January 12, 2012
Villagers are dependent on forests for their livelihood which is why they can be the best keepers of the wild

Deforestation is the biggest problem rural India is facing today because agriculture is completely dependent on a good forest cover in the neighbourhood. Not only the forests help sustain the rivers, streams and springs, they also prevent floods during monsoon.

It also provides grass, herbs and leaves as fodder for the cattle, which in turn provide manure for the fields. Tubers, roots and fruits as food, herbs for good health, fire wood for cooking besides bamboo and other wood for construction, a village is dependent on neighbouring forest for all its needs. No wonder the best way to help agriculture and improve village life is to plant new trees and protect the old ones against the timber mafia.

That is what many villages are already doing. In Orissa, for example, there are thousands of village forest protection committees. In Uttarakhand, the land of chipko movement, village women tie a holy thread, Raksha Sutra, around a tree to indicate that the trees are like their brothers and they will protect them no matter what.

Native versus commercial trees

It is important to plant a nice mixture of all sorts of trees the villagers need depending upon geology of the area. Priority should be given to trees which provide nice humus since they will act as a natural sponge to absorb rainwater for the whole year. Secondly, good fodder trees should be planted besides trees for fire wood, timber and fruits.The British had cut a lot of teak and oaks to build their navy ships and deodars to construct railway sleepers. These trees were replaced by pine trees for turpentine. After independence, the Forest Department went on to follow the same colonial practice. Native forests are being transformed into timber mines with Saal trees being planted for construction and eucalyptus for paper factories. No consideration is being given to the fact that leaves of these trees don't give good humus, fodder or compost.

Do-it-yourself: Get the village forest back

"It only costs Rs 100 to 200 and two visits to the district office to get back the lost parts of your village forest," says Rakesh Bahuguna of Himcon, a non-profit based in Uttarakhand.  "We got back 6 hectare from the Forest Department in Sabli village near Rishikesh and we are claiming another 7 hectare. Villagers have already planted oak trees on the reclaimed land," he adds.

The Forest Department officers objected to the plantation but Himcon was armed with old maps, which clearly indicated original boundaries of the village forest. "You just need to go to the district office and make an application under the Right to Information (RTI) Act asking for maps of your village,” Bahuguna explains.The maps confirmed what Himcon already heard from old villagers of Sabli- “The original village forest was much bigger.” When young people migrated to the towns about three decades ago, the Forest Department encroached upon the forest. Old trees were cut and sold and pines were planted for the turpentine. The Gram Panchayat decided to plant oak trees which are the most important native trees of the area providing quality fodder leaves and substantial humus for a nice soil moisture to persist for a long time.

Let people protect forests against wild fires

Fourteen people died in forest fires in Uttarakhand between April and May 2009. Around 4,000 hectare of green cover was burnt down in those two months only. Forest department blamed the villagers for not taking care while burning their fields after the harvest, but it’s inconceivable because not only are they completely dependent on the forest for fire wood and fodder, they know that streams dry up when there is a forest fire. Also, of the 14 people who died in the fires, 10 were villagers.

In fact, villagers believe wild fires are result of a conspiracy by forest officials since felling of green trees is forbidden under the law. After the fire, the trees are considered 'dead' and contractors can start felling after bribing the officials.

A research report prepared by Himcon analysed the situation. After a massive devastation caused by forest fires in Himalayan states of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir in 1995, the Indian government had launched the Integrated Forest Management Schemes. However, repeated incidents of wild fires in Uttarakhand clearly indicated mismanagement by the Forest Department. If was found that neither the stipulated norms nor standards of fire control were followed. The report read: "The Forest Department machinery was not engaged in any sort of the fire fighting exercise in the region. (..) Clearance of fire lines [were] done only on files, not at ground level. (..) The forest mafia network is also very strong in the state and some corrupt forest officials are in close contact with them. These forest mafias burnt not only forest to take away wood logs, but also endangered wildlife of the region."

In the wake of a big forest fire, the locals have to devote more time and energy for firewood and fodder collection. Water sources are also depleted due to forest fire. “The villagers do realize these facts fully and therefore it is logical to assert that the villagers are not guilty in initiating these fires for they have nothing really to gain from them,” the report added while proposing involvement of villagers in protecting the forests.

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