Attempting Harmony of Livelihood and Conservation in Forests
When such opportunity of medicines, health tonic products, jams, jelly, pickles based on forest produce can create enough employment particularly for women, it will be possible to reduce or eliminate their dependence on sale and collection of fire wood. While some of these efforts are made at the local level, some campaigns for policy level changes need to be made in collaboration with other like minded organisations facing similar problems.
Protect and prosper this slogan should define the relationship of villagers with forests. This is particularly true of weaker sections with a low base of land ownership as non-timber forest produce (NTFP) can play a very important role in protecting them from poverty and hunger. In Chitrakut district of Uttar Pradesh dominant landlords and contractors did not allow kol tribals to have such a protective relationship with the forests. The forced kols to carry out illegal work for them in the forest -in any government action against this, it were the kols who were caught and punished. However the big profits went to the big landlords-contractors while the kols get very little. It is because of the near bonded type conditions that kols couldn't say no to such risky work. When they collected various kinds of NTFP, the traders and contractors got huge profits from this while kols got minimum benefit. In this overall exploitation and deprivation of kols, their women had to collect fire wood and sell in nearby markets - a trade which involved a lot of drudgery and carried great risk but brought very little economic benefit. In addition this was also harmful for the forests.
When Akhil Bhartiya Samaj Seva Sansthan, (ABSSS) started work in Mau and Manikpur blocks of Chitrakut district, it was a challenge to bring more economic to kols from NTFP while checking any destruction of forests. During the last 15 years the ABSSS has made some significant achievements while many other challenges are still being faced.
In the case of tendu leaf collection, ABSSS has helped kols to get a better rate and long pending dues from Forest Corporation. In the case of amla fruit the ABSSS played an important role in getting the right of free sale (as opposed to restricted sale to a single trader/contractor) which enabled the kols to get a price which is several times higher than the previous price. No the ABSSS is encouraging kol tribals to prepare amlethi i.e. process the fruits in such a way as to get a higher price. This fruit can be processed and preserved easily so it is possible to get higher price in the lean season. In the case of mahuwa flowers, the ABSSS has entered the market on its own to get a higher price for mahuwa collectors, particularly women. While all these reforms increased economic benefits to kols and reduced the dependence of kol women on fire wood lands, yet fire wood trade has continued. The reason why ABSSS efforts have not brought as much change as they were expected to bring is that at the same time, some distorted policies of the government have reduce the NTFP prospects for kol tribals in some villages. Sanctuary officials (Ranipur Sanctuary) have placed several curbs in the collection of NTFP by the kol tribals. Even if they allow this at times then they force the kols to pay bribes so that the economic gain for kols are reduced in any case. Another problem is that when the economic prospects of NTFP collection improved, then other well-to-do households also come forward for this work and instead of making the collection by hand as per rules, they even took a tractor inside the forest or even cut down some trees to get NTFP. As they are not involved regularly in this work but come only for short terms gains, they are not concerned about the long term protection of trees which produce valuable types of NTFP.
With increased economic opportunities there is also a tendency to rush to trees even when the fruit or flowers have not yet matured. Thus the full value of the forest produce is not realized, and sometimes the long term health of the trees is damaged.
Now the challenge is to use NTFP like amla, chiraunji, mahuwa (not just flowers but also the fruits) and tendu leaf in such a way as to give maximum benefits to the weakest section of kol tribals (or other equally deprived groups) while also protecting the natural forests which provide NTFP - based sustainable development for the weakest sections. As other communities owm more farmland, it is only right that the forest based income opportunities should be provided mainly to the kol tribals. This has also been their traditional work. Secondly sanctuary officials should not be disturbed. Instead kols should be involved in the protection of wild life. The budget for wild life protection should be used in such a way that jobs for kol youths can be provided in and around the sanctuary region. Voluntary organisation like ABSSS should campaign for a change in wild life protection policies so that instead of placing curbs on even those activities which do not harm forests (disciplined collection of NTFP) instead tribal youths are involved in the protection of wild life and trees from poachers and smugglers. Of course the tribal collectors also have to be disciplined by their own community so that they do not resort to any practices which can harm the same trees which yield valuable NTFP.
A lot of potential is available for value-added and processing activities of forest produce in which women can play a very productive role. Mahuwa can be used for making jams, its oil can be used for soaps. Amla can be used to make jam, pickle and many medicinal preparations such as chyawanprash. Palash trees provide the best leaves for making dona-pattal-leaf plates and bowls. If this tree is better protected (it suffers from much neglect at present), then its leaves can provide raw material to several women's groups for making dona-pattal. But self-discipline is very important as otherwise creating opportunities without protecting tree species can take us nowhere. Bamboos should be provided on a highly confessional basis to bansor or bamboo artisans families of this region and similarly the needs of other artisans dependent on forest produce should be met. While daily use items made by bamboo artisans have a local market, more decorative and impressive products using bamboo can be made for selling to tourists and pilgrims (Chitrakut is a leading pilgrimage). But here again it is important to first protect bamboos.
In this context, there is certainly room for cooperation with the forest department for protecting forests, but the present programme of joint forest management doesn't enthuse many persons as too much control vests with the forest officials and the people's aspirations regarding forests are not given adequate attention. Sanctuary officials continue to make illegal extortions, continue to ask forest produce gatherers to do unpaid work for them, the forest officials continue to evict poor landholders so the feeling that forest and wildlife officials are hostile to the poor remain.
Despite this ABSSS has continued afforestationin its own way wherever it gets opportunity for this. Apart from plantation places like Tikariya and Ranipur, ABSSS has encouraged its members in various ways to plant useful trees like amla near their homes and colonies.
ABSSS also gives a lot of attention for identifying, and processing various forest produce of medicinal value. When such opportunity of medicines, health tonic products, jams, jelly, pickles based on forest produce can create enough employment particularly for women, it will be possible to reduce or eliminate their dependence on sale and collection of fire wood.
While some of these efforts are made at the local level, some campaigns for policy level changes need to be made in collaboration with other like minded organisations facing similar problems. This is particularly true in the case of saving the livelihood of those who are living in sanctuaries and who are threatened with eviction by the forest department from the land pattas allotted to them.
Bharat Dogra, Yojana, May 2002