Unknown Environmental Crusaders
A few years back one of my professional assignments took me to Dongaria village in Deori block of Sagar district of Madhya Pradesh. I met an entire village which was engaged in conserving 1100 acres of forested patch which they had raised themselves. I was spellbound. I walked through the forest, which they lovingly call plantation, and enjoyed the peace and tranquility of wilderness. As we spoke, the story of grit, commitment and sufferings unfolded.
Elders of the village informed that there used to be dense teak wood forests in this area at some point of time. Then human greed took over and destroyed the forests completely. Water scarcity, erratic rainfall and crops failure became frequent. Agricultural land had stony texture. Drought like conditions prevailed almost throughout the year. Distress migration and kilometers of travel in search of water became usual. Beedi making became the primary source of income. With such meagre income, health and education were ignored departments. They relied on the adjoining wildlife sanctuary for food, fodder and firewood until such human activities were banned inside sanctuaries.
Sometime in 2001, a farm forestry initiative was started in this village by Indian Farm Forestry Development Co-operative Society (IFFDC)under one of their watershed programmes. IFFDC motivated community to participate in plantation activities on barren lands. Community informed that more than a lakh saplings were planted. For unavailability of water and poor soil conditions, majority of the saplings did not survive. IFFDC’s project also came to an end subsequently but they taught the importance of afforestation, reforestation and conservation to the people.
People were determined; they did not give up. With renewed zeal they continued their efforts. They conserved the land and irrigated it using tanker water; at that point of time it would have been no less than an investment for them.Some of the saplings survived and gradually the live root stocks of those felled teak woods regenerated, which now forms the present day forest patch.This new forest should now be 10-12 yrs old.
Personally it was an exemplary experience to me, especially because all this was accomplished without any external support; no loans, no grants, no support from state government in any form.Sheer determination and commitment of people brought about the transformation. Farmers are back to farming, beedi making is now an additional income generating activity, livestock rearing is also flourishing because there is enough food, fodder and water for them. During this entire period many learnings and unlearnings might have happened; ultimately they achieved what they wanted.
So what are the achievements I am talking about?Technically speaking, 1100 acres of productive carbon sink that not only enhances the aesthetics of the area but also regulates the micro-climate. Days might be hotter here but nights are cooler; thanks to the green cover. Rainfall patterns have changed from sporadic to regular. Even when the district was declared drought prone, people mention that they received comparatively good rains.
Forest reduced water stress in this area. Water keeps draining from the forest downhill even after 3-4 months of monsoon rains which allows maximum percolation into the soil thus improving groundwater level. The forest also curbed soil erosion and improved soil health. With more green cover, the land is now not directly exposed to the harshness of extreme weather conditions. Rate of rock weathering has reduced. As these two conditions were widely prevalent in the past, soil in the farm lands had a dusty and stony texture. Biomass from the forests that flow downhill and settle in the farm lands has enriched the soil with humus thus improving its texture and moisture retaining capacity.
The forest is also rich in biodiversity. The said 1100 acres are covered with healthy three storiedforest cover. Predominant flora is Teak though Kanji, Acacia, Tendu,Sheesham, Subabul, Desi Babul etc have wide presence besides indigenous grass. The forest is becoming a preferred habitat to animals like Deers, Nilgais, Wild Boars, Rabbits and Snakes while Wolves and Leopards from adjoining sanctuary are occasional visitors. These herbivores, at times, destroy standing crops but people are fine with it. In their words, ” जंगल नहीं था तब जानवर भी नहीं थे , तो हम भी कहाँ जिन्दा थे . कोई बात नहीं अगर ये थोड़ा खा लेते हैं तो . हम थोड़ा कम खायेंगे , थोड़ा कम कमायेंगे ” (There were no animals when there were no forests but back then we too were not living. Let them eat some. We will eat a little less, we might earn a little less. Never mind.).
This is the importance of forests. If only I can put a value against all the ecosystem services (air, water, climate regulation, nutrient regulation, shelter) that forests provide, only then, probably, I would be better placed to explain the economic value of forests, which is much more than what mines and minerals earn for a nation. We are mercilessly killing our green cover; not just in India but globe over. This unending exploitation should stop somewhere but before than more lessons are to be learnt, I guess.
For this community also, struggles were far from over. Conserving this new forest was also not an easy task. There had been clashes with other villages who wanted to cut the trees. I was informed that some firing incidents too had happened in the past which was reported to the police but nothing happened. Now they have recruited a forest guard who is paid by the community. This forest guard is also a member of the village.For financial paucity to recruit more forest guards, dogs have been domesticated to keep a vigil on human activities inside the vast forested stretch.Besides these, members of the village keep patrolling inside the forest. This is a voluntary service offered by everyone. Result of this social commitment is that not a single tree of the forest is yet cut. Hardly any mark of felling attempt is also found on the trees here.
Coming to my assignment, it was an effort to make a documentary film on how climate change is impacting Madhya Pradesh. I was expected to inform the community about climate change (जलवायु परिवर्तन ) in order to preparing them for an interview with the film crew. To my surprise one of them asked me ” मैडम जी हमारे प्रदेश का कार्बन उत्सर्जन कितना होगा ? (what would be the carbon emissions of our state). I didn’t have an answer because, back then, we had not accounted the state’s GHG emissions. He continued “… वैसे बहुत नहीं होगा , जंगल जो है हमारे पास . दिल्ली जैसे प्रदेशों को ज्यादा परेशानी होगी. शहरीकरण और अद्योगिकरन से तोह बहुत उत्सर्जन होता है. ये जंगल तो इन गैसों को अपने में समाहित कर लेते हैं. ये तोह जीवन है.” (Our emissions should not be much because we have forests in our state. States like Delhi are in problem. Urbanisation and industrialization increases emissions. Forests absorb all these gases. They are life.). In short, I did not need to educate them at all. These are environmentalists who are unknown. They are champions!!
This group remembered me on this new year eve. I was surprised and happy to speak to them; more so because I got to know that we are alive in each other’s memories. Hope to see them soon.May be together we can replicate this exemplary work. We need more of such efforts especially when our government is engaged in sanctioning mining activities in heavily forested areas of our country while dreaming to achieve 33% forest cover through planned afforestation. Though regimented but at least some tree cover in the name of forest would be there for our future generations. I remain here with great hopes …..