Afforestation and Climate Change Mitigation
"I felt very angry that after cutting down all our forests to supply timber to the cities, the Forest Department should blame us for the destruction. So I got the women of our village together and started protecting these hills and now nobody can blame us anymore," says Daheli Bai, a Bhil tribal woman of Attha village in Alirajpur district of Madhya Pradesh in India replying to a question as to what had prompted them to protect their forests over the last two decades and render them as verdant as they are.
Growing forests, greater availability of flowing water leading to reduced demand for artificial energy and greater agricultural productivity achieved through organic practices all contribute significantly to mitigation of climate change. When this is done through communitarian collective action and especially by women, then the gains in terms of social justice achieved are an added benefit. Thus the women of Attha have been mitigating climate change from much before it became a buzzword.
The average annual rainfall in the area is 900 mm occurring in the monsoon period from mid June to mid October. Thus, this is a semi arid region and traditionally the Bhil tribals had adapted to this eco-system by doing some organic agriculture in the valleys and supplementing it with produce collected from the forests which were of a very rich dry deciduous kind with trees like teak, sisam, anjan, salai and an abundance of grasses, shrubs, creepers and herbs. Despite the hard rock undeneath the dense forests used to ensure that there was enough natural recharge of the rain through the fractures in the rock and so there used to be water in the streams throughout the year.
Independence from British rule in 1947 ironically changed things for the worse. Alirajpur had earlier been ruled by a Prince who had very loose control over the tribals and they mostly lived in tightly knit communities bonded by customs of labour pooling in a subsistence forest based economy. The Forest Department was handed over the administration of the area which was converted into reserved forests and immediately the commercial exploitation for timber production began. This upset the fragile hilly eco-system of the region and soon with the forests gone the thin soils too were washed away and natural recharge of the rain was greatly reduced leading to the drying up of the streams. The Bhils' livelihoods were the most affected as the fertility of their lands as well as the supply of forest produce went down. Simultaneously the provisions of the Indian Forest Act made them criminals in their own backyard and they were forced to pay bribes to the Forest Department staff for access to the forests.
Then in 1983 the Bhil tribals of the area began organising to demand their rights and especially the right to protect the forests which were their main lifeline. They formed an organisation called Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath (KMCS) and began protecting the forests which had become denuded in about fifty villages in Sondwa Block. The women of Attha village under the leadership of Daheli Bai began the struggle and it soon spread to nearby villages. Daheli Bai along with Vesti Bai went upstream along the stream that ran through their village to the villages of Gendra and Fadtala and explained to the women there that since the stream originated in Fadtala, full benefits of forest protection in terms of greater availability of soil, water and forest produce would only be gained if they too began to protect their forests. The stream in Attha had begun to go dry in summer due to the heavy deforestation. Over a decade, by the early nineteen nineties the stream had become perennial once again.
The uniqueness of this forest conservation effort is its reliance on the traditional labour pooling customs of the Bhils. These customs had begun to decay due to the inroads of the monetary economy and the destruction of the natural resource base of the Bhils. However, under Daheli's leadership the women of Attha formed groups of five or six women and began patrolling the forest to ensure that they were not grazed and the root stock was allowed to regenerate. Thereafter they made sure that the new trees were not cut. The grass would be cut only after the monsoons and distributed equally among the protecting families to be used as fodder for cattle. The women of Attha, emboldened by their success, then began another conservation activity. The small teams that had been formed began working in groups on the farms of their members to plug the gullies in between their hilly farms with stones so as to catch the soil and some of the water that was being washed off their farms by rain. Over a period of a decade and a half since the mid nineteen nineties hundreds of such gully plugs have been constructed leading to the creation of many small plots of land with deep soil adding to the productivity of the village. This practice too has been replicated in many other villages in Alirajpur.
The women of Kakrana village on the banks of the River Narmada have shown exemplary courage in protecting their forests. Since they are on the border of Alirajpur district they have to contend with continuous efforts by poachers to steal their timber. Finally they had to take the decision that someone would have to stay permanently in the forest itself so that she could give an alarm call whenever poachers arrived. Raija Bai and her husband Dilu decided to take up this challenge and they built their hut in the forest itself and they live their alone with their children. "I have spent a decade in this hut in the forest and since I came here I have had a better life than when I was in the village," says Raija Bai when asked about the hazards of living alone in the forest. The villagers of Jhandana, Sugat, Kakrana and Chameli initially had trouble protecting another forest that was situated on the hills on the borders of their village. However, after much fighting they were able to resolve their differences with the help of members of the KMCS from other villages and today this forest too is resplendent and visible from a long distance as the hills in front of it are barren because villagers not owing allegiance to the KMCS have not protected them.
Collective action by the community for forest, soil and water conservation is the only sustainable way in which the productivity of fragile eco-systems in hilly, semi-arid and hard rock regions of the country can be ensured. The first ever woman awardee of The Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics this year, Elinor Ostrom, has been honoured precisely for her theoretical and empirical work in establishing the validity of communitarian collective action for sustainable natural resource management, thus putting the imprimatur on the exemplary work being done by the women of the KMCS in Alirajpur.