Sea change in the forest

Sea change in the forest Looks can deceive. If you saw the meagre frame of 35 year-old Sarojini Pradhan, you would dare not suggest that she had led some 3 score women in tying up a forester who had been surreptitiously felling young sal trees. Pradhan is the president of the Mahila Mandal (women's organisation) of the remote Budringia village of Orissa's Phulbani district. "Forty hectares (ha) of forest around the village belong to the forest department, legally. But for the past 12 years we have been protecting this forest and won't let anybody harm it," says a resolute Pradhan.

This is not an isolated case. In 1992, the villagers of Rudangia beat the forest guard and foiled the forest department's nefarious plans of felling the trees for sale. And the villagers of Damigoda have issued clear warnings to Kittigonda and Belcontti, 2 neighbouring villages. To carry podu chasa (shifting cultivation), the latter have destroyed a 4 ha patch of the 80 ha forests belonging to the forest department but has been protected by Demigoda since 1983.

"Because the protection and afforestation started by these villagers, mainly Kond adivasis (indigenous people), the hills of the Eastern Ghats range of Phulbani today have a thick forest cover," says Ram Dash, Member Secretary, National Institute for People's Development, Investigation and Training (nipdit), a Phulbani-based ngo. It has successfully motivated adivasis in giving up shifting cultivation -- their traditional farming patter -- and start protecting the fast depleting forest.
Economic sense The adivasi economy, highly dependent on the forest, was severely affected because of largescale depletions. Villagers use almost everything a forest produces, mainly non-timber or minor forest products (mfps) -- firewood to keep the fire burning in their hearths, dried sal leaves and bamboo to build their huts and mahua seeds to extract cooking oil. They also sell sal leaves and mahua flowers to the forest department to buy essentials like salt, sugar and wheat flour. "We would leave our village with the first rays of the sun and walk miles to collect these products. Only by dusk we were able to return with handfuls of them," recalls Rambha Khonara of village Belapadra. Today, this 30-household village no longer suffers from the shortage of mfps. They have about 10 ha forest under their wings. "Now we collect enough wood to keep our hearth burning. And because of increased soil fertility, and recharged water sources that had dried up due to massive deforestation, I get 1,400 kg paddy from my 0.4 ha farm whereas 10 years ago the yield was just 700 kg," says Vashista Khonara, her husband.

It is nipdit's subtle handling of the 2 linked issues of forest protection and agriculture which has made this possible. There are 322 forest protection committees (fpcs) here, having both male and female members. "They are protecting 10,000 ha of forests around their villages. And in 193 villages, around 4,700 families have stopped shifting cultivation," claims Dash.

"Through regular weekly meetings, holding audio-visual shows we tell people about the hazards of podu cultivation and the benefits of protecting forests," says Kasta Khonara, member, Prapamuda fpc.

Happier now
The benefits of the practice brought about by tangible results has fanned awareness. "The watertable has gone up, so has the fertility of soil here," informs a prudent Dabosan Behra of village Prapamunda. Last year, his family made a neat profit of Rs 4,000 by selling mfps.

The villagers have evolved a working system for protecting the forests. Cutting green trees are strictly prohibited. Errants are fined, the amount being fixed by the village fpc. In February 1993, the fpc of Prapamunda caught the neighbouring villagers cutting trees. "We seized the chopped wood and released the 4 captured men only after they paid Rs 50 as fine," recounts Sudhakar Behra. Felling old trees are allowed for house building. "There is no restriction on grazing since trees have grown big now," says Tottima Digal of village Damigoda. Similarly, collecting firewood and mfps fallen on the forest floor is unrestricted in day time.

Also the villagers have taken care to protect forests from fire. "Now, during spring when the season for collecting mahua flowers begins, we don't set fire to clean the forest floor. It's cleaned manually," says Pappa Naik of village Budrangia. The villagers also take care not to smoke bidis (cigarillos) in the forest and never lit a fire inside.

Having little or no cultivable land, the adivasis were totally dependent on podu and was not going to stop it unless given some viable alternative. Various income generation activities through yuvak mandals (youth clubs) and mahila mandals (women clubs) -- termed as village based organisations (vbos)-- were taken up simultaneously.

Vegetable cultivation and farm forestry now enable the adivasis earn an additional income. Last year, Mahendra Pradhan of the village Sapaganda made a profit of Rs 5,000 by selling brinjal, cabbage, bananas, tomato, lemon and cauliflower grown on his 0.8 ha farm.

The vbos have not only undertaken developmental activities but are also fighting for their rights. Last year, the yuvak mandal of Damigoda forced the block development officer to award the contract for building a 1 km approach road linking the village to the main road to the panchayat. The villagers actually managed to save Rs 10,000 from the project and have put it in a bank account for common purposes.

In Paburia block, women have been demanding better compensations for collecting sal leaves and mahua flowers. "Because of our relentless pressure, we now get Rs 3 per kilogram for mahua flower and Rs 3.50 for a bundle of sal leaves," says Bimala Digal of Paburia. Earlier the rates were Re 1.50 and Rs 2 respectively.

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