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Ecotourism and Forest Conservation: A Lesson from Maharashtra

In a small village in Maharashtra, a local community turned to ecotourism as its economic mainstay; the results can serve as a model to emulate.

Sangeeta Banere is part of a group of women who have their own small-scale business, entirely owned and managed by them. Packaging jars of honey procured from the forests around her home, she tells Community Correspondent Rohini Pawar about her source of livelihood and how laying their claims to community forest rights changed things for her community.

Banere lives in Yelavli, a small village nestled in the Western Ghats, one of the richest biodiversity spots in Maharashtra. Her community has traditionally lived in the forest and depended on the forest for their livelihoods, but had been at odds with the Forest Department many a time over the management of the forest resources.

“The Forest Department personnel would tell the village residents that it was illegal to procure and sell the forest’s produce”, says Subhash Dolas. Dolas is at the helm of the livelihoods and development programme that Kalpavriksh, a think tank, is developing with the residents of Yelavli, Bhimashankar and the villages around.

Kalpavriksh seeks to implement sustainable development alternatives, and community action is at the core of their work in Bhimashankar and Yelavli. The first step they took in this direction was spreading awareness about the Forest Rights Act of 2006 in the villages. Being aware of their rights gave the village residents a sense of confidence. “We are continuing to live here because of the rights that the Forest Rights Act entitles us to”, says Dolas.

Community action was also complemented by a sense respect for the local communities’ traditional knowledge, something which state bodies like the Forest Department have often overlooked or dismissed. When the residents would try to earn a living from the forest and its resources, they often had to bribe the Forest Department personnel. “The locals were not even willing to talk to anyone from the Forest Department when we started out”, says Dolas.

But things started to change when there was greater awareness about the rights of the community and the role of the Forest Department. Under the aegis of Kalpavriksh, the local residents formed committees and mapped the forest to come up with a development plan. They then took their findings to the Sub-Divisional Officer and the District Collector, laying a claim to their community forest rights.

Today, the residents of Bhimashankar are not only earning their livelihood through the organic foods business but have also turned to developing the area into an ecotourism site. The hills of Bhimashankar are known for rare animal species like the Shekru or the Giant Squirrel. The terrain also makes for a good site for adventure tourism, something that the village is now considering.

Ecotourism has proved to be a major source of income for Bhimashankar, but the long-term gains are far more than just monetary gains. It has put Bhimashankar on the national map and has opened up the village to tourists and students. Dolas says that this has played an important role in making the village residents feel confident and empowered about their culture and lifestyle. “We tell people to share their knowledge with us, not money. In turn, we also share our knowledge with them”, he says. The village, however, still grapples with the lack of basic amenities like roads, water and electricity, a major hindrance in further developing the tourism economy.

The state government had also made attempts to turn the area into a biodiversity spot, but top-down plans do not have the same effect as collective, participatory ones. The government’s plan included relocating the village residents to another area, a move that the latter resisted and a move that contributed to the animosity between the Forest Department and the locals. However, with their own committees and development plans, the residents of Bhimashankar are both conserving the forest and making a living out of it.

What is clear from the story of Bhimashankar is that for sustainable development and conservation, the traditional lifestyles and knowledge of local communities must be respected and promoted, not ignored, exploited or patronised.

Video by Community Correspondent Rohini Pawar

Article by Alankrita Anand, a member of the VV editorial team