Linking Ecology, Economics, and Institutions of Village-level Forest Use in the Karnataka Western Ghats


The forests of the Western Ghats of India are critical for local, regional and global human well-being in a variety of ways. They provide timber, fuelwood, fodder, manure, medicines and a range of other products for subsistence and commercial use, as well as important soil and water conservation services to downstream communities. Simultaneously, they are considered one of the world's biodiversity “hotspots”. But forest loss and degradation continues at a significant if not alarming rate in this region. The forms, mechanisms and ultimate causes for this are complex, context-dependent and controversial. Typically, the debate is polarised into those who blame local use (driven by expanding populations) and those who blame rigid and excessive state control and absence of community control. Recent efforts to bridge this divide through the conceptualisation and implementation of joint forest management programmes have not yielded significant results; the debate therefore continues unabated.

Study Objectives

One reason for the general divergence of views is the lack of comprehensive , empirically-based understanding of the impact of various factors on the ecological outcome (assessed in terms of the biomass productivity, canopy cover and biodiversity). These factors range from economic and cultural factors (such as household resource endowments, and cultural preferences) to institutional factors (such as the distribution of rights and responsibilities between individuals, communities and the state agencies) as well as ecological conditions (such as vegetation type and terrain). Between 1995 and 2001, we undertook a research project titled ‘Linking Ecology, Economics, and Institutions of Village-level Forest Use in the Karnataka Western Ghats ' with the overall objective of understanding how all these factors combined to influence the villagers' adoption of particular resource extraction and protection regimes.


The approach adopted in this project was to set up multiple studies at different scales and employing different techniques, in a way that would complement each other. These studies include:

•  archival research into the finer nuances of tenure regimes,

•  statistical analysis of secondary data on the patterns of economic development in the region,

•  village- and household-level studies into the relationships between household condition, tenure and forest use using case study villages and samples of households,

•  vegetation studies to understand effects of forest use on vegetational diversity, and on the regeneration and sustainability of one heavily harvested species,

•  meso-scale (multi-village) analyses using remote sensing techniques and geographic information systems for overlaying tenure and village-level socio-economic data on land-cover,

•  analysis of performance of tribal forest co-operatives using secondary data and some in-depth interviews,

•  research into the historical and contemporary politics of tenure assignment and redesign,

We summarise below the findings emerging across these different studies.


•  The tenure regimes governing access to and control over forested lands and forest products in the Karnataka Western Ghats region are characterised by

•  the ubiquitous (and yet highly diverse) nature of individual-access regimes,

•  the virtual absence of community-control tenure regimes,

•  the presence of large areas of de facto open-access forests,

•  in spite of similar levels of population and cultivation pressure, dramatic variations in the fraction of state-controlled areas (86% to 25%) versus open-access areas (18% to 54%), indicating the highly arbitrary, historically-conditioned pattern of state regulation of forest lands;

•  equally arbitrary but generally inequitable variations in the distribution of forest access within village communities, with the regimes favouring landed households, and particularly the better-off arecanut cultivating households;

•  The misleading classification of forested lands as “ Assessed Waste Lands ” (Dakshina Kannada), “Gomaals” (Shimoga and Chickmagalur), or “Waste Lands” (Kodagu), thus denying them the protection of the Forest Department and the Forest Conservation Act.

•  The pattern of economic development across the region is equally complex, including

•  areas that depend upon forests only as inputs to intensive, commercially-oriented horticulture,

•  those that have moved into commercial plantations, and

•  Pockets of tribal forest-dependent communities.

Some areas are undergoing rapid agricultural and demographic transformations, while others are relatively stable. While pockets of the region are under rapid industrial development in the form of mining, hydropower projects, or urbanisation, the bulk of the population continues to be agriculture dependent.

•  This pattern of economic development and tenure generates complex spatial and temporal patterns of forest cover change, including deforestation, forest degradation, forest regeneration, selective depletion of forest species, and so on. The causes have more to do with the design and functioning tenure regimes on the one hand and declining dependence on forests due to agricultural change on the other than they have to do with population expansion or supposedly harmful forest product extraction practices.

At the meso-scale, Dakshina Kannada, Kodagu and parts of Chickmagalur districts are witnessing rapid conversion of forest to rubber, cashew and coffee. On the other hand, the forests in the arecanut cultivating belt (Sringeri and part of Koppa in Chickmagalur district, Tirthahalli, Hosanagara and Sagar of Shimoga district, and Sirsi, Siddapur and Yellapur talukas of Uttara Kannada district) show a typical pattern of intensely utilised private-access forests: partial conversion to grasslands, partly dense secondary successional stands, and partly degraded scrub. Our assessments using aerial photographs and satellite imagery demonstrate that there is little truth in the sweeping claims by the Forest Department of rampant degradation open-access and private-access forests. For example, even in the heavily settled region surrounding Sirsi town, the percentage of degraded scrub in private-access soppinabettas was only 11% in 1973 while that in open-access Minor Forests was 14%. While medium density to high density forests were of course highest in state-controlled Reserve Forests—64% (partly because they were preferentially located in remote areas), such forests were by no means insignificant in the other two tenures: 33% in private-access forests and 44% in open-access forests!

Figure 1: Land Cover for Sirsi Region – 1973 (48 J/14)

Figure 2: Land Cover for Sirsi Region: 1992 (48 J/14)  


Figure 3: Tenure Types for Sirsi Region: (48 J/14)

•  The meso-scale scale analysis also shows that the largest conversions of dense forest to agriculture or plantations has occurred in parts of Shimoga and Chickmagalur where significant forest areas are misclassified and outside Forest Department control. One the other hand, the change in forest condition in areas of individual tenure around Sirsi or in Sringeri taluka is quite limited, much of it coming in the form of interventions by the Forest Department in the form of clearfelling and (more recently) monocultural afforestation activities.  


 Figure 4: Example of a Village with Forest Cover in Gomaal


Figure 5: Forest Loss and Degradation in Non-Arecanut Belt of Sagar Taluk

•  The micro-scale household and plot-level analysis conducted in four case study villages in the zone of traditional agriculture and plantation crops demonstrates the highly complex and context-dependent interplay of tenure and economic conditions in influencing forest condition. This analysis highlights the following:

As long as the rural economy in the Ghats region is dependent upon traditional crops (paddy and betelnut) and traditional systems manuring etc., landed households will continue to have an incentive to manage neighbouring forests in a productive, sustainable, but low-diversity form, provide they have exclusive individual usufruct rights on sufficient forest areas.

Figure 6: Darekoppa: Land Cover in 1997

•  Under the above circumstances, even fully privatised forest lands may remain forested, especially if certain constraints on forest product markets and credit markets are removed, so as to ensure high returns to timber sales. These market failures particularly affect the smaller farmers.

•  There is a significant potential to regenerate degraded open-access lands through a judicious blend of community and individual control,

•  But there is also potential for utter collapse of the tenure regimes when non-forestry land-uses become technically feasible and economically very attractive.

•  Simultaneously, state take-over of open-access areas for planting cashew or softwood exotics is seriously affecting the ability of villagers to meet their daily requirements.

Figure 7: Land Cover in Devalkunda and Surrounding Villages in 1973

Figure 8: Land Cover in Devalkunda and Surrounding Villages in 1973

•  In the tribal, high forest zone, our study demonstrates that there is a significant economic potential in the form of income from the extraction and sale of non-timber forest products (NTFPs). This potential is, however, generally untapped due to the highly patronising approach of the state authorities towards the tribal collectors and the poor design of the institutions regulating extraction and marketing. The challenge is to re-design these institutions regulating in ways that will enhance the incomes of the tribal collectors while also internalising the future costs of unsustainable extraction.

•  In other high forest areas, where the high value of certain NTFPs has prompted their collection on a large scale by all communities, our study shows that although the open-access nature of the resource is response for destructive harvesting, the intensity of harvest (and the possible impact of this on future regeneration) does not diminish even under exclusive individual control on the resource. Thus, correcting the open-access situation would be a necessary but not sufficient condition for ensuring sustainable harvest. At the same time, the study of the reproductive biology and regeneration of one high-value NTFP indicates that the impact of intensive harvest are not as dramatic as feared; there appears to be a significant “margin of error” or resilience in the response of the plant community to heavy extraction pressure. The real losers under heavy extraction may be the animals predating on the NTFPs.

•  Our analysis of the conceptual, legal and political issues in redesigning tenurial arrangements has highlighted the following:

•  The polarisation of the debate on forest policy reform between exclusive state control and exclusive community control is misconceived, while the current compromise between these two positions in the form of Joint Forest Management is also not based on a proper conceptualisation of the nature of the forest resource and the stakeholder communities. Forests have the attributes of common-pool goods, privatisable goods, as well as having asymmetric positive externalities that benefit regional or global stakeholders. The regulation of forest use, therefore, requires a sophisticated layering of rights and responsibilities, but with day-to-day management being primarily vested with the local user. In the Western Ghats region in particular, the local user institution need not always be a community institution; it could also be an individual household.

•  Any forest policy reform necessarily involves changes in forest law. However, existing forest law and its operation on the ground through the settlement of forest rights in the state and the country is poorly understood, out of date and riddled with contradictions, arbitrariness and legal pitfalls. Any major change in forest policy, such as the (re-)introduction of any form of participatory forest management, will require a careful reworking of forest law and a resettlement of forest rights.

•  The studies of the history of forest rights settlement and the contemporary politics of forest rights reform highlight the importance of not treating this reform “simply a matter of political will of the state government”. The political support base for the historical settlement that created individual but inequitable usufruct rights is a powerful one, while the support base for policy reform is weak, over-dependent on NGO efforts, and inadequately supported by the scientific community. Forest policy reform in the state will therefore not be an easy process.

Implications for policy and action

•  The tenurial arrangements in Karnataka's Western Ghats region in particular are in need of significant rationalisation, legal simplification, and reform. As a very first step, there is a need to consolidate all existing forest rights regimes under one Forest Act rather than leaving parts in the Revenue Act, and corresponding consolidation of the jurisdiction over all erstwhile forested lands and even other public lands in the hands of the forest department. Translating such consolidation into improved regulation on the ground will also require a drastic overhaul of the manner in which tenurial records of public lands are maintained.

•  The next step would focus on reform on tenurial arrangements in the tribal and traditional agricultural regions. These include reductions of inequities in access and control within and across villages and districts, recognition and full incorporation of historical rights accrued through “savings” from repealed laws, and a creation of village-level institutions that contain an innovative mix of communitarian and individualised arrangements to take on the role of day-to-day management within a transparent regulatory framework. It would also require an increase in the incentives to local communities through the granting of full control over NTFPs, rather than the present arrangement of auctioning rights to contractors who pay subsistence wages to the (poorer) villagers for collection.

•  At the same time, forest policy reform cannot be confined to or oblivious of the economic conditions and forces influencing household decision-making, including the emergence of plantation crops that compete with forest landuse, agricultural commodity prices, landholding distributions, public sector liberalisation, and expanding NTFP markets. In particular, the state needs to provide better incentives for the growth of indigenous timber species through the simpler regulation of private forests, provision of better market information, similar support for (but not participation in) marketing of NTFPs, discontinuing the policy of take-over of public lands by state corporations, such as the Karnataka Cashew Development Corporation or Mysore Paper Mills.

•  On the other hand, the policies for regions where plantation crops are emerging as alternatives to forests will have to be very different. Here, the focus will have to be on controlling forest encroachments, reallocating access to already converted lands in a more equitable manner, ensuring that some common lands are still set aside to meet the needs of landless and marginal farmers and setting up of their user groups to manage these lands, identifying and supporting communities who may still be dependent upon forest resources to act as a counter-weight to the dominant trend towards forest conversion.

•  Activists and advocacy groups will therefore have to abandon their simple-minded focus on “community forestry” and adopt a more sophisticated framework for forest management. This would involve thinking in terms of multiple stakeholders and hence definitions of “good forest”, taking into consideration the major inequities in forest access, and also large variations in the extent and nature of forest dependence. Indeed, one would also have to allow for the possibility that some local communities or economic classes may not be interested in “forests” at all any longer. Thus, any policy change will have to be preceded by a major effort to identify those stakeholders that continue to be interested in the direct use of forest products, and to build a consensus on access to and control over forests may be distributed across these stakeholders, including the very prickly question of the future of historically assigned individual-access regimes.

Research papers/articles on Western Ghats issues

1. Lélé, S., Richard B. N.(2005) "Practicing Interdisciplinarity" BioScience Vol.55 No. 11.

2. Saberwal, V. and Lélé, S. 2004, "Locating local elites in negotiating access to forests: Havik Brahmins and the colonial state 1860-1920", Studies in History, 20(2): 273-303.

3. Lélé, S. (2003) “Participatory Forest Management in Karnataka: At the Crossroads”, Community Forestry, 2(4): 4-11.

4. Lélé, S., V. Srinivasan and K. S. Bawa, 2001, "Returns to investment in conservation: Disaggregated benefit-cost analysis of the creation of a Wildlife Sanctuary", in K. N. Ganeshaiah, R. U. Shaanker and K. S. Bawa (Eds.), Proceedings of International Conference on Tropical Ecosystems: Structure, Diversity and Human Welfare, Oxford-IBH Publishing Co., New Delhi , pp.31-33.

5. Lélé, S. (2000), "Degradation, sustainability or transformation?” Seminar, vol.486, pp.31-37.

6. Ecological Economics Unit, 1999, "Environment in Karnataka: A status report," Economic and Political Weekly, Sept 18: 2735-2744.

7. Lélé, S., G. Rajashekhar, V. R. Hegde, G. Prevish Kumar, and P. Sarvanakumar, 1998."Meso-scale analysis of forest condition and its determinants: A case study from the Western Ghats region, India ", Current Science, 75(3): 256-263.

8. Lélé, S., K. S. Murali and K. S. Bawa, (1998), "Community enterprise for conservation in India : Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Sanctuary", in A.Kothari, Neema Pathak, R.V.Anuradha and Bansuri Taneja (eds), Communities and Conservation: Natural Resource Management in South & Central Asia ", Sage Publications, New Delhi , pp.449-466.

9. Lélé, S.(1998) "Why, Who, and How of Jointness in Joint Forest Management: Theoretical considerations and empirical insights from the Western Ghats of Karnataka" Paper/Publication Presented No. 11

10. Lélé, S. and G. T. Hegde, (1997), "Potential herblayer production and grazing effects in anthropogenic savanna-grasslands in the moist tropical forests of the Western Ghats of India", Tropical Grasslands. Vol. 31, pp.574-587.

11. Nanjundalah, V. Muthalah. (1996) "Re-lighting LAMPS: A Draft Action Plan for Revitalizing the Tribal Co-operatives in Karnataka" Rediscovering Co-operation" Institute of Rural I\lanagcmcnt Anand

12. Lélé, S. (1994), "Sustainable use of biomass resources: A note on definitions, criteria, and practical applications", Energy for Sustainable Development, vol.1, No 4,pp.42-46.

13. Lélé, S. (1993), "Private property rights and forest preservation in Karnataka Western Ghats, India: Comment", American Journal of Agricultural Economics, vol.75, pp.492-495.

14. Lélé, S. and D. K. Subramanian (1988), "A hydro-wood net-energy approach to hydro project design", Energy, vol.13, no.4, pp.367-381.

15. Lélé, S. and R. B. Norgaard, and D. K. Subramanian (1988), "Hydropower project design incorporating submergence costs", Journal of Environmental Management, vol.27, pp.307-323.

Dr. Sharachchandra Lele
Coordinator, CISED, ISEC Campus, Nagarabhavi
Bangalore 560 072, INDIA
Tel: +91 (80)2321-7013, Fax: +91 (80)2321-7008

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