Sunday, February 21, 2010

India: Local participation helps leopards, other wildlife return

People power: Tribals unite to green Shahapur again
Simit Bhagat, TNN, Feb 18, 2010, 02.43am IST

SHAHAPUR: The photographs tell you the story: a 1,700-hectare tract in Shahapur, in Thane district, as it was 17 years ago; and the same area at present. Hard to believe? Well, read on.

This sprawl of forest land, systematically denuded of its green cover over the years, had reached its nadir by 1993, leading to critical environmental problems like a dip in the groundwater table. It was then that the forest department came up with a unique initiative — it actively involved the tribals of villages in the Shahapur zone, like Bhagdal, Dahivali, Baoghar, Kalgaon, Thile, Lenad, Chinchavali and Tembhre, to help turn the forest back into the lush green paradise that it once was.

The project, a sterling example of what an administration can do if it gives the people a stake, introduced the concept of a joint forest management committee. The establishment of this committee meant that villagers were entitled to forest produce like gum, dried leaves, flowers, bamboo and mahua oil. "They are also entitled to 50% of the income earned by the forest department from the auction of timber," says an official. The forest, predictably, never looked back after that.

Divisional forest officer (planning) S M Gujar says, "Earlier we would register cases against the villagers for offences like illegal tree-cutting and collection of forest products. But we realised that this was not a solution, and the only way to protect what remained of the forest was to involve the locals in conservation efforts."

After some amount of initial resistance, villagers from Bhagdal formed the JFM committee in 1993 and pledged to protect the forest. Residents of the other seven villages soon joined the movement and formed similar committees. "After talking to forest officials, we realised that we had to save the forest for our own well-being," says Bhagdal JFM committee member Bhaskar Tondu. "We spoke to all the 40 families in the village and formulated simple rules to be followed for protecting the forest."

The rules included actively preventing outsiders from taking anything from the forest, a ban on felling trees and a ban on hunting. It was decided that a violation of these rules would result in a social boycott of the guilty, with villagers staying away from their social functions like weddings or funerals. The committee would also have the right to impose a monetary penalty on offenders.

It was difficult at first, admit the villagers, but soon everything fell into place. "We decided to use only dried branches and leaves to meet our daily needs of firewood," says Bhagdal resident Baban Bhakre. "We had a hard time in the first couple of years, but as the forest revived there was no shortage of dry foliage." The forest department chipped in by bearing half the cost of LPG connections for the villagers.

All this has now combined to give back the 1,700-hectare land its green cover. "The forest is now thriving and there is perennial water supply because of the rejuvenated water bodies," says Dahivali JFM committee secretary Subhash Patil. What's more, tribals have started earning from the sale of forest produce like gum, palash flowers, mahua oil and plates and bowls made from dried leaves. "And animals like leopards, wild boar, barking deer, spotted deer and peacocks have returned to the area," says Narhari Bagrao, a forester from the region, who recently received the Sanctuary RBS Wildlife Service Award. Dahivali also won the Sant Tukaram Van Gram Yojana Award from the Maharashtra government last year.


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