Forest Guards: The Frontline Conservationists

Theorising the work environment of forest guards can greatly enrich the governance of protected areas and synthesis between the forest administration and local population. The distressing job conditions at the forest frontlines, the multidimensional relationship between forest guards and locals, and the guards’ own location in the community make their role very important for ensuring people’s participation in conservation and forest resource protection.

Forest guards are one of the least studied professional groups due to the subject’s cross-sectional location between the fields of ecology and the social sciences. Any related scholarship is often a subsection of research on forest conservation and forest governance, where reference to forest guards is made only in the context of achieving governance and conservation objectives. This leaves many questions unanswered with respect to their working conditions, occupational risks, integration with local-level politics and economy, real-time interpretation and enforcement of laws, and ethnographic understanding of this profession.
In this article, I seek to put forth a preliminary understanding of these aspects with the objective of theorising the fundamental concerns of duty as a forest guard. Some of the conceptual points in this article are built on an exercise to patrol a forest range in Melghat Tiger Reserve (MTR) alongside frontline forest staff.

Distress with Guarding Forests

MTR is a critical habitat for tigers along with other endangered species like the dhole and forest owlet. It is also a forest zone with commercially valuable teak making it vulnerable to illegal infringement. It is thus inevitable for the forest department to post a battery of guarding staff across the reserve. These guards monitor their designated beats (part of a range) from a number of forest protection camps. The camps are usually temporary settlements constructed with the use of bamboo, logs, and hemp, preferably on an elevated area like a cliff. Clusters of these camps are supervised by a range. Most camps are manned by guards categorised in the position of Majhi Sainiks (ex-servicemen) and Vana Rakshaks (forest protectors). While the former are ex-servicemen (retired defence personnel), the latter are chosen from among the locals settled within the boundaries of the tiger reserve.

Due to constant staff shortage faced by the forest department and the slow process of recruitment, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) had facilitated a plan for MTR to contractually employ ex-servicemen in the job of forest guards. Ex-servicemen were the obvious choice because they were already trained for demanding physical activities and working under challenging environments. While MTR recruitment does not specify the rank of applicants, generally applicants for the post of forest guards are those who have retired from the lower ranks of the army. Within this group, residents from nearby regions had been given a preference so as to close the language and cultural gap between the guards and the local villagers inside the protected area. However, this renewed effort by the NTCA to recruit forest guards received a mild response from ex-servicemen and MTR still does not have optimum numbers in the ground force.[1] 

To understand the low desirability for this public sector job, it is important to remember that the work conditions inside the forests are extremely tough. In addition to this, forest duty is part of the classic Weberian organisation with ingrained patterns of strict hierarchical authority, elite bosses, graded career structure and rigid rules, reflecting characteristics of a dysfunctional bureaucracy (Schug 2000). Though paid through central funds, supervision and provision of facilities to guards is entirely overseen by the local forest department. At this point, the forest guards face the apathy of a mismanaged, cash-starved, and politicised forest administration. 

In the forest protection camps, guards spend time in almost isolation. Mobility to local villages in the forest range is a challenge due to long distances, uneven or difficult terrain, and no access to motorised vehicles. This further means a looming risk of inconsistent ration supplies, particularly in times of bad weather. No electricity, lack of clean drinking water, and near absence of healthcare further decapitate the job. The duty also carries security risks: in part from the wild animals, but more regularly from the agitated locals who are in direct conflict with forest guards over forest zone access regulations. Poachers and illegal fellers are another major threat to guards who only have a cane or a baton as their defence in the case of armed encounters. In recent surveys by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Asia and Africa, 72.5% of rangers said that they had faced a life-threatening situation at work (WWF 2016; WWF and RFA 2016). All this adds to the internal politics among the staff revolving around hierarchy, accountability, rent-seeking, and bureaucratic lethargy. These limiting factors affect recruitment, especially because ex-servicemen are not accustomed to such a professional and institutional environment. 

Protected Areas and Unprotected Conflicts 

The forest guard and the local villagers play a game of cat and mouse with each trying to outsmart the other. Exploiting forest produce in a tiger reserve is prohibited for everyone, including the locals (except in areas marked under the Forests Right Act, 2006). But, the native villages are closely bound with protected zones and their inhabitants rely heavily on forests for vital inputs like food, housing, and livelihood needs. Preventing locals from these areas is practically difficult in the highly inter-dependent forest ecosystem. Their subsistence needs rank much higher in the criticality index compared to a set of non-customary laws or rules imposed on them.

This tug of war over access to property perceived as their own by both the state and the people exacerbates a series of micro-conflicts scattered across a protected area. These micro-conflicts build into consolidated agitations over time against the forest administration. Several conditions decide the extent of time for such retaliatory build-up. The sociocultural congeniality among the locals complemented by the mobility of the political institutions in the effected settlements play the prime role in deciding how fast the locals join hands. The congeniality is often governed by the class and caste divisions within these communities. The dynamism in gram panchayats and other customary institutions have an impact on the pace and strength of political mobility.

The depth and extent of synthesis between the forest department and locals is another major factor that determines the extent of time before the locals stand up against the prohibitory rules. The influence of the forest department on the local economy and its ability to tweak economic balances defines one side of the synthesis. Thus, if the government sources any raw material or finished goods from the local villages (this determines the extent), it mostly happens through the forest department; further, if most sections of the community gain crucial benefits from such trade (this determines the depth), synthesis will be high. Synthesis may be even higher in a case where locals are employed with the forest department because both parties not only reap economic benefits, but also social amiability and appreciation.

Significance of the Locality

Against this background, forest policy in India has gradually recognised the significance of close synthesis with locals, especially in conflict-ridden protected areas (GoI 1988; IIFM 2016). The employment of a number of Vana Rakshaks in MTR reflects this policy shift. The preference given to the locality even in the cases of permanent guards and Majhi Sainiks reflects the same sentiment.

Coming from a similar background helps the forest guards in having an informal understanding with the locals. The guards do not mind the locals who take small quantities of forest produce like fruits and herbs for household needs, or those who bring in a few goats to graze. They also do not mind a local picking up a small heap of dry wood. They are well aware that forests are an inseparable part of the tribal daily life, as they or their own family members pursue similar activities back home. Other studies in India, Thailand, and Tanzania have also found similar legitimisation of informal forest resource collection by guards (Robinson et al 2010).

However, forest guards will not let someone chop a tree, or install traps, or graze large herds of bovines. The regular way to deal with a woodcutter is to confiscate his axe. Punishment and fine are prescribed in the applicable law, but that is almost never implemented for individual offenders. Similarly, if a herder is detected, he is sternly ordered to move out of the protected area immediately with his animals. Again, the legal decree is not put to use.

In their paper, Robinson et al (2010) link this informal decision-making by guards with notions of “fair” level of extraction or punishment, hence arguing that “it may bring the enforcement regime closer to a social optimal that takes account of both resources and livelihoods.”

However, in addition to a local-level understanding of fairness, guards also have an incentive to share decent terms with locals. We must remember that the forest protection camps are often located in far-fetched areas, miles away from the main forest station. The communication towers seldom work, and in some camps there is no connectivity at all. Guards are often not equipped with wireless sets. The nearby settlement becomes the only active human colony to be relied upon. Being on good terms with locals means that guards have a support system in emergencies. Even otherwise, these settlements are the place for guards to socialise in an otherwise extremely secluded living environment.

More importantly, a strong local companionship mitigates the risk of violent attack on a forest camp by groups or individuals who may be agitated by the limits and controls placed by the forest department. Since guards are the immediate law-keeping representative of the forest regime, they are also likely to become primary targets of rage. At least three or four forest guards equipped with bamboo sticks and axes are visibly at a great physical risk in such a case.

Vana Rakshaks: The Passive Change-makers

As stated above, a Vana Rakshak or Vana Mazdoor is a male resident from the local communities living inside MTR. The forest department follows a rotational order of appointment for all the registered individuals as it ensures that every willing household member gets an opportunity to serve. Because livelihood options are severely limited inside the forests, it is rarely the case that a household is unwilling. An increased control on forest produce has anyway further deteriorated the livelihood situation of forest-dependent communities.

In search of extra or better income, the young generation in these communities now moves to urban centres which promise sundry jobs. Out of 15 Vana Rakshaks aged between 20 and 40 years interviewed for this study, 13 had gone out to work in a city in the last two years. The cities were as close as the neighbouring town Amravati or as far as Salem in Tamil Nadu. Due to very low employment opportunities, the adequately paid job of a Vana Rakshak, that too based so close to home, is given a very high value by locals.

The principal objective cited for employing local youth in forest jobs is the shortage of staff in the department. Improving state–people relations is mentioned as another reason. However, Vana Rakshaks have emerged as very important, but silent actors in the forest conservation strategy in MTR, almost as an unintended objective. The fact that at least one person from almost each household is covered by the job charter of the Vana Rakshak has to a great extent established the forest department’s institutional validity among people in adjoining settlements.

It is well-researched that most of the past and contemporary conflicts between people and the forest management occur due to the state of shock and confusion amongst the locals. They are stunned when laws suddenly hamper their free movement into forests, or when the property and resources, which they (in their understanding) legitimately claim, are delimited in a short period of time. 

As they take up the position of Vana Rakshaks, locals understand the active legislative framework more easily, thereby reducing the risk of such conflicts. They start to distinguish between protected forests and reserved forests. They also understand the critical place of a tiger reserve in the macro setting, on the national and international stage. These are the corollaries of placing the people within the system rather than in opposition to it. As Vana Rakshaks, they get to interact with the governing regime. This enables them to reflect upon the core ideas beneath delimiting forests zones with respect to wildlife conservation, endangered species, tourism, river systems management, climate change, urbanisation and policy imperatives. As is obvious, their vocabulary varies from these standard terms, but what matters is the sense of understanding, which is quite similar.

Other steps to reduce the anthropogenic impact on forests often involves force. There are many accounts where tribals are pushed away and uprooted out of protected areas by the use of state machinery comprising police and punitive laws. These actions give birth to hundreds of fragmented battle zones. 

A more liberal and rational approach is of people’s involvement through a range of governance-oriented measures. These programmes are planned to convey forest policy to people and encourage their participation in forest conservation. This approach requires academic support, accountable systems, and long-term efforts. Its successful execution also demands expertise in community mobilisation and regional economy. Employing and training locals who understand the language, culture and lifestyle of fellow inhabitants is a key strategy in this context.

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