Indigenous forest people value their forest not only as a habitat and food resource, but also for various indirect use values and non-use value. This chapter examines the ecological economic aspect of the value of forest.
While a comprehensive economic valuation of all use and non-use values of the forest is impossible, indigenous societies seem to have a clear, albeit inchoate idea of the value of the forest on which they depend for their material and cultural existence. Forests were valued in all ancient civilizations, and often carefully preserved for subsistence as well as esoteric uses. Following the rise of capitalism, governments in Europe and her colonies considered forests first as wastelands, and then a valuable resource for economic development, and abrogated the customary rights of indigenous forest villagers. All governments of ex-colonies have passed laws to conserve forests as national assets, but often consider them as an obstacle to economic prosperity, whenever profits from industrial land use appear to exceed the instrumental value of the forest. Throughout this cycle of the loss and gain of economic importance of the forest, indigenous people and their perspectives are pushed into oblivion.
Indigenous forest people consider the forest’s existence value to be as important as its use value, and as the bedrock of their cultural and political identity. Bereft of ownership and management rights to the state-owned forest, indigenous villagers have created their own forests on their private and community lands – both as “non- forest” vegetations for biomass removal, and as sacred groves, which uphold the non-use value of the land. Several tree species are planted and maintained along roadside, at home gardens and in sacred groves, regardless of their use values. Many rare and endangered trees that have disappeared from the state forest now exist only in these folk forests. These “worthless” trees and forests highlight the indigenous ecological economic perspective, in which the cultural significance of the forest transcends its instrumental value. This perspective of the value of the forest under- lies the cultural-political motive for forest conservation, in opposition to the profit motive of industry and the development agenda of the state.