Communities throughout Orissa have been regenerating and protecting their forests since the beginning of the 20th century. Today, around 17,000 village forest protection committees in roughly 19,000 villages protect 2 million hectares of forests. That means that over a third of Orissa’s total forest area is now under community control even though ‘legally’ it is state property
Sixty-five-year-old Joginath Sahu, or ‘Shramik Jogi’ (labourer-saint) as he is fondly called in Kesarpur, in Orissa’s Nayagarh district, attributes the village’s success in community forest management to its ‘green philosophy’. You ask what it is and he says simply: “Tree first; that’s it! Gachcha, gachcha, gachcha… baki sabu katha pachcha!” Loosely translated: “Tree, tree, and tree… then comes the rest, if any!”
Shramik Jogi recollects how, before Independence, the village was surrounded by thick, beautiful green trees that harboured a variety of wildlife species. However, between 1950 and 1970 -- when the government leased out vast stretches of forest land throughout the state to contractors for commercial exploitation -- the forests were completely destroyed. “Even the roots were not spared,” he says. “A sort of demonic darkness descended on the people here. Due to soil erosion, fertile lands were filled up and ruined; we even feared that the village would be buried in soil one day. There was an acute shortage of fuelwood; cattle did not find land to graze; perennial streams and village wells dried up; the rains were irregular; the rich wildlife disappeared.”
“It was the wisdom of villagers like Udaynath Khatei (a farmer) and Narayan Hazari (a professor at Utkal University in Bhubaneswar) that saved the village to an extent.”
Shramik Jogi had just joined, in 1966, as headmaster of the local Middle English School. He and Udaynath Khatei took it upon themselves to “bring the dead earth back to life” along with his students and fellow villagers. They set up a village forest protection committee (FPC) and started with Malati hill, which had not a single tree left on it. “Our first job was, of course, to plant trees. We would sit on the roadside and touch the feet of every passerby, urging them to plant a tree each. And they happily planted as many saplings as there were family members, one for each member. Within four years, all 13 villages in and around the erstwhile forest joined in the campaign. Like bees collect nectar from each flower they come in contact with, we took advice and wisdom from each and all. It was such a collective effort, and it still is.”
By 1970, there was a standing forest albeit one that was still in its infancy. It needed protection against ‘predators’. The villages started practising thengapali. Two villagers would find a bamboo stick each morning on their doorstep; this meant it was their turn to guard the forest that day. Today, all three hills -- Malati, Binjhagiri and Maru -- are covered in a dense green canopy. Streams flow round the year and the watertable has risen.
In an inspiring three-hour conversation, the retired headmaster described an incident in 1978 that he would never forget. “We had just planted 5,000 saplings on Malati hill. A businessman who ran a stone crusher there got his men to uproot and destroy all the saplings one night. The next day we were heartbroken. We all cried. I lost my senses. That evening, I got hold of a kitchen knife and was about to set out to kill the businessman. Then I caught sight of myself in the mirror and the knife dropped from my hand. I saw a demon in the mirror. The entire night, my wife and I cried non-stop, sitting side by side.”
“We tried to forget the incident and continued our work. Three years later, the businessman came to us with his men and asked for forgiveness. We hugged them and they all joined us in rejuvenating and protecting the forests.”
A mass movement
The story of Kesarpur and the thousands of hectares of forests in the region are a reflection of the enormous effort communities throughout the state have put into regenerating and protecting their forests since the beginning of the 20th century. Today there are about 17,000 village FPCs covering roughly 19,000 villages, protecting around 2,000,000 (2 million) hectares of forests in Orissa. That means, over one-third of the state’s total forest area is now under community control and care even though ‘legally’ it is state property.
Neera Singh, former director of Vasundhara, a Bhubaneswar-based NGO working with forest issues in a number of districts, who now teaches at the University of Toronto, Canada, wrote in Forests, Trees and People (Newsletter No 46; 2002): “Forest protection by villagers started as an informal phenomenon, with forest degradation and scarcity of forest produce being the driving force for local action.” A study in 1998 by Vasundhara shows that as much as 50% of rural income in some districts of Orissa was from minor forest produce. Singh adds: “During my long association with community forestry practitioners in Orissa, I was struck by the spontaneity of this phenomenon. From the villagers’ perspective, it was natural for them to come forth and protect their threatened resource rather than stand as mute spectators. The fact that the forests did not belong to them was not a primary concern.”
Protection of forests by communities spread to newer areas in the 1960s. In the 1970s and 1980s, it took the form of a mass movement in Orissa.
In many villages I travelled to, people told me they had been looking after the forests for 100 years or more. Voluntary forest protection by communities in Lapanga, in Sambalpur district, is the oldest ‘recorded’ instance.
According to records, villagers in Lapanga began the movement as early as 1936. Following massive commercial exploitation of the forests there, the distance between the village and the forests increased and essential forest produce became scarce. The villagers appealed to the then British administration in 1936, and a semi-judicial body involving villagers, called Gauntia Panch, was set up. Land tax for those who contributed to and protected the forests was exempted. Ujagar Pradhan, 75, who is a member of the Lapanga Prajarakshit Jungle (Lapanga’s people-protected forest) Committee, says: “That year (1936), many landholders of the village donated parts of their land -- around 50 hectares in total -- to regenerate the village forest. A village FPC was also formed. Villagers guarded the forests by observing thengapali, which we still do. Also, each family used to contribute some amount of foodgrain every month to meet the expenses of the protection work.”
Hiradhar Sahu, an independent activist who works among tribals in Debgarh district, says: “Urban people need to understand that there are also large numbers of human beings on this planet who cannot live without forests, just as they cannot live without urban facilities. In Debgarh district today, we have nearly 700 FPCs in about 1,000 villages, and many FPCs are run by women alone.” Pradeep Mishra of Vasundhara, who is looking after the community forestry programme, explains: “Even though there have been communities protecting village forests for a long while, the turning point in Debgarh district was the historic people’s rally in the early-1990s that sought to higlight issues of resettlement and deforestation in the wake of the Rengali dam. This event helped spread the CFM movement far and wide.”
Women lead the way
The idea of women taking up cudgels to protect the forests, as mentioned by Hiradhar Sahu, is not restricted to Debgarh district. It has spread throughout the state. In Lunisahi, in Nayagarh district, women had an interesting story to tell. The village of about 90 families has been guarding the forest since 1970; the FPC was largely managed by men. Then, about three years ago, the men became embroiled in petty politics and started fighting amongst themselves. “Well, the forest had to bear the brunt of their madness,” says Shakuntala Sahu, president of the present village FPC. Sanjubala Pradhan, an anganwadi worker, elaborates: “Men’s political aspirations killed the impeccable sense of belonging that we had for decades. They not only stopped guarding the forest, they started cutting trees rampantly; timber traders from outside also joined them. There was utter chaos in the village. After witnessing this for months, the women got together and deliberated over the situation. We formed an FPC with only women as members. We issued the men a notice, giving them 10 days after which entry to the forest would be banned for everyone without prior permission of the FPC. That worked wonders! Now, we guard the forests.”
“Each of the 90 families is engaged in the effort,” says Shakuntala. “Sundays and Wednesdays are open for villagers to collect essential forest produce. It’s more than 1,000 hectares of forest, guarded by women alone. We even fight with the timber mafia that occasionally manages to sneak in, and drive them away.”
In Rangamatia village, Debgarh district, another village FPC run by women had to put up a check-gate to stop intruders. “The problem is that the timber mafia is hand-in-glove with the forest officials,” says Sukadei, a member of the Rangamatia PFC. “We often get into terrible fights with the intruders; we even have police cases pending against us. Once we stopped a group of intruders and the conflict escalated to the point at which the divisional forest officer (DFO) had to be called in. But instead of helping us he shouted at us: ‘Who asked you to protect the forest?’”
She quickly adds: “Who are they to tell us about forest protection? They are the plunderers. Look at the present DFO who got suspended yesterday.” Hiradhar Sahu takes out a copy of the day’s newspaper and shows me the front page news item about the suspension of the DFO for his alleged involvement in smuggling and selling forest produce worth millions of rupees. Sandalwood worth Rs 2 lakh was discovered at his residence!
No sooner had we stopped our motorcycle by the densely forested hillock that the villagers call Kumudi Dongar, some 2 km from Aenlajor village in Kalahandi district, when we heard a shout from the wilderness. The voice kept coming closer, accompanied by the beating of a baton. In a few minutes, an old man with a stick appeared, walking fast, almost running towards us. Prabhakar Bhainsal (24), who had joined me in Aenlajor as my guide, said: “That’s my grandfather. For years now he has been guarding this forest all by himself.”
On learning that I had come there to talk to him about how the village forest was being protected, Trinath Bhainsal (75) heaved a sigh of relief and said: “Son, this dongar (hillock) has provided so much to the village. But it is in the greedy eyes of the timber smugglers. So I have to ensure the safety of my ‘Neeli Kumuden’ (Kumudi Dongar). This is my goddess and my life.”
Prabhakar explained that after the villagers got entangled in politics and other mundane things, they stopped caring about the forest, leaving it to self-destruct. Since his grandfather took up the task of protecting it, however, the forests have been getting denser.
Trinath adds: “It’s been 20 years since I started guarding the forest. It’s a vast stretch of about 250 hectares. In 1997, under the watershed programme, they planted some cashew plants. But they all died. Then the forest department came up with a social forestry programme in 2000, which also did not work. During that time, I was promised Rs 1,000 per month for three years to guard the forest. I got the money for 12 months and then they stopped my salary. I remember, the officers and some villagers had a big feast with the money they siphoned off! But, despite the lack of support, I have never stopped taking care of my Neeli Kumuden. The villagers say: ‘You spend the whole day in the forest, aren’t you scared of the spirits?’ I say: ‘If the spirits eat me up, I would be immensely grateful. That is better than being consumed by the greed of human beings!’
“An ex-MLA once promised me Rs 1,500 per month. I told him that I could not consume that much; give me only Rs 1,000. But that also never came.
“There are such big pythons in the forest, they can gobble you up in a second. There are hyenas, monitor lizards, porcupines, salkatis (land crocodiles), snakes of all kinds. I have to brave them all every day. People call me insane. I say, it is only the insanity of this old man that has kept the forest alive for you!”
After a while he took our leave and disappeared into the forest again.
A democratic process
In each of the 30-odd villages in the eight districts that I travelled, what I found amazing was the functioning of the FPCs whose rules are simple, yet binding. Apart from a ban on the entry of outsiders, the rights given to local users are strictly need-based, egalitarian, and religiously practised. While villagers are allowed to collect minor forest produce according to certain guidelines laid down by the village committee, they must seek permission from the committee if they want to fell a tree. The need could arise if a house is being built, a wedding planned, or if wood was required for the funeral pyre. The FPC assesses the request and considers giving its sanction. At times, the village may see the need to harvest part of the village forest to earn income that will either go towards the village development fund or be distributed equally among the villagers. Outsiders caught by the villagers attempting to collect logs or other forest resources are made to pay a fine. Many villages also adhere to the concept of chuli chanda (contribution by the kitchen), in which each family unit contributes either cash or foodgrain towards the FPC fund. In some villages, schools have been constructed using income from the forests; the high school in Kandhakel village, Balangir district, is one such example.
So, what started as a spontaneous reaction by villagers to the large-scale destruction of their forests now has the broader agenda of development. In Ranpur area of Nayagarh district, for example, over 100 FPCs have come together to form a federation called Maa Maninaga Jungle Suraksha Parishad that has been instrumental in streamlining the collection and marketing of forest produce and the construction of water-harvesting structures. The benefits of these go to the people who depend on the forests.
The essence of this initiative by 19,000 villages that together protect 2 million hectares of forests in Orissa is summed up in the words of Achyut Rana of Bhogalpur village, Mayurbhanj district: “The forest also has a life; if you ill-treat it, it will not let you live in peace. You have to take care of it like a child!”
Standing next to Rana as he handed me a pot of handia (liquor made from rice mixed with herbs), Kapura Murmu, a young Santhal woman from the nearby Salbanee village, said: “We have one committee combining seven villages that protects the forest. The forest is both our goddess and provider. If we don’t take care of it, who else will?”
I asked the obvious question: “What about the forest department?”
They looked at each other and smiled…
(Subrat Kumar Sahu is an independent writer and filmmaker based in New Delhi. He was formerly with TerraGreen, a magazine on the environment and sustainable development. He was awarded the Infochange Media Fellowship 2009 to research the history of community forest management in his native Orissa. This is part 2 of his series)
Infochange News & Features, March 2010