India’s degraded forests are seeing a turnaround. From curbing rhino poaching to stopping tree felling and regenerating biodiversity, local communities have taken ownership of their forest homes in several states.
The catalyst has been the Forest Rights Act of 2006 (FRA). The community forest resource (CFR) rights provision of the Act empowers forest-dwelling tribal communities to protect and manage forests. Community rights have been recognised in less than 3% of forests so far, says Community Forest Rights—Learning and Advocacy Group, a coalition of organisations. But some of the success stories have been documented by Centre for Science and Environment in its ‘People’s Forests’ report released last week.
Shruti Agarwal of CSE says: “These are stories of community empowerment, which suggest that a new future of democratic forest governance is emerging. They create confidence in the ability of communities to manage and conserve their forests, and to generate sustainable livelihoods from them.”
Minding the forest (Amravati, Maharashtra)
In 2012, the tribal villages of Nayakheda, Payvihir, Upatkheda and Khatijapur were given charge of a highly degraded forest area of 990ha. Even the assistant conservator of forests of Amravati admits they “received the worst forests”. In the first year, villagers focused on planting bamboo and moisture conservation. They weeded out invasive species like lantana and non-useful trees like gum tree, planted by the forest department. In Payvihir village, they put a stop to the department’s auction of custard apple trees for a meagre Rs 1,500, and began marketing the fruit themselves, earning Rs 16,000 in the first year. “These villages have identified forest patches to be kept untouched from any intervention to observe the biodiversity and evolution of natural flora and fauna… Nayakheda has built watering holes for wildlife,” observes the CSE report. Payvihir gram sabha won the UNDP biodiversity award in 2014 for its work on decentralised forest governance.
Bamboo bonanza (Narmada district, Gujarat)
Villagers in Shoolpaneshwar Wildlife Sanctuary got CFR rights over 67% of the area in 2013-14. In the first year, 16 villages inside the sanctuary harvested a bumper crop of 96,319 MT of bamboo because of a good flowering season and earned Rs 185 million in revenue. A dozen villages decided to plough back 30% of the profits into forest protection and the rest into community development. The villagers have started working on ways to avoid forest fires, plant indigenous species, and manage water conservation.
Women turn exporters (Kandhamal, Odisha)
The lives of women in Madhikol changed after the village got CFR rights in 2016. The gram sabha, consisting of six men and six women, framed rules for patrolling of forests, protection from fires and sustainable harvest of forest produce. The practice of burning tendu bushes before the plucking season was stopped as the fire destroyed new plants of other important species. Earlier, tribal women would stitch siali leaves into plates and sell them to middlemen at a throwaway price of Rs 10 for 80 plates. In 2016, they formed a collective and began exporting the plates, earning Rs 50,000.
Trees before tendu money (Chandrapur, Maharashtra)
Panchgaon was the first village in the district to get CFR rights. The village mandated each household to come up with at least five ideas for management of the forests. Eventually, 115 regulations were finalised. “Thus, the entire village was party to the decisions taken and the gram sabha’s success in governing its CFRs can be partly attributed to this inclusive and democratic approach,” says the report. Voluntary patrolling of forests is mandatory here. The most important decision of the gram sabha was a ban on removal of tendu leaves, forgoing huge revenue. “The collection of tendu leaves requires extensive lopping and setting fires in the forest, affecting the growth of trees and, in turn, the production of edible tendu fruit. Tendu leaves are used to make bidis which are not good for health. On the other hand, birds eat the tendu fruit; and so do we,’ Ramesh Tamke, gram sabha member told CSE researchers.
Assertive adivasis (Alipurduar,West Bengal)
The state government refuses to recognise the Adivasis’ CFR rights. But forest communities in north Bengal have been assertive. Twelve villages in the Chilapata forests of Coochbehar constituted gram sabhas who filed CFR claims in 2008-09 and passed resolutions to conserve forests and wildlife. In 2014, they resisted the forest department’s felling operations in elephant corridors as this could have aggravated man-animal conflict. “The village compelled the forest department to seek the permission of its gram sabha and carried out a survey of the trees marked by the department for felling. As more than 1,400 trees of native species would be cut down, the gram sabha refused permission,” states the report. It quotes Mahesh Rava from Kodalbasti village: “Our forests are better now. You should have seen them before 2008. We stopped illegal removal of boulders and sand from the rivers as well.” Villagers also claim incidents of rhino poaching have reduced significantly because of their patrolling measures.