Outside the box

  • Chure conservation requires unconventional thinking; the ‘command and control’ approach is a waste of time and resources
Outside the box

Jul 14, 2014-

Convinced of the futility of the ‘command and control’ system applied to conserving the Tarai forests, I had made up my mind to try something new as soon as I joined the Siraha District Forest office as its Chief District Forest Officer, back in 1998. I discussed the available alternatives with my crew, who too were very convinced with the then contemporary approach. They were also willing to try something new.

Making friends of foes

It is not that we discontinued our routine forest patrols. On the contrary, we made them more frequent and intense. We would patrol the possible trespass routes day and night and attempt to catch trespassers through any possible means. But our modality in dealing with the case was markedly differed from the conventional way of doing things. Instead of beginning a formal case against the plaintiff by way of putting him—often poor people from southern plains usually called kadbharuwa or shoulder loader—in police custody, he would become my ‘virtual guest’. He would be given a room next to mine and would share my food. The ‘guest-like treatment’ to a supposed criminal surprised many but we were very strategic in our mission. The kins of the plaintiff, as well as his villagersand local politicians, would visitus with a plea for be considerate in his case. But they never knew how such cases were used as a means to reach the villagers for forestry extension.   

We would talk to the offendersby asking themwhether the current destruction of the Chure would lead to sustainability and whether they needed to give a second thought to the matter. They would eventually agree that they had so far overlooked the sustainability issue, which, in fact, must be conserved for their own long term benefits. They had seen people in the hills managing small patches of forests. They too wanted to modify and apply the model to suit their own specific situations. The visitors would also make a promise to start a dialogue with their fellow villagers as soon as they returned home. Encouraged by their promises and a sense of commitment, we would promise to join them whenever they organised such dialogues locally.

Eventually, they would organise the meeting where they invited us as well. We, of course, went there but not as formal guests. We carried a host of communication materials, which consisted of things that would help demonstrate how the Chure had already reached a critical stage and thus, needed urgent attention. Maps and government policieson community forestry were often the stuff we carried there so as to trigger their interests. In fact, the context provided a forum for more dialogue in the future,which we began to tap carefully.  

Rebuilding ties

Eventually we would let the supposed plaintiff go free in lieu of promises of more concerted attempts on the part of villagers toward Chure conservation. It was hard for the villagers to believe that a supposed criminal was walking free. But we were content as this helped us build a good rapport with villagers, which had been severed for many generations in the history of the Department of Forests.  

We knew our activities were extralegal. The Forest Act in no way would entertain such offence cases and let them go unpunished. Our well-wishers and colleagues cordially asked us to immediately stop such discretionary moves as it could have severe implications for my own safety and career. But I argued with them that I needed to be more dedicated to conserving Chure than following the Forest Act to the letter.

I asked myself, what was the use of sentencing so many people and imposing such hefty fines on them if the Chure continued to dwindle? We knew that penalising them would only generate a feeling of reprisal, which would, in fact,close the window of opportunity for future collaboration. Convinced of the potential implications, I, along with my support staff, would not budge an inch from the supposedly ‘extralegal’ practice we had begun. We would catch the forest offenders by all means but we refrained from taking official action against him.

Think different

As far as I can remember, all 18 plaintiffs walked free during my three yeartenure in Siraha. I can recall just one case where we resorted to filing an offence case. This was essentially because the personfailed to organise a meeting as promised. Thankfully, the local people liked our idea and let us continue our new approach by not making an issue about what we did. The Department of Forests is also to be thanked as it turned a blind eye to our supposedly extralegal activities,as they were for the good of the Chure.

I wish I had an opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the supposedly extralegal but well intended move while I was working in Siraha. But independent evaluation from outside might be much better as a biased conclusion could be avoided that way.I would love to see someone take initiatives in this regard. This might provide a clue for the newly conceived high-level Chure Tarai and Madhesh Conservation Committee (CTMCC) to opt for a modality that actually works, rather than reinventing the wheel.

Issac Newton’s famous quote is relevant here, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” The problems of the Chure were born while we persistently followed a ‘command and control’ notion in conservation. The mere continuation of this thinking would be little more than a waste of time and resource. An out-of-the-box thinking may be inevitable.Just food for thought for the CTMCC.

Baral is a former Joint Secretary from the Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation

Published: 15-07-2014 09:06

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