How effective management of the commons can increase sustainable land management

The livelihoods of people across the district of Mandla in the state of Madhya Pradesh depends on rice cultivation like in most of India. The System of Rice Intensification (SRI) was introduced 20 years ago to boost yields by optimal use of inputs, water, and land. Irrigation is crucial for the success of SRI, but only one in five farmers in Mandla has access to irrigation. We found that the main struggle of local communities with commons management, like water irrigation facilities, is to keep them in good working condition. TMG´s research in Mandla identified this as one main problem for successful implementation of SLM on private lands.

When the area around the village of Taktauwa, on the margins of the Kanha Tiger Reserve, was declared to be in a buffer zone – a sort of protected area around the National Park – in 1977, people’s relationship to the land changed. The community lost rights and responsibility for managing the common land surrounding their village. Invasive plants started to spread and encroach on private farm lands. Ponds silted up, and stone bunds protecting both common land and private farm land were not repaired anymore.

Supported by government programmes and civil society organisations (CSO), community-based initiatives to clear the common land areas and restore the ponds and stone bunds were implemented. Together, the community and the CSOs created a community-based organisation to manage the commons and develop by-laws for their use. Today, farmers report higher yields and better soil quality through erosion control.

Why management of the commons matters for SLM

All over India, 53,276 watershed projects have been implemented between 1995 – 2017, but a major portion of investments is allocated to the construction of structural soil and water conservation (SWC) measures on private lands and on the edge of private fields, while common lands are less prioritized. However, the success of SRI on private land depends on the management of water resources and erosion control on surrounding fields, including from common land areas. Ponds, wells and canals for irrigation are usually built on common lands but are often not well maintained. Farmers in Mandla report limited water availability and a lack of irrigation facilities as a main problem for the implementation of SRI. These problems are a direct consequence of a lack of maintenance of water harvesting structures on common land resources. Other effects of inadequate SWC management on commons are soil erosion of neighbouring private land, damage to erosion control structures, and flooding of fields – thus rendering efforts to implement SRI on those fields ineffective.

Lack of support for local institutions to manage commons by SLM programmes
In Mandla, only 2 out of 7 programmes we analysed had components for building the communities’ capacity for managing common pool resources and soil and water conservation (SWC) structures on common land1. Where water pumps were installed without providing the support to the communities on organizing the maintenance, the pumps don’t work anymore. As the success of the SRI method depends on the functioning of water conservation structures on commons, the effectiveness of community institutions is crucial for maintenance of these structures.

Recommendation: Strengthening institutional capacities
Programmes which invested in capacity strengthening along with the introduction of SRI, succeeded regarding long-term adoption of the SRI technique. In villages like Taktauwa, with effective natural resource management, the management of common-pool natural resources and SWC structures was more successful than elsewhere. Where there are by-laws for management of common land resources, for example, monetary sanctions for the maintenance of water pumps were enforced, and water harvesting structures are still functioning.

Insecurity of access to land and conflicts
The insecurity of land tenure and conflicts over access to commons are well-known problems meant to be addressed with the Indian Forest Rights Act from 2006. This law was introduced to regulate the access and user rights of commons for communities. However, conflicts over access to commons and use of products pose severe problems for the farmers in Mandla. These conflicts arise between villages and Ministries for Forest Management, Agriculture and Finance, as well as between villages.

Recommendation: Support community-based SLM initiatives to increase tenure security of commons
SLM initiatives can support the process of villages´ claims over access to and use rights of commons. For example, community-based processes for clearing of lantana – an invasive weed plant – or repairing of soil and water conservation structures on commons led to action for recognition of tenure rights in the villages of Indravan and Singhpur. The collective action strengthened social cohesion and capacities of the communities: regular exchange within the groups and programme implementers about additional sources of income and food motivated the communities to start the process of application for access rights to commons.

Limited participation of women in natural resource management groups and programmes
In the case of the promotion of SRI, women were not part of training for preparation of plots, planting, weeding etc., even though all these are traditional women´s tasks in rice cultivation. This is another significant reason why the adoption rates for SRI remain low.

Recommendation: Adapt programme planning and implementation to women´s role in agriculture
The programmes and NGOs which proactively worked with women and adapted their scheduling of trainings to women´s daily routines proved to be more successful in adoption rates of SRI, as shown in the examples of the Agricultural Innovation in the Mahakaushal region (AIM) and the “Mahila Kisan Shaktikaran Pariyojana (MKSP) programmes. Civil society organizations which placed a stronger emphasis on the inclusion of women in programmes noted how this led to overall higher mobilization for adoption of SLM techniques.

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