Friday, April 8, 2016

39 People and the forest service. Modernizing the Indian Forest Service-III.

Karl Marx and the ‘Wood Theft Law’ in 19th century Germany

It may not be surprising that the question of forest rights and privileges has had a hoary and distinguished career in the world of social-political thought and ideology. This is because forests have usually been considered a part of the commons, open to anybody in the community for collecting the necessities of daily living, including fuel, food, fodder, medicines, artisanal raw materials, etc. The moment forest administration is put on a more organized basis under the direct control of state organs, this direct and intimate relationship of community with commons is disrupted, impinging on the day to day life (and misery) of the poorest people. Socially conscious thinkers and activists, therefore, see in this a classical case of the state usurping the space of the individual and the local community. A discussion of forest policy, therefore, cannot be undertaken in a relatively closed space, where only technical issues and concerns are taken into account, as the professional forester is prone to do.

What may be a cause of surprise to most foresters (and some environmentalists) is that one of the early social-political commentaries on the forest situation is actually that of the great Karl Marx himself, and that too in the earliest period of his career, even before he had formulated his concept of historical materialism and the inevitable collapse of the capitalist system. From October 1842 to the following January, faced with growing government censorship in running the Rheinische Zeitung (RZ), the young Marx turned "away from exclusive concentration on the philosophy of politics and the politics of philosophy”, to certain specific social and economic problems (Draper, 1977, Vol.I, p.66). Among these was the “Wood Theft Law”, a subject which “may strike the modern reader as a tenth-rate problem” (compared with other pressing issues mentioned in the chapter), but is “easily the most important that Marx wrote as editor” (Draper, op. cit., p.63 onwards):

“Wood gathering had been a traditional right of the peasants, but now when times were hard for them, the state was cracking down on it. As a result of this collision between the needs of mass poverty and the needs of property and business, prosecutions for wood theft had climbed dramatically during the preceding decade… For example, around Trier {Marx’s hometown}, wood thefts formed an amazing 97 percent of all thefts in the period 1830-1836 (for which there are figures); in all Prussia in 1836, offenses in forest, hunting, and pasture lands (probably mostly wood thefts and poaching) formed almost 77 percent of all prosecutions. This situation continued until the 1848 revolution.” (Draper, op. cit., p.63).

According to Draper, this is the first time that “we see Marx caught up in a passionate identification with the poor and oppressed, vividly feeling the misery and want he has investigated and trying to cry out to the comfortable burghers: Look, here are human beings suffering – something had to be done!” (Draper, op. cit., p.64). Draper supplies the following excerpt from the Rhenish historian H.Stein in this connection: “Karl Marx’s articles on the Moselle and wood theft questions… had the task of drawing public attention to the distressed economic situation and to the defects of the administrative bureaucracy, both of which were little known … among broader circles due to the pressure of the pre-1848 censorship. But even today these essays still deserve the attention of scientific research…” (Draper, ibid., footnote; italics added for attention). At this stage of Marx’s political evolution, he still had the view that a third element, which is neither of the state nor directly involved in private interests, is needed to resolve the difficulty: the free press. This is all the more necessary because of the tendency of the official “for demeaning the state interests into his private affair, into interests from which all others are excluded as laymen, so that even the crystal-clearest reality seems illusory to him against the reality embedded in the documents under his nose…” Marx deplored the tendency of the state bureaucracy “to look on the state as its own private property” (Marx, 1842, quoted in Draper, op. cit., p.65-66).

From the analysis of these seemingly limited and simple social situations, Marx proceeded to develop the concept of the state and to draw lessons for the larger agenda  for the “battle for political democracy” (Draper, p.66), and the counter-positioning of the “rights of individual people” (op. cit., p.67) against the rights of property and the rights of the state:

“We vindicate the customary right of poverty [that is, the poor] … in all countries. We go even further and maintain that customary right in accordance with its nature can be only the right of this lowest, elementary mass which owns nothing” (Marx, quoted by Draper, op. cit., p.68; italics in original).

Marx claims this right for the poor on the ground that

"the privileged classes have long ago turned their customary rights (even the unreasonable ones) into statutory laws. …It is only the unprivileged whose customary rights have remained without the buttress of law; hence only in their case does such an appeal make sense” (Marx, 1842, quoted in Draper, op. cit., p.69).

The resonance of this argument with the justification and rationale of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, is obvious. In fact, in another (maybe not completely fortuitous) throwback to Marx’s concerns, the government of the day held the forest service in India responsible for the rise of the Naxalite menace (termed Left-Wing Extremism, LWE). Apart from mobilizing social environmentalists to go around the country investigating the state of the Forest Rights Act (the Saxena Committee, see Nitin Sethi’s report in the Times of India, 24 December 2010), a big effort was mounted to establish gram sabha (community) rights on bamboo in the forest (defined as a Minor Forest Produce, MFP, in the FRA, and hence the property of the gram sabha under the Panchayati Raj legislation). The then minister for environment & forests personally went to villages in the state of Maharashtra to establish these rights by distribution of permit books to the gram sabhas (a compromise arrived at to empower the communities while maintaining some of the management regulations in the interests of long-term viability of the crop) (see Times News Service report in the Times of India, 23 May 2011).

The founding-father of Indian forestry, Dietrich Brandis, has some interesting comments on the forest situation in mid-19th century Europe and the ‘revolution’ of 1848, which throw a slightly different light on the value of some sacrifice in the immediate future in the longer term interest; this obviously had (and has even today!) relevance to the Indian situation, when social activists are pressing for the transfer of full rights to the community:

“During the excited times of 1848, when the relaxation of all restrictions was everywhere demanded in Germany, several villages in the Kingdom of Würtemberg demanded permission to divide their communal forests among the householders of the village. In a weak moment the Government consented, the forests were divided and sold. The proceeds soon disappeared for 1848 was a year of excited popular assemblies, of drinking and carousing in that part of the country. These villages I visited in 1865, and the people complained bitterly of their poverty. The villages in the vicinity, that had put up with the restrictions, which good forest management demands, were prosperous and happy. No communal taxes, for the steady annual forest income paid for the roads, lighting, schools and churches, and in addition yielded to each householder firewood in abundance for the winter, and timber for repair of their houses.” (Brandis, 1897 repr. 1994, p.150)

James C. Scott- Seeing Forestry Like a State

Among others, the case of ‘scientific’ forestry has been analysed in detail by James C.Scott in his work Seeing Like a State, which has the telling sub-title How Certain Schemes to Improve the human Condition Have Failed (Scott, 1998). In this book, Scott analyses certain leading examples of how states strive to make society and social activities more “legible”, by simplifying, standardizing, arranging, labeling, categorizing, sedentarizing (restricting movements), and so on. Scott tries to “provide a convincing logic behind the failure of some of the great utopian social engineering schemes of the twentieth century” (op. cit., p.4). 

The examples chosen for detailed discussion are: state cadastral mapping to systematize property holdings, taxation, etc.; ‘scientific’ forestry with maximum productivity goals; highly planned new cities like Le Corbusier’s design for Chandigarh, India; Soviet collectivization and “compulsory villagization” in Tanzania (and in Ethiopia and Mozambique). A saving grace of the work is that it is not restricted only to fiascoes of “high- modernism” sponsored by the democratic states; he also mentions the ‘Great Leap Forward’ in China, and discusses in detail collectivization in Russia (Ch.6). Readers can obviously come up with other examples from theocratic and nationalistic states, as well as communist dictatorships (the so-called People’s Democratic Republics), which show the extreme disasters that unbridled good intentions can cause.

Scott sees four elements as necessary to take these high-sounding programmes to their final stage of a “full-fledged disaster”: the “administrative ordering of nature and society” in an effort to make them “legible” and hence, amenable to control, the “high-modernist ideology” with its exaggerated faith in progress that has been “unscientifically optimistic”;  an “authoritarian state” that is willing to use “the full weight of its coercive power” to implement these designs; and a “prostrate civil society" that “lacks the capacity to resist these plans” (op. cit., p.5). Their failure was because they were too simplistic and rudimentary in their effort to define and systematize; they made no allowance for the myriad “informal processes” and “improvisations in the face of unpredictability”, the “local knowledge and know-how”, that are what actually keep a “functioning social order” going (ibid., p.6).

We are more immediately concerned here with his comments on the so-called scientific, sustained yield forestry model. Interestingly, Scott states that this “scientific forestry” was originally developed from about 1765 to 1800, largely in Prussia and Saxony, and later spread to France, England and the US, and throughout the Third World. Its advantages were the higher output of wood, shorter rotations and hence higher economic return to forest land, thereby becoming the standard for forest organizations “throughout the world”,   transmitted for instance to India and Burma by Dietrich Brandis, a German, and the US through Gifford Pinchot, “the second chief forester of the United States”. “By the end of the nineteenth century, German forestry science was hegemonic” (op. cit., p.19).

What, however, are the main objections to this type of regimented production forestry, and what are the main conclusions reached by Scott? One of the objections is that this “utopian dream of scientific forestry… was not and could never be realized in practice”; in a litany of woes that should bring a wry smile to the lips of any seasoned forester,

“Both nature and the human factor intervened. The existing topography of the landscape and the vagaries of fire, storms, blights, climate changes, insect populations, and disease conspired to thwart foresters and to shape the actual forest. Also, given the insurmountable difficulties of policing large forests, people living nearby typically continued to graze animals, poach firewood and kindling, make charcoal, and use the forest in other ways that prevented the foresters’ management plans from being fully realized. Although, like all utopian schemes, it fell well short of attaining its goal, the critical fact is that it did partly succeed in stamping the actual forest with the imprint of its designs” (Scott, op. cit., p.19).

A more social objection (in reference to the encouragement of Norway spruce or Scotch pine in place of German mixed forests) is that “The monocropped forest was a disaster for peasants who were now deprived of all the grazing, food, raw materials, and medicines that the earlier forest ecology had afforded” (Scott, op. cit., p.19). “Radically simplified designs for natural environments” seem “to court the same risks of failure” as those for social organization (op. cit., p.7). “The failures and vulnerability of monocrop commercial forests and genetically engineered, mechanized monocropping mimic the failures of collective farms and planned cities. At this level, I am making a case for the resilience of both social and natural diversity and a strong case about the limits, in principle, of what we are likely to know about complex, functioning order” (ibid.). Scott’s charge is that by focusing on the revenue-yielding timber portion of the most valuable trees, modern forestry has ignored “all those trees, bushes, and plants holding little or no potential for state revenue” and even those that “might have been useful to the population but whose value could not be converted into fiscal receipts” (op. cit., p.12). Gone also were the vast majority of flora and fauna, “except those that interested the crown’s gamekeepers”. All other uses of the forest e.g. for food, sustenance of man and livestock, or cultural and religious values, “for magic, worship, refuge, and so on”, were also ignored. “The forest as a habitat disappears and is replaced by the forest as an economic resource to be managed efficiently and profitably” (Scott, op. cit., p.13).

In the long run, Scott states, this model of the “stripped-down forest” (op. cit., p.20) proved to be ecologically unsound and unviable, as it “became painfully obvious only after the second rotation of conifers had been planted” (ibid., italics in original), showing a drop of as much as two site quality classes due to the imbalance in nutrient cycling. The excessive cleaning of undergrowth seems to have contributed to “thinner and less nutritious soils” (ibid.). Same-age, same-species stands not only left an “impoverished habitat” (p.21) but were also vulnerable to large scale damages from pests, storm-fall etc. A similar list of burdens have been attributed to mono culture and intensive (plantation) forestry in India, as well, and some of these have indeed been collated by me as a special paper during the training course in the Indian Forest College, Dehradun (Dilip Kumar, 1976).

This description of Scott’s follows the general lines of the criticism of ‘scientific’ or organized state forestry leveled by old social thinkers like Marx, or our modern social environmentalists like Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha, Vandana Shiva, or Sharachchandra Lele and associates. In the collection of articles Deeper Roots of Historical Injustice (Rights and Resources Initiative, 2012), Guha comments that although the forest department was set up as early as 1864, it was not until the 1980s that the social scientists began to systematically examine (some would say, dissect!) its policies and programmes, in contrast with their earlier scrutiny of other wings of the state like the revenue, agriculture, irrigation and judicial.  Perhaps the most recent and impassioned statement of this position is contained in Madhu Sarin’s chapter (Undoing Historical Injustice: Reclaiming Citizenship Rights and Democratic Forest Governance through the Forest Rights Act) in Lele & Menon (2014).

It may be appropriate to acknowledge here that the writings and other advocacy of the social scientists and environmentalists have borne a sort of fruit in the form of the Forest Rights Act 2006 (the full and formal title being The Scheduled Tribes and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, or ROFR Act), which seeks to transfer full control of both individual and community rights over forest areas to the forest-dependent people or communities. In a sense, the action research on the wood-theft problem in German forests, initiated by Karl Marx in 1842, has come full circle and rests now with the empowerment of the communities and their ostensible ‘liberation’ from the controlling hand of the state.

The Forest Rights Act (FRA) apparently goes beyond the Joint Forest Management (JFM) framework drawn up by the forest department as a sort of compromise, although, as gathered by the author during some village visits for a study (Dilip Kumar, 2014), at least in areas of settled agriculture (in Haryana, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu), the people themselves did not differentiate so strongly between panchayati raj institutions (PRIs) and department-led community-based organizations (CBOs). They usually prefer to have the benefit of both types of institutions, especially as the PRIs stop at the Village Panchayat (VP) level comprising of many large revenue villages, whereas JFM committees and other sector-specific bodies are formed at a lower, hamlet or settlement level, and are usually more responsive to the immediate needs of smaller communities. Many communities express their need for collaborative  institutions with state organs in addition to the representative bodies of the PRIs (see my case study of the Haryana private forests in the Economic & Political Weekly, Dilip Kumar 2013; the full report is in the ISEC Monograph No.32, Dilip Kumar 2014).[1]

It is not intended to take up a detailed analysis of these topics here, as the instant purpose is to consider how the forest service should respond in the objective situation of the present, rather than weighing the rights and wrongs of this or that position or record of past actions. The ensuing sections will take up some of the key issues, such as recruitment and training, increasing the scientific content, and others that have been raised as sketched out above, and attempt to present, and discuss, different points of view as well as the author’s own perceptions.

[1] Needless to say, the series of articles in the website cover many of these issues: discussion of village institutions is in the posts 14-18 (April 2015), and discussion of JFM,  in the context of Forest Landscape Restoration (FLR), is in the posts 30-36 (January-February 2016); pdf versions of these are posted at and

This article, as all others on this site, is the intellectual property of the author, P.J.Dilip Kumar (IFS, Retired). You are welcome to reproduce it with due acknowledgement. 


Brandis, Dietrich. 1897 (repr. 1994). Forestry in India. Natraj Publishers, Dehradun.
Dilip Kumar, P.J. 1976. The Ecological Implications of Intensive Culture in Forestry. Special paper submitted as part of the Diploma in Forestry, 1974-76. (Typescript). February 1976. Indian Forest College, Dehradun.
Dilip Kumar, P.J. 2013. Village communities and their common property forests. Economic & Political Weekly, Vol.xlviii, No.35, 31 August 2013, pp.33-36.
Dilip Kumar, P.J. 2014. Managing India’s Forests: Village Communities, Panchayati Raj Institutions and the State. Monograph #32 of the ISEC, Bangalore.
Draper, Hal. 1977. Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution. Vol.I. State and Bureaucracy. Monthly Review Press, New York, 1977. Reprinted 2011 by Aakar Books for South Asia, Delhi-110091. Preview at
Gadgil, Madhav and Ramachandra Guha.1992. This Fissured Land. An Ecological History of India. Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

Guha, Ramachandra. 2012. The Past and Future of Indian Forestry. Chapter I in Deeper Roots of Historical Injustice: Trends and Challenges in the Forests of India. Published by Rights and Resources Initiative, Washington, D.C. Available at

Pinchot, Gifford. 1947 (1998). Breaking New Ground. Harcourt, Brace, and Co., New York. Commemorative edition published 1998 by Island Press, Washington, D.C. Introductory essay by Char Miller and V.Alaric Sample.
Rights and Resources Initiative. 2012. Deeper Roots of Historical Injustice: Trends and Challenges in the Forests of India.Washington, D.C. Available at
Sarin, Madhu. 2014. Undoing Historical Injustice: Reclaiming Citizenship Rights And Democratic Forest Governance through the Forest Rights Act. Chapter 3, in Lele and Menon (Eds.), 2014.
Scott, James C. 1998. Seeing Like a State. How Certain Schemes to Improve the human Condition Have Failed. Yale University Press, New haven and London.
Sethi, Nitin. Litmus test for govt as NAC gets specific on forest rights. Times of India (newspaper), 24 December 2010, New Delhi.

Times News Service. Ramesh moves to give tribals fair share in bamboo trade. Times of India (newspaper), 23 March 2011, New Delhi.

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