On 2 November 2021, fourteen community rights (CR) and community forest resource (CFR) rights titles from twenty-four villages in Nayagarh district were approved by the Odisha government under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.
The government’s move to grant these titles is praiseworthy, primarily on two accounts. One, the nature of the titles is such that two or three villages ‘jointly’ hold the title, a first in the country, as possibly an attempt to preserve the traditional practices of the Adivasi and other forest-dwelling communities and to minimise the conflict among villages protecting the same tract of forest land and commons. Two, recognition of the gender role in protecting the forests. Out of the 24 villages in Nayagarh, four villages that received the titles, namely Surukabadi, Hatibadi, Kodalapalli and Sinduria, comprise Forest Protection Committees that are manned entirely by women.
At a time when India and the world are grappling with ideas to check loss of biodiversity, mitigate deforestation and conserve forests at the COP26, granting of CR and CFR titles by the Odisha government is commendable.
Two Things Make This System Unique
There are close to over 60 villages in the Nayagarh district alone, where women struggle every day to protect, manage and even govern the forests. For these women from the Nayagarh district, belonging to the Kondh tribe, each morning begins with a march to a local meeting spot where other women gather, equipped with sticks in hands, to carry on with a mission – patrol the forests that feed and nourish them.
Some women in this group have experience of over thirty years in patrolling the forests. Because forests in Nayagarh are rich in varieties of tubers, fruits, medicinal plants, bamboo and Sal trees, used for its wood and leaves, threats like illegal logging and smuggling haunt the area. Over the years, however, with the formation of women-only forest protection committees and fielding an all-women patrolling contingent, instances of logging and smuggling have drastically reduced. Consequently, these forests now boast rich biodiversity.
Two things make this conservation system unique – first, it is carried out entirely by women and second, the ways and means by which they have evolved to protect their forests. According to the members of the tribe, when men manned the patrolling duties, there was massive depletion in the forest cover, primarily because the men were either hand in glove with the loggers and smugglers or because they simply could not put up a strong defence against them.
A reduction in forest cover essentially translated into women travelling longer distances and duration in search of food, wood and water for their family’s sustenance. This is when women from over 60 villages across the district stepped up and took over the responsibilities to protect and patrol their source of sustenance.
As observed by independent forest conservation groups, the forests have improved remarkably after women took over the patrolling and management duties from the men. Apart from this, the methods that the women have evolved are remarkable too.
The Transformation Can Be Seen
The forest protection committees maintain a roster for the patrolling duties so as not to burden only a few women with the load. Thengapalli, or ‘turn to wield the stick’ is a common practice among the women who, after their turn, place a stick outside the house of the woman next in line to patrol the forest. There are strict rules put in place that help to regulate the indiscriminate usage of the forests. For instance, chopping of wood is banned and one can only use the lay twigs or branches that have fallen off from trees for fuelwood; prior permission is required to cut down trees for the repair of one’s home or festivities; carrying of matchsticks right before the summer season is disallowed in order to protect the forests from fires; regeneration instead of plantations is practised, whereby instead of plucking out the entire roots of a fruit or plant, only a portion is cut so that the plant can regrow; during the monsoon season, grazing is not allowed for the trees and plants to regenerate naturally; further, women of these villages celebrate a festival, Siali Utsav, to mark the sowing and plantation of siali seeds that produce creepers, the leaves of which are useful in making leaf plates; anybody transgressing these rules is fined and asked to formally apologise for their mistake. What is noteworthy is that all these rules and regulations are not decided by isolated committee members but each and every village resident is heard while deciding these rules.
Although such methods have been necessarily developed to help food security and livelihood concerns, these practices have, in fact, improved the ecological balance of the forests and made it more accessible to various species of animals and birds, especially elephants, for Nayagarh is a popular elephant corridor.
State Govts Don't Recognise the Importance of Granting Rights
Most state governments across India underestimate the potential of granting community forest rights, which contribute to the protection, preservation and promotion of indigenous practices and knowledge that could further help in climate change mitigation.
States that have granted CFR claims tend to reap benefits from them in more ways than one. Despite this, the tally of CR and CFR titles approved, as per the February 2021 Monthly Progress Report released by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, is low. Out of 1,50,319 claims received, state governments across India granted mere 77,502 claims.
The answer the world needs now is writ large in the decades-old practices devised by the women from Nayagarh. There is no denial in the fact that tenurial security and indigenous rights are the first step to tackle any environmental challenge today. Hence, in order to effectuate a more comprehensive and sustainable solution, recognising and adopting lessons from the women of the Nayagarh district in Odisha, armed with their unique indigenous knowledge and democratic decision-making processes, is the need of the hour.
(Vandana Dhoop is an independent research consultant based in Kolkata. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)