Two incidents that made me ask: Whither forestry extension?

Extension programmes in forest institutions are meant to benefit stakeholders, mainly farmers, villagers and rural communities

By Satya Prakash Negi
Published: Wednesday 01 July 2020

The core of any extension programme is to transfer novel and innovative technologies developed by research laboratories, research institutes and universities to diverse stakeholders. Institutions that conduct forest research in India too have well established extension wings to extend benefits to stakeholders, mainly farmers, rural communities and villagers.

These institutions encourage their stakeholders to adopt new technologies that could provide them benefits such as additional earnings that are sustainable.

As a forestry professional, I have interacted closely with farmers living on the fringes of forests on numerous occasions in the past two decades. Two interactions are indelibly etched in my mind. I share both of them with the larger fraternity of forestry professionals.

In 2013, in a village on the outskirts of Jharkhand’s Ranchi district, we sought villagers’ cooperation to protect forests.

We asked them to adopt multi-tiered agroforestry models to augment their produce. They were able to meet the requirements of small timber, fuel wood and increasing their farm income per unit area.

One of the senior officers of the forest department led the interactions with the villagers. Some farmers listened carefully, while others were impassively silent and some shared their concerns.

I saw an old lady who listened seriously but was slightly restless. At one point, she pulled her chair nearer to us and spoke in Sadri, a Chhota Nagpur dialect:

Saheb, I recognise you. You have been coming to the village and surrounding forests for the many years. You have been talking about the protection of forests and many other matters. You have grown old and I too have grown old.

“You have not given us anything till date. Today, I was going for my dihadi (daily wage), when our village headman told me about this meeting. So, I stayed back to attend the meeting. Yet again, you have come to tell the same old story about forests and other matters,” she said.

You have nothing tangible to give us to alleviate our poverty. Our land is tanr (uncultivable fallow land). Nothing grows here. We don’t have irrigation facilities. Most of the villagers are daily wage earners who have to toil hard the entire day to eat. So, kindly do not waste our time and your time as well. Please allow us to leave for today’s dihadi.

We were left speechless. Her words still ring in my ears.          

In 2016, we interacted with villagers in the Pachhad area in Sirmaur district, Himachal Pradesh.

The conversation was about alternative options — including cultivation of medicinal plants and agroforestry practices — for income generation.

Initially, the villagers listened to us intently and patiently. Soon, they started talking among themselves in a pahadi dialect and then the village pradhan (head), a woman, addressed us.

“Your institute has come here before in the name of a forestry intervention. You planted Paulonia trees. The few that survived are of no use to us. Even animals do not relish them for fodder. Our villagers have small land holdings and grow tomato as a cash crop,” the headwoman said.

“The tomato has an existing market. The thekedar (contractor) sends pick-up vehicles to collect our produce during the harvest season and pays us handsomely,” she added.

She said:

You talk of medicinal plants and new cultivation technologies. Please give such technology that can give us both output and income within three-four months, twice a year, like tomatoes. If you can give us that, we are ready to adopt your technology.

Other villagers strongly agreed to her view. She went on to explain the villagers had small land holdings and could not adopt agroforestry by planting trees on bunds as this would reduce their tomato production.

There is plenty of wasteland around the village. Go and plant your trees there. We are not disturbing forests as we now have gas connection for cooking. Don’t tell us to convert our small arable agricultural lands to grow medicinal plants or do agroforestry, which will not give us any return for many years.

“How will we survive until then? Who will feed us?” she asked.

We listened to her views in rapt attention when her tone softened a bit. She said it was past lunch time for the villagers, who had to go back to their fields.

“You should go too and stop wasting your time. Come back to us when you have something that can match our tomato crop,” she concluded.

These two interactions have stayed in my mind. They made me realise that unless forestry professionals find practical solutions for unique problems of each village with tailor-made tangible forestry interventions / technology transfer package, forestry extension will remain a pipe dream.

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