women of the most marginalised Naik community as a source of income from its gum, is also cut for firewood by the Bhil women. This, in turn, has generated a new conflict of interests between women of the Bhil and Naik communities. The Naik women feel that the rules followed by the Bhil women are like a 'kick on their stomachs' as indiscriminate hacking of the limited surviving rootstock of 'Anogeissus latifolia' may result in it getting permanently wiped out from the village forest. However, being at the bottom of the socio-economic hierarchy, the Naik women were unable to negotiate protection of 'Anogeissus'.

Thus, despite no easily discernible conflict on the surface, the majority of women with continuing dependence on firewood and fodder from the forests, did not passively accept the sudden and drastic curtailment of their forest access. However, due to their traditional exclusion from the male assembly which decides on community affairs, women lacked direct access to an institutional mechanism for conflict management. As a consequence, they had to rely on a variety of other avenues to defend their interests. These included discussions (or arguments) with their household or neighbourhood men through whom women of the more privileged sub-communities were able to negotiate marginally improved forest access. The introduction of selective firewood harvesting annually by most groups was an outcome of such indirect pressure from the women. However, as the firewood available through such controlled harvesting remained grossly inadequate for the needs of those resource poor women who do not have supplementary cooking fuel available from their own fields or cattle, they continued challenging the protection rules by taking the direct action of violating them in practice.

At the same time, the capacity to negotiate even such minimal improvement in access to firewood was not uniform for all women. The socio-economically better off Bhil women had greater access to the 'community's' decision making through their men in leadership positions. The Bhil women's gain was at the cost of the most voiceless Naik women's potentially permanent loss of an important regular source of income from 'Anogeissus'

5.9 Summary and conclusions

Community forestry involving bringing open access forest lands under common property resource management regimes through autonomous community initiatives, even by indigenous community institutions with strong resource management traditions, in contexts where the dominant cultural tradition excludes women from political participation at the community level, can have a drastic impact on women's customarily recognised access to forest resources, both in the short and longer terms. As in such contexts, community institutions are effectively male institutions, such initiatives essentially entail control over access to such lands being taken over by the men even in 'undisturbed' indigenous community situations. Despite women being the major resource users, gender relations exclude them from direct participation in developing the new management regimes.

The resulting drastic curtailment of women's access to forest resources without any reduction in their gender based responsibilities for household provisioning can generate acute latent gender based conflicts. However, these may remain hidden and not easily discernible due to cultural values inhibiting women from questioning male authority, particularly in public. To some extent, women may be able to influence male decisions and rules through subtle indirect negotiations. Even these, however, are mediated by class. Women of socio-economically higher status have a greater ability to protect their interests through their men due to being higher in the power hierarchy. As women are not a homogenous category, and because even indigenous community institutions reflect the existing hierarchy of power relations within communities, women (and men) of the most marginalised groups (such as the Naiks) are least able to negotiate their interests. For those with no access to a conflict management mechanism, the only recourse available is direct action of challenging the new access regime by violating its rules in practice.

Whether women and marginalised groups are empowered or further marginalised by conflict management programmes will be dependent on the conceptual understanding of the facilitating agency about the dynamics of hierarchical power relationships within communities and on whether it has an explicit commitment to altering the existing balance of power in favour of the relatively powerless.

In the above case study, SARTHI's programme of interaction with the self-initiated forest protection groups had an explicit goal of long term empowerment of women by promoting their strategic gender interests. The three key elements of SARTHI's strategy were: facilitating perceptual and attitudinal change about gender relations among both women and men; an uncompromising stand on women's equal rights; and promoting the transformation of traditional all male community institutional structures through the incorporation of women and the recognition of women as equally responsible adults in their own right. It is only after space was created for women to directly participate in forest management decisions, combined with facilitating discussion on the gender differentiated impact of male protection rules that the latent gender based conflict started becoming manifest. SARTHI's interventions over a two year period have evidently initiated a process of longer term change in gender relations in at least some of the community groups. From the initial situation two years earlier when male leaders questioned the very need of involving women, today some of those same leaders have become the advocates of women's equal rights among other community groups. study thus also raises a question about the effectiveness of gender analysis tools and participatory methods on their own in identifying such latent conflicts in similar cultural contexts. Although preliminary gender analysis made the gender differentiated impact of male rules on women evident, it was inadequate to definitely establish the existence of a gender based conflict, as neither the men nor the women perceived or articulated it as a conflict situation. Similarly, the subtle negotiations mediated by overlapping dynamics of class and gender which took place between different groups cannot be unearthed by the use of simple PRA methods as they are commonly used. It was the indirect processes of women's empowerment over a period of time which made the latent gender based conflict eventually manifest. Facilitating manifestation and management of such latent or hidden conflicts requires initiating slow processes of empowerment with fairly long term commitment on the part of the facilitators. To what extent can such processes be practically integrated into conflict management programmes?


6.1 Introduction and questions

Sukhomajri and Dhamala villages share usufruct rights in the same reserve forest compartment due to both villages falling under one revenue village' (an administrative unit). An intense conflict has been generated between the two villages and between different groups within the two villages, due to recently changed management priorities for grasses from the forest area which is under, JIM.

The case study deals with the type of conflicts, between marginalised resource dependent users and powerful minorities with limited direct dependence on forest resources, which often remain invisible due to the voicelessness of the marginalised. The role of a state forest department in unwittingly creating the conflict by insisting on compliance with standard silvicultural prescriptions, without understanding their equity implications and impact on altering the balance of power against the most resource dependent groups is also explored. As the case study is of a twenty year old ongoing project of international fame, a major question it raises is about the poor institutional memory of state bureaucracies and the implications of this for the sustainability of conflict management programmes in community forestry.

6.2 Background : Birth of 'Social Fencing' in Sukhomajri

Sukhomajri is a small village in the north Indian state of Haryana. It acquired world fame in development circles in the early 1980s for pioneering the concept of selfsustaining development through 'social fencing'. The all gujjar (a grazier community) village, of then about seventy households, voluntarily agreed to switch to hand harvesting fodder grasses from the adjoining highly degraded reserve forest in the Shiwalill hills, in lieu of indiscriminate grazing. The catalyst was irrigation provided from a small rainwater harvesting dam built in the hills. With irrigation increasing agricultural yields fourfold, the villagers acquired a stake in protecting the dam's watershed from soil erosion. All households, irrespective of their land holdings, were entitled to equal shares of water from the dam which gave all of them a stake in protecting the dam's catchment. An autonomous 'Hill Resource Management Society' (called society hereafter), with representatives of all households as members, was formed. The society's mandate, besides ensuring equitable water distribution and the practice of 'social fencing' by all villagers was to manage all hill resources sustainably for the benefit of the community. Thus, 'social fencing' involved decentralised resource management by an autonomous institution of resource users founded on principles of participatory decision making and equitable sharing of benefits and responsibilities by all members.

6.3 The Context : Role of fodder grasses from forests in the rural economy

Livestock rearing based on grazing in the forests has been an integral part of the rural economy in the Shiwalik hills. Concern over increasing soil erosion at the turn of the century led to state efforts to regulate grazing. The last 'forest settlement' for the area done in 1937 specified the maximum number of cattle from each village which may graze in the adjoining reserve forests(RF) in which the villagers have no other rights. Protected forests (PFs) were also demarcated adjacent to most villages in which, besides extensive rights to other forest produce, the residents have free grazing rights. In fact, many residents of Sukhomajri and Dhamala refer to the nationalised protected forest near their village as their 'grazing land'.

Unabated soil erosion in the hills had led Haryana Forest Department to try and stop grazing in the forests altogether by using policing methods during the last two to three decades. However, these had proved relatively ineffective. It was in this context that enabling the gujjars of Sukhomajri to voluntarily give up grazing of low grade cattle and goats and switch to stall feeding of high quality buffaloes with hand harvested fodder from the same forests was considered a major breakthrough in 1980. Access to fodder grasses from the forests continues to be critically important for sustaining Sukhomajri's livestock economy. Residents of other villages, particularly of lower castes and the landless, are similarly dependent on the forests for fodder grasses for their livestock. Due to acute fodder scarcity at the end of the long dry summer, poorer villagers also cut freshly sprouted bhabbar ('Eulaliopsis binata') for fodder during the early monsoon period. They do this despite bhabbar having higher commercial value, when used for rope making or as raw material for quality paper production, because fodder grasses grow more slowly than bhabbar. According to Sukhomajri's residents, they have used fresh bhabbar for fodder ever since the village was settled.

6.4 Socio-economic structures of Sukhomajri and Dhamala

In contrast to Sukhomajri's relative socio-economic homogeneity with all its eighty odd ggjjar households owning small land holdings and some livestock, Dbamala is a highly stratified village. Jats, who comprise less than one third of Dhamala's total households, own most of the village land. The remaining households belong to seven lower castes, the majority being totally landless. Many lower caste households maintain two to three heads of cattle, for which they obtain fodder grasses from the forest. The Jats meet most of their fodder needs from their own land which is irrigated by two water harvesting dams in the adjoining hills built on Sukhomajri's pattern. Although a hill resource management society was formed even in Dhamala in 1983, it received limited facilitative support compared to Sukhomajri's society. The principle of equal water shares for all households was not enforced and the jats have monopolised the benefits of irrigation. The jats dominate the village socially, economically and politically. The lower caste majority is unable to challenge their authority as many depend on the jats for wage work and other needs.

Except for the lower caste women of Dhamala and a few widowed women in Sukhomajri, firewood and fodder from the forests is primarily collected by men and boys in both villages. There is no significant collection of any other non-timber forest products in the area. Despite considerable efforts, it has proved difficult to involve Sukhomajri's women in society affairs largely because most women are not direct forest users. Several lower caste women of Dhamala, however, are more vocal in articulating their grievances during society meetings. Unlike the first case study, the conflict in this case has a stronger class than a gender dimension.

6.5 Chronological sequence of events leading to the conflict

The chronological sequence of important events leading upto the present conflict is listed below for easier reference.

1974 to 1980

Evolution of social fencing in Sukhomajri.


Formation of Hill Resource Management Societies in Sukhomajri and Dhamala.

Haryana Forest Department starts selling the fodder grass lease for the adjoining reserve forest compartment at a fixed price jointly to the societies of Sukhomajri and Dhamala instead of auctioning it to private contractors. This was to increase the villagers' stake in improving forest conditions, by providing them with preferential access to increased grass production resulting from their stopping grazing in the forests. This represented informal introduction of the principle of joint forest management in the villages.


The Haryana Forest Department started selling even the annual bhabbar grass ('Eulaliopsis binata') lease for the reserve forest compartment jointly to the two societies. Bhabbar is a commercial fibrous grass used for rope making and as a raw material for quality paper production. Most villagers living near the forests make small quantities of bhabbar rope for their own use. Landless households and small land owners also use freshly sprouted bhabbar as fodder during July-August due to seasonal fodder scarcity.

Sukhomajri started managing the bhabbar lease on behalf of both the societies by sub-contracting it to private contractors and giving fifty percent of the net income to Dhamala's society.

1988 to 1992

Simmering conflict starts between the two villages over the management of the grass leases.

Dhamala starts demanding sub-division of the forest compartment between the two societies.


Haryana forest department bans use of fresh bhabbar as fodder by Sukhomajri's residents on silvicultural and economic considerations.


The forest department unilaterally divides the compartment between the two villages. Rebellion by Sukhomajri society's general body members against the office bearers. Conflict between the two villages takes acute form.

6.6 Evolution of the Conflict

The roots of the present conflict between the two villages lie in the changing dynamics of power between the fats of Dhamala and the gujjars of Sukhomajri. Being the earliest settlers, the jats view the lower castes of Dhamala and Sukhomajri's gujjars as secondary villagers. When Sukhomajri started receiving extraordinary attention from the late 1970s, the jats felt envious and cheated.

It was the sale of a joint fodder grass lease, for the adjoining reserve forest compartment to the two societies by the forest department in 1983, which first compelled them to work together. Both societies raised money for fifty percent of the lease price. They recovered this by charging a grass harvesting fee from members on a no profit no loss basis. The greatest beneficiaries of this were the lower caste households of Dhamala and all households of Sukhomajri due to the fodder harvesting fee becoming a quarter of that earlier charged by private contractors. Dhamala jats showed limited interest as forest fodder is of marginal value to them.

The problem began when the Forest Department started selling even the bhabbar grass lease jointly to the two societies from 1986. The bhabbar lease entails more complex management tasks of raising a much higher capital to pay for the lease (due to its commercial value) followed by harvesting, storage and marketing before the investment can be recovered after an annual cycle of nine months. Sukhomajri started subcontracting the lease to a private contractor for an assured net profit on behalf of both the societies. Fifty percent of the income was given to Dhamala's society as its share. This system continued till 1991.

However, with larger sums of money involved, various rumours and suspicions started floating around. Dhamala's jats started suspecting that Sukhomajri's leaders were giving them less than their fifty percent share of the income. Even within Sukhomajri, many villagers started having similar suspicions about their society's office bearers. No external facilitative support was made available to the societies during this period. As a consequence, the conflict kept brewing. Dhamala's jats started asking the forest department to divide the reserve forest compartment between the two societies.

In 1989, the Haryana Forest Department started developing a systematic JFM programme based on the principles developed in Sukhomajri in the early 1980s. An external support team was commissioned to assist the department in placing the programme on a sound footing.

Due to Dhamala's jats' repeated allegations against Sukhomajri's leadership about non-transparent bhabbar lease management, the support team took a number of initiatives. It facilitated open discussions on Sukhomajri's society's accounts in well attended general body meetings and probing why the society earned only a small income from the bhabbar lease. During one of these village meetings in late 1992, the men explained that due to their small land holdings and all households now having good quality buffaloes, the village faced an acute fodder shortage during the early monsoon months. The majority of the households use freshly sprouted bhabbar as fodder to meet this shortage. As cutting fresh bhabbar during the monsoons lowers its subsequent fibre yield in the winter, the society's income from sale of commercial fibre remained low.

For the majority of Sukhomajri's households, as well as for Dhamala's lower caste poorer families, using fresh bhabbar for fodder was clearly the most rational use of the bhabbar lease by Sukhomajri's society. 1t was providing access to fresh green fodder to all needy households during a season of fodder scarcity. Instead of higher monetary income for the societies from sale of commercial fibre, fresh bhabbar was being processed into higher value milk through the livestock. The value addition was taking place within the village with most households getting the direct benefit of improved nutrition and higher income from selling milk. Only Dhamala's jat minority was complaining about their society's low monetary income from the bhabbar lease.

During a joint meeting of the two villages, facilitated by the then JFM support team in 1993, Sukhomajri's leaders agreed to let Dhamala's society manage their joint bhabbar lease on alternate years. It was hoped that this would put the jats' suspicions about misappropriation of bhabbar income by Sukhomajri at rest. This arrangement could also counter the jats' demand for division of the forest compartment between the two societies. Sub-division was discouraged as it was likely to lead to perpetual boundary disputes between the two villages.

6.7 The Conflict

From 1993, Haryana's JFM 'support team' became dominated by a traditional forest management perspective. Enforcement of standard silvicultural prescriptions became more important than satisfaction of villagers' direct forest based needs and equity concerns. The societies' bank balances started being used as the main indicators of their performance. A research study was conducted by the support team to determine the impact of cutting fresh bhabbar. This predictably confirmed that cutting fresh bhabbar for fodder reduced the subsequent yield of commercial fibre. Such cutting was also found to have a negative impact on the root size and weight of bhabbar root clumps. Instead of exploring management options with forest fodder users of both villages on how income from fibre could be maximised while also using fresh bhabbar for fodder with least damage to the root clumps, the study's findings were shared with Dhamala's jat leaders. They were told about the monetary 'loss' the societies were suffering due to the use of fresh bhabbar for fodder by Sukhomajri's gujjars. Dhamala's lower caste majority was not even consulted.

The jats' selective access to this 'research finding', particularly from a source representing the authority of the forest department, finally skewed the balance of power in their favour. The jats' demand for division of the forest compartment between the two societies to enable them to maximise their income from sale of bhabbar fibre became louder. To resist the jats' demand, Sukhomajri's office bearers agreed to stop their members from cutting fresh bhabbar for fodder during the 1994 monsoon without obtaining the consent of the society's general body members.

When Sukhomajri's residents started being stopped from cutting fresh bhabbar, there was a virtual rebellion in the village against the society's office bearers. A well attended impromptu general body meeting called by the village men passed a vote of no confidence against the office bearers and elected a new managing committee.

However, the JFM 'support team' again skewed the balance of power against the village majority by refusing to recognise the new Managing Committee on the ground that the forest department's representative was not present during the election. By favouring discredited office bearers against the majority's will, the department's team also violated the principle of respecting the society's autonomy, established with painstaking efforts from the early 1980s.

During 1995, the department unilaterally divided the forest compartment between the two societies against Sukhomajri's wishes. Dhamala was able to sub-contract the bhabbar lease for 'its' (still disputed) part of the forest for a fabulous sum as bhabbar's market price has increased steeply during the last two to three years. Bhabbar even in Dhamala's protected forest, legally set aside for cattle grazing, was sub-contracted by the society's jat leadership. As fodder and bhabbar grasses grow intermixed in the forest, the subcontractor was willing to pay a high price for the bhabbar lease only on the condition that no villagers would cut even fodder grasses from the forest till the bhabbar had matured into fibre. As a consequence, Dhamala's poor lower caste households were stopped by the Jats not only from cutting fresh bhabbar but even fodder grasses from both the reserve and protected forests for three to four months till the bhabbar had become too fibrous to be used as fodder. With both grazing and hand harvesting of fodder stopped during the period of maximum fodder scarcity, possibly for the first time since they settled in the village, they experienced immense hardship.

In the case of Sukhomajri, the majority of villagers felt angry and cheated. They felt that the support team and the forest department had handed over the forest primarily rehabilitated by them to Dhamala's jats who had put in no effort through the years. By consensus, all women and men of Sukhomajri decided not to go near the forest during the 1995 monsoon till the dispute was resolved. As in the case of Dhamala, the most resource poor households experienced the greatest hardship. Dhamala's being given more than half of the forest compartment, and that too the better stocked part, is not acceptable to Sukhomajri. The society's leaders tried meeting the forest department's officers but did not get a sympathetic hearing. They then approached officers of the technical institute which had facilitated introduction of social fencing in the village in the early 1980s, for mediation.

The conflict is far from resolved. Mediation by officers of the technical institute has helped diffuse the conflict to some extent. However, relations between the leaders of the two villages have become so bitter that the option of their working together amicably for the best interests of the majority in both the villages, probably will not be available for many years to come.

6.8 The issues and questions

The grass politics between Sukhomajri and Dhamala have essentially been a battle for control over a public forest resource for diametrically different priorities by different interest groups. While Sukhomajri's management of the bhabbar lease for almost eight years gave priority to satisfying the direct consumption needs of the relatively resource poor majority of both villages, Dhamala's jats have effectively wrested control over more than fifty percent of the forest area for maximising the monetary income of their society. Since the jats control Dhamala's society, despite being the least forest dependent minority in the village, the lower caste majority is unlikely to have much say in how the increased 'community' income will be used in the future. On the other hand, the heaviest opportunity cost for increasing Dhamala society's income will be borne by the lower caste majority through reduced livelihood security. Some of the poorest households may be compelled to sell off their limited livestock due to lack of purchasing power to buy fodder from the market.

For Sukhomajri, the recent developments have been particularly traumatic. It was due to Sukhomajri's giving up unregulated grazing in the forest that the forest has so much grass for fighting over today. In fact, the essence of 'social fencing' lay in the villagers' trading their grazing rights for the right to hand harvest fodder from the same forest to make resource use sustainable. This access to forest fodder helped increase the village's total milk production manifold by enabling all households to maintain high quality buffaloes instead of the earlier low grade cattle. Withdrawal of access to fodder grasses, not only from the reserve but also from the protected forest, legally set aside for grazing village cattle, during the period of maximum fodder scarcity each year, effectively represents turning the concept of social fencing on its head.

The case of Sukhomajri is of additional interest both because of its fame and its long history. If one intervention by the partner state forestry institution can so easily and so totally reverse the principles of equitable and participatory resource management in the same village in which they were evolved with such painstaking efforts over fifteen years earlier, the situation raises a number of critical questions about the sustainability of conflict management programmes related to marginalised groups in state-community partnerships.

The first of these is the relative inability of the most marginalised groups to protect their resource rights from being usurped by dominant groups even after several years of equity promoting interventions. With the leaders of both villages currently engaged in fighting over an acceptable boundary dividing the forest compartment between the two villages, neither the lower caste landless households of Dhamala, nor the most forest fodder dependent households of Sukhomajri have been able to raise their voice against the subtle shift in forest grass management priorities to maximising cash incomes of the societies instead of meeting their priority fodder needs. Unless this issue is raised forcefully in the ongoing conflict management process, the most marginalised groups are in danger of effectively losing their legal usufruct rights to forest fodder under supposedly `participatory' joint forest management.

The second question is about the unequal power inherent in `partnerships' between state bureaucracies and community institutions. Unless an equally powerful third party is involved to help reduce the existing imbalance of power, it is the writ of the forest bureaucracies which will tend to prevail in situations of conflict. The Sukhomajri-Dhamala conflict may not even have got known outside the forest department if Sukhomajri had not had access to a number of outside agencies and individuals due to its special history. Dhamala's lower caste women and men have been unable to solicit such support till today. This, in turn, raises the question about how to even identify the probably enormously large number of similar, but unknown conflicts, generated by such partnership based programmes not only in India but in other similar contexts.

The other important issue emerging from this case study is the often invisible and unrecognised inequitable impact of standard silvicultural prescriptions. Given conventional forestry's traditional emphasis on maximising revenue, and the majority of `scientific' silvicultural prescriptions having been evolved for that purpose, they tend to have inherent biases against the interests of marginalised groups and women. The common focus of many community forestry interventions on increasing the 'productivity' of forests measured on the basis of increased monetary value of the product often involves invisible displacement of the most resource dependent users. Increased commercial productivity of the commons does not necessarily benefit the poorest users.


The central thrust of community forestry is decentralising forest resource management to 'community' levels. However, as illustrated by the two case studies in this paper, communities are not homogenous. Social relations within and between communities often represent a microcosm of differentiation by caste, class, ethnicity and gender and the hierarchical power relations between them are often found in the larger society of which the communities form a part. By definition, marginalised groups are located at the lowest rungs of existing power hierarchies. The position of women, defined by the nature of gender relations in patriarchal societies in all regions of the world, is similarly disadvantaged. Cultural values and norms may vary dramatically across cultures, but institutional structures perpetuating women's gender based subordination and exclusion from ownership and control over resources are in place in all patriarchal societies.

Due to their relative resourcelessness and concentration in the subsistence sectors of the economies, rural women as the single largest category, and most marginalised groups in developing countries, share great direct dependence on common pool forest resources. With the increasing complexities, of globalised national economies combined with increasing competition for scarce natural resources, long established systems of access and control over common pool resources, including indigenous systems, are undergoing rapid change. Bringing such lands under community forestry through promoting common property resource management regimes is an important component of community forestry in many regions of the world. However, as illustrated by the first case study, where women are major forest users but are culturally excluded from community institutions, if unmediated by gender aware external interventions, even autonomous community initiatives can further marginalise women by shifting control over access to common pool resources into male hands. Women's resulting reduced access to forest resources may generate gender based conflicts which are not easily discernible. The questions this raises for discussion are:

How can conflict management programmes identify hidden conflicts related to women and marginalised groups to facilitate their getting addressed ? More importantly, can conflict management programmes identify and address conflicts related to marginalised groups and women without a clear understanding of the complex power dynamics within and between communities and a long term commitment to empowering the least powerful?

Further, there is tremendous differentiation within marginalised groups and women themselves. In conflict situations caused by increasing competition for scarce resources, the oppressed often become oppressors of the more oppressed as they have no other models to follow. Thus, while negotiating marginal improvements in forest access from their own men, marginalised women of a slightly higher socio-economic status can contribute towards further marginalisation of relatively more disadvantaged women. How can conflict management programmes ensure that they do not contribute to such processes?

In the case of larger government supported programmes involving partnerships between state forestry institutions and community institutions, a major problem is that in many countries there is no conflict management programme in place. Due to the highly unequal power between state agencies and community groups, conflicts between the two partners get managed or remain unmanaged in a fairly ad hoc manner. As in most developing countries, it may be a long time before systematic conflict management programmes can be introduced and in the majority of conflicts between the two partners it will be the writ of the dominant forestry institution which will tend to prevail. Yet, as illustrated by the second case study, concerned forest officers' lack of understanding of social relations and equity issues, despite their supposedly having been trained in using participatory tools and methods, can inadvertently reverse the achievements of several years of earlier effort. The question this poses is: How can conflict management programmes assist professional foresters, given their technical training and orientation, to develop social and gender analysis skills focused on empowering the marginalised through short training programmes ? What alternative conflict management mechanisms can be developed for such situations?

Lastly, given community forestry's tendency to focus only on 'the' participating communities, conflicts with outsiders receive relatively limited attention. How can conflict management programmes bring outsiders (like the apprehended women in the example at the beginning ) in?

I hope that discussions during the conference will help clearer formulation of such questions so that we can start moving more decisively in finding answers to them. Questions of equity within `communities' have received far too little attention in relation to their importance.

1. A more detailed version of this case study under the title "Delving Beneath the Surface : Latent Gender Based Conflicts in Community Forestry Institutions" has been written by the author for FAO's Community Forestry Unit.

2. As Programme Advisor to the National Support Group for JFM at the Society for Promotion of Wasteland Development, New Delhi

3. While practical gender needs are based on existing gender roles without questioning the unequal gender based distribution of resources and responsibilities, strategic gender interests incorporate transforming those roles through redistributing resources and responsibilities in favour of greater equality for women.


Sarin, M., 1993, "Wasteland Development and the Empowerment of Women: The SARTHI Experience", SEEDS, New York.

Sarin, M., 1994, "Regenerating India's Forests : Reconciling Gender Equity with JFM", paper presented at the workshop on India's Forest Management and Ecological Revival, New Delhi, India, 10-12 February, 1994.

Sharma, C, December 1995, "Community Initiatives in Forest Management : Issues of Class and Gender; A case study of Panchmahals district, Gujarat", Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum.

Sarin, M. and SARTHI, 1995 "Process Documentation by a Self-Initiated Forest Protection Group in Gujarat", in Wasteland News, Feb.-April 1995, SPWD, New Delhi.

Sarin, M., 1995a, "Delving Beneath the Surface : Latent Gender Based Conflicts in Community Forestry Institutions", paper written for the FTPP, FAO, Rome.

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