The pitfalls of protection

To save their forests from degradation, villagers will have to deal tactfully with the host of conflicts that sprout out of the field of good intentions

By Sudeep Mukhia
Published: Wednesday 30 November 1994

The pitfalls of protection

Trespassers beware: a village< (Credit: Sudeep Mukhia / cse)The forest protection initiatives of villagers in Bihar and Orissa, while arising out of crises, are marked by pragmatism. The people have realised that protection is possible only once their often-conflicting needs have been met first, which is why villagers' committees closely regulate the use of forest resources. Unfortunately, for all their in built benefits, these protection drives have duplicated the fallout of deforestation, in that they have adversely affected women. In a continuation of the series on people's afforestation, Down To Earth explores a good measure going, surprisingly awry.

AS VILLAGERS get together to protect denuded forests, intricate management skills are required to deal with the various conflicts that emerging green responsibility gives birth to. Everybody wants to collect fuel and fodder from the forest and neighbouring villages turn, well, green with envy, sometimes causing even the panchaya t to ponder- the possible advantages of that pest, the forest department, taking over their forest.

Despite these dubious deliberations, the-truth is that not all villages wish to give up their hold on a resource as precious as forests. The villagers have devised various ways to sustainably exploit the financial potential of these forests. In Gumlai village in Orissa's Sambalpur district, the reuse of forest resources is the first priority. Shatrughna Gumra, the president of the forest protection committee-says that the villagers are also contemplating selling old forest trees. "But this has still not been finalised. We still have to discuss the full implications of the plan with the entire village."

Selling is not an option in Marangmali village in the East Singhbhum district of Bihar. Here villagers enter the forests on Sundays and Thursdays to collect forest produce. "Sometimes the poorer people go in more often, but are pardoned as they do not have any choice," says Bir Chand protection committee member.

In other villages, the people supplement their forest produce with wood cut from the trees on their own plots. According to Babulal Simunda of Mayararn Jaradi village in the same district, the application for wood is considered by the village committee. If the case is genuine, then the type and amount of wood to be cut are specified. All applications are openly discussed to keep the system transparent. Adds Durgacharan Munda emphatically, "Even if the forest department wanted to take away wood, it would have to take permission from the committee."

In Kudamunda village in Sambalpur district, the trees are occasionally trimmed of their twisted branches. "This is essential for the growth of the trees. Also, the logs have to be straight. Otherwise they will not be of much use in building houses," says Durgaprasad 0raon, the president of the village protection committee. After this dressing, the minor forest produce is collected by the villagers.

Minor forest produce is also collected from the protected forest at Lapanga village in north Orissa only after the forest protection committee announces the people will be allowed in. This is normally done after a storm, when there is enough to go around. Villagers have to pay a token fee of Rs 2 per day to the committee to collect the produce. Normally, there is no restriction on the amount of firewood that can be collected and distribution is also according to the needs of the family. "This does not lead to disputes, since everyone knows what the optimum level of usage is," explains Radhanath Mandal of Basantpur village in Hazaribagh district of Bihar, where a similar system exists.
Regulated wood The committee, which also has to be approached for permission to cut wood, strictly regulates the use of timber to biuld or repair houses, or to make implements. Payment depends on the amount of wood cut. "Our charges are much less than that of the forest department. Besides we restrict the sale of timber even within the village," Says Purnachandra Das, a villager. An advance is given to the committee, which then gives a receipt to the applicant. "This receipt has to be shown to the village guard, who then allows the wood to be taken away," says Das.

Unlike other villages, in Lapanga there is a hierarchy of over wood from the forest. According to Das, "The descendants of the original settlers have a greater right over then as, in the last century, their ancestors donated land for forest." Those who are not descendants of the original sets can only cut 6 trees for wood to build or repair houses.

Paradoxically, protection efforts have adversely affected .This is normally done after a storm, when there is enough the women of these villages. With a partial ban on the use of the forests, the women can no longer exploit them for wood, forcing them to go further and spend more time in other wooded areas to collect firewood.Yet none of them think that sod distribution is also according to the needs of a family. this is far too much effort because, the forest which they have does not lead to disputes, since everyone knows what the regenerated, does provide them with timber in times of need. optimum level of usage is," explains Radhanath Mandal of Says Taposini Bari of Gumlai, "We definitely have to go further out to collect fuelwood. But we think our effort pays off in terms of timber for repairing and building our houses.

Tapeswari Pradhan, a housewife in Kudamunda, links conservation measures to economics: "If we do not protect our forest, we will have to pay for the timber in the open city market." Chandra of Lapanga adds that the protection efforts have made things easier for her. "At least now we can exploit the protected forest for minor forest produce, something we amount of wood cut. "Our charges are much less than that could not do when the forest was degenerated," she says.

Women in Ramgarh village, near Tatanagar in East Singhbhum district have, however, found a less strenuous way to collect fuelwood: they simply walk across to a near by unprotected forest and lop the wood off. They justify their action saying that the trees in this forest are a lot older and wood is abundant . "In any case, because of the distance , it is not a practical proposition for us to protect that forest as well," says Jayanti Majhi, who regularly collects fuelwood from the forest.

The women of Basantpur are having a harder time. "Each time we go to collect wood, we leave the village before the rooster crows, and return when the moon is highly in the sky," says Ramani. Savitri estimates that they have to walk 24 kilometres every day just to collect fuelwood. "But we don't want the protection to stop," says Pairi, the youngest of the lot. "It will pay back eventually and then we can have our rest."

A women's affair
Emboldened by success of the protection efforts, a group of women in Kudamunda have appealed to the village committee to grant them a patch of forest to protect. "We want to make this solely a women's affair," says Tulasi Oraon, the leader of the group and its only literate member.

The women have other reasons for protecting the forests. Bhagabati Bogar, a housewife in Kudamunda, supplements her household income by roiling beedis. "When our forest was getting depleted, we couldn't find enough tendu trees from which we get the leaves to make beedis. Now, with the conservation efforts, the situation is bound to improve," she says.

Most women also realise the need to protect their forests toget adequate rainfall. "Earlier, when the neighbouring forest was lush, we used to get plenty of rain. But when the forest got thinner, the rainfall also decreased. Now that we have started regenerating the forest, the rainfall is once again returning to normal," says Taposini Bari.

With conflicts threatening these self-initiated efforts, regeneration has, however, not been a bed of roses. Most of these conflicts arise because residents of villages not involved in these conservation efforts, feel deprived of their rights to these forests. The residents of Soso village objected to Basantpur protecting its forests by denying access to those it termed "outsiders". Soso held that the forest was on government land and as such no one other than the forest department had the right to restrict others from using it. But according to the Basantpur's village committee, they were granted the rights over the forest by the ruler of Podma. Documents clearly spell out the rights of the village over its forest, as well as the extent of each landholder's property, they say. On this basis, the Basantpur village protection committee has filed a case in the Ranchi local court to assert its right over its forest.

The incident has led to increased animosity among the villages. Says Radhanath Mandal, "Sometimes when Our men go out to the forest, they are threatened by the villagers of Soso." The villagers of Marangmali also faced similar intrusions into their protected forest. "We are repeatedly disturbed by intruders from other villages. But with the village community solidly behind the protection committee, we can face up to the intruders," says Mahendra Sardar, a member of the village protection committee. The Ramgarh protection committee has also been threatened. But not willing to take the threats lying down, it has fought back. Says Dinbandhu Singh, "We had to struggle a lot to protect our forest. We even had defend it with bows and arrows. In the process, we have made enemies of a lot of neighbouring villages."

Most villages have, however, tried to resolve the problem community solidly behind by telling other villages to protect their own forests. But this is not always possible: some villages do not have a forest of their own and are forced to depend on other forests.

The interaction of the village protection committee with the forest department is another potential source of conflict. Both sides have, however, avoided sparking off a row and Practically all the village committees say that the forest department has not interfered in their efforts. "The department tells us that we are doing a good job," says Durga Prasad Oraon, president of the Kudamunda protection committee. The pleasant relationship between these committees and the department is best symbolised by the villages asking the forest department to fine violators instead of doing it themselves. " After all, the forest finally belongs to the forest department," says Babulal Simunda. East Singhbhum district forest officer R P Singh is all praise for these protection efforts. "There must be at least 1,200 such villages spread over this district and adjoining areas," he estimates.

Despite this easygoing relationship, there is a perceptible tension between the forest department and the villages. Aware that these forests are technically on forest department land, many of the villaget are apprehensive that the government might want to lay its claim on their protected forests after they are lush and green. In Mayaram Jaradi, a daily roll register is maintained by the protection committee to record the names of those who guard the forest. "This register is very important for our protection effort. If the forest department decides to take over our forest, we can use this as proof of our efforts to save it," says Dulal Mahato. The villagers claim that a similar register has foiled the government's attempt to take over the forest in another village Although this incident may well be purely apocryphal, it is an evidence of the extent to which these villages are willing to go to save their forests.

Basantpur is depending on its traditional document, the khatian, to Prove its rights over its protected forest. The Basantpur forest protection committee even applied to the forest department for registration, so, that it has a locus standi in case of a legal battle. But this has not been done even 2 years later. "May be it just takes so much time. But it is also possible that the forest department does not want to empower us with the legal rights, over our forest," says Bhubaneswar Sahu.

The villagers of Marangmali are, however, not satisfied with mere rights over the use of forest produce. "We want the power to decide the punishment for the violators that we catch," says Bir Chand"After all,we are saving the forest with our efforts." But the forest range officer categorically says: "The villagers cannot be a law unto themselves. If there is a problem, then the village has to file a case in the court, and we (the forest department) will become party to the case if the need arises."

Fortunately, despite this latent tension, these villagesn are showing remarkable astuteness and maturity in protecting and regenerating their local forests. And the payback is visible almost instantly: most villages not only speak of increased availability of wood, but also an improvement in related matters like groundwater availability, rainfall and the general environment. What remains to be seen whether these efforts will sustain themselves. The red success of these efforts will be in terms of how many other villages take up the challenge of managing their own environment.

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