ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Moral Issues in Forest Management

A New Moral Economy for India's Forests? Discourses of Community and Participation edited by R Jeffery, N Sundar; Sage Publications, New Delhi, 1999; Rs 265, paperback.

For those involved with conservation and management of natural resources in India, the concept and practice of joint forest management (JFM) has come to be the flagship of a new order that includes the participation of local communities in conservation and management. This may be rightly so, given the official endorsement JFM has received and the diffusion of JFM across the country in the decades since its inception as an experiment in West Bengal. In A New Moral Economy for India’s Forests? based on a 1997 seminar on JFM, editors Jeffery and Sundar bring together a range of thought-provoking analyses of the JFM experience. The book consists of 10 independent chapters dealing with aspects of social theory surrounding forest management in India and of JFM, and an introductory chapter giving background information and a conceptual framework to questions of forest management.

The stated central argument is that a new ‘moral economy’ for subordinate groups in India’s forests is being created since the late 1980s, as a consequence of social forces in India and abroad. ‘Moral economy’, following E P Thompson (1993: 188), has been described by the editors as “notions of legitimate and illegitimate (economic) practices, ‘grounded upon a consistent traditional view of social norms and obligations, of the proper economic functions of several parties within the community’” (p 17). This includes peasant actions of defending selected and even invented traditions, meaning that the moral economy of a subordinate group or that of any society, must be empirically determined. While the purported emphasis is on a moral economy, the treatment of these concepts is scattered in the book. The chapters are organised in two sections, the first dealing with theoretical perspectives on forest management and the latter with the specific issues around JFM. This division facilitates understanding the debate around forest management practice and institutions in India, but the contribution to elucidating the moral economy remains unclear. Instead, three distinct trends are discernible from the articles in the book.

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