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Guardians of the forest

The Bhimashankar forests in the Western Ghats are an excellent example of common pool resources used, safeguarded and governed by the Mahadeo Koli tribals who have lived here for centuries, writes Kusum Karnik. Outside each tribal village is a deorai or sacred grove that has a particular species composition and so functions according to a different set of rules and laws that are strictly observed

There are few forest areas in India today that remain beautiful and pristine. Bhimashankar is one. The forest is located on the remote, high-rainfall hill slopes of the Western Ghats in Ambegaon block, Pune district, Maharashtra. These are virgin, evergreen, four-tiered, cloud forests that have existed despite the shallow soil depth and hard rock beneath. There is no water table, which makes it difficult for the forest to regenerate if it is cut. The forest takes care of the heavy precipitation as well as the gusty winds which are prevalent here. The tall trees, medium-sized trees, bushes, and grasses/leaf-litter, together with climbers, take good care of the soil by absorbing the rainwater. It is sad that today the forest cover is confined only to the top of the ghats (hills), while the eastern area of the hills is mostly denuded and barren, with some patches of forest. This area was well-wooded up until four decades ago.

The Mahadeo Koli tribe has lived here for centuries. They have adopted a lifestyle and a philosophy that is ideally suited to the environment. They depend on the forest for most of their needs. But even as they use the forest they are particular that they do not exploit it in an unsustainable manner. Their well-knit community life, based on the principle of cooperation, is their strength.

Tribal life is based on the concept of common property resources (CPR) -- land, forests, water. This concept is not recognised by non-tribal societies, nations or corporations. Their philosophy of ‘caring and sharing’ is not for themselves alone, but for future generations as well. They firmly believe that “together we survive”, so taking care of the ecosystem is important to them. It’s all about cooperation, not competition. They consider common property resources as a sacred heritage and reject private property as an institution.

The tribals collect food, fodder, fuel and fibre for their daily needs. Their food includes flowers, buds, leaves, fruits, tubers/roots, honey, mushrooms, etc. They also hunt animals for nutrition and to keep wildlife populations in check. For hunting they use traditional weapons, with both hunter and hunted on the same level of vulnerability. They catch fish and crabs to supplement their diet.

In 1985, the government declared that there would be a wildlife sanctuary in the area. The tribals were not consulted; it was only through word of mouth that they got to know that eight villages, said to be inside the sanctuary area, would be cleared. They began raising questions about the validity of a law that did not have any respect for the rights of local people or take them into confidence.

Negotiations with the government were soon underway. The tribals realised that they had to establish their ownership and so started studying the forest with the help of Shashwat Trust, a voluntary organisation that has been working in the area for a number of years. Since 2000, both tribals and the Trust have been documenting local knowledge of flora, fauna and the interdependence of forests and forest-dwellers. They are studying forest produce -- what is used, how, when and why -- and agricultural practices. They are also documenting the Mahadeo Koli’s socio-cultural practices which form the backbone of their economic and cultural existence. The People’s Forest Research Institute (PFRI) was set up, bringing together a group of resourcepersons from Pune including scientists and forest officials.

At PFRI, the local tribals are the leaders. ‘Study groups’ have been organised in each village and plans are afoot to start a nursery for indigenous plants. PFRI also organises advocacy programmes in other tribal areas as well as in cities.

Working with tribal communities teaches you to appreciate their “community wisdom”. Bhimashankar’s tribals follow a low-expenditure lifestyle where everything is used sparingly. The houses are made of stone and mud-mortar; the people possess only a few essential things. They live in well-knit communities where cooperation is a way of life. They plan and work together, selecting sites for jhum cultivation, sowing and transplanting paddy and other hill millets, guarding crops against wild animals, harvesting their crops, and hunting and fishing. Most decisions are taken collectively by the community, and the responsibility shared. It’s this lifestyle that has allowed them to live in the forests for years. For in a forest you cannot be careless, go it alone, or take undue risks.

The tradition of ‘deorai’ or temple/sacred groves is at the centre of their culture. Every village around Bhimashankar has one or more such deorais. These are forests set aside in the name of god, and well protected. Each deorai has a particular species composition and so functions according to a different set of rules and laws that are strictly observed. The people consider the forest their mother and say they subsist on her milk, not on her blood. The deorais are the ‘gene pools’ of the area from where seeds can be dispersed by animals and birds.

Our government, wildlife lovers, scientists and others must understand and respect the relationship between the forest and the forest-dwellers, and their rights. Our laws regarding forests are based on the erroneous assumption that the forest-dwellers are the enemies of the forest. The laws have not taken into consideration that the areas where forests exist also happen to be tribal areas.

In 1984, we saved a deorai in Ahupe village from the clutches of a contractor. Later, we invited a renowned research institution in Pune to survey and evaluate the deorai. They reported that the climber kombhal in the deorai was possibly around 800-1,000 years old, which meant that the sacred grove and the tribal villages also dated that far back!

The tribals regard the tiger as a god. They may not use words like ‘apex species’ but they understand the importance of a species like the tiger in keeping the ecosystem in check. There is a temple in Bhimashankar devoted to the tiger god.

Before the British came to India, the forests belonged to local communities that were largely tribal. These tribal communities looked after the forests and used them for their sustenance. During colonial times, however, forests became state property and began to be treated as timber depots. Sturdy trees were chopped down to make ships, build railways, etc. The two world wars used up a lot of wood, as did development projects like dams, mines, factories, cities, highways, etc. Many non-timber trees too were cut down for charcoal, plywood, etc, and sent to big and expanding cities. Natural forests were felled for large commercial plantations. This changed the very composition of the forests, affecting the lives of local communities as well as wildlife. It also made the forests unstable and vulnerable. Although forests have been shrinking since the beginning of the agricultural era, in the last two centuries the pace has accelerated at an unprecedented rate.

Our consumerist lifestyle is eating away our natural resources and we are being forced to deal with the devastating effects. Now finally we are realising that tribals have a wealth of important knowledge to share with us. Finally the concept of community wellbeing as against private property and personal gain is gaining acceptance.

(Kusum Karnik is an Advisor to the People’s Forest Research Institute (PFRI))

Infochange News & Features, March 2011