Social forestry is the latest buzzword In the ecological arena. And experts on ecological conservation could learn something from some of the nondescript Indian villages which have used novel ways to preserve their forest cover. A classic example is Khaksitola village In Ranchi district, Bihar.
The villagers have taken the initiative in protecting and renewing the area’s vast acreage of Government-owned forest land. Moat notably, this has been accomplished without any financial assistance from the Government.
Khaksitola, around 40 km from Ranchi is a small village with around 40 households. Close to the village are dense forests of mango, ber, custard apple, jackfruit, sugarcane and indigenous fruit trees which sprawl over 40 acres.
Soon after Independence, the forests were nationalised and this was the beginning of their exploitaion. in 1952-S3, the forests were given ‘reserve’ status which meant the tribals would no longer have any rights to them.
The Government began auctioning the forest land to contractors who felled trees on a large scale for timber. Alarmed at this, the villagers themselves began pillaging the forests.
But they soon realised that this was a counterproductive measure. If they did not rethink their strategy, their prime source of sustenance would soon be gone. In a bid to save the remaining forest land, the villagers removed all the timber felled by the contractor and stored it in a Government depot. Though many of them were beaten up and jailed, they remained undeterred in their resolve to protect their natural wealth.
In 1954, a village panchayat meeting attended by 10 vIllages threw up several methods to save the remaining forest resources from contractors.
No villager was permitted to fell trees. Instead, the panchayat of each village allocated forest resources according to the needs of each family.
Each village selected people to undertake a round- the-clock vigilance of the forests. On sighting a trespasser, the guards would sound the mander – a tribal musical instrument.
This move made it clear that though the Khaksitola forest was government-owned, exploitation would no longer go unchecked.
The first real test of this endeavour came In 1978. The new Forest Department official allotted a portion of forest land to his favourite contractor. On hearing of this, the villagers decided that they would protect the forest, even at the cost of their lives. They surrounded the area armed with their traditional bows and arrows.
The Forest Department retaliated by Issuing an arrest warrant for Simon Oraon who had been panchayat chief for the past 40 years. This did not deter the villagers. Eventually, their determination forced the Forest Department to allot a different area to the contractor.
In 1984, there was further trouble. A contractor took out a lease, ostensibly for manufacturing stone chips after obtaining a ‘no objection certificate’ from the Mining and Forest departments. The villagers soon discovered that the contractor was interested in boulders only where trees were situated. He was fined Rs. 500 and his equipment was seized.
Since then, the villagers have had very little trouble. At present, an agricultural-forestry ministry committee meets regularly to discuss plans for conservation and development.
Some measures include felling a tree only if three households require wood. And in the spirit of ecological conservation, a tree is never felled entirely. The trunk Is marked and the tree is sawed off at that point.
A special warning bell has been hung in Khaksitola. It Is rung if someone finds a tree being illegally felled. If the culprit is from the village, he is let off with a nominal fine. If he is from a neighbouring village, the panchayat executive members notify the culprit’s panchayat authorities in an attempt to prevent it happening again.
However, there is no restriction on fallen fruits which villagers are free to gather. Ripe fruit is plucked and distributed equally among the households on allotted days. Until recently, the land was uneven with no irrigation facilIties. The villagers have worked hard to make the land fit for cultivation. They took bank loans to construct canals and three check dams. These check dams collect rain water which the villagers use to raise crops the year through. It would seem that they are reaping the fruits of their labour, at last
Published in Business Line on September 21, 1998.