“The Forest is our Mother”: Conservation and Sustainable Living in Odisha

Most indigenous communities traditionally depend on forests for their lives and livelihoods, forests that are steadily shrinking. When the forest resources in Nayagarh started to disappear, the community took to conservation and sustainable living, exercising their lawful forest rights.

Nayagarh falls in a densely forested part of Odisha, but over the years, the forest receded, the rainfall became erratic, the ponds and streams dried up. There was no bamboo to build homes, no firewood to cook food, and little water for daily needs. But in the last ten years, the story has changed. The streams have water and the forests have a fair produce, the women of Kaptapalli village in Nayagarh say that this is because they have been “protecting” their forests.

Bilasa Pradhan, a resident of the village who is closely associated with the forest conservation project in the area, says that the area used to be a dense forest. “But people from the neighbouring villages would come and plunder the forest, and if men from our village would guard the forests, they would attack them” she says.

The residents of the village then decided that women should guard the forests. So, the women got together and formed teams of four. Each team takes care of the forest on a rotational basis. The women are also associated with Maa Maninag Jungle Surakha Parishad, a community forest management group in the district. The group helps them engage with the forest rights law and claim what is rightfully theirs and works with over 10,000 such groups of women across the state.

Sasibhushan, a local activist, tells Community Correspondent Anupama Sathy about mining companies obtaining mining leases from the government and destroying forest cover in districts like Sundergarh and Koraput. But when local residents stake a claim in community forests under the Forest Rights Act, private companies like the mining corporations cannot get such leases without the permission of the Gram Sabha or the Village Assembly.

Although the community has received community forest land under the Act, some of them still await the individual plots of land that they are supposed to get. But the government, on the insistence of activists like Sasibhushan, is now working on providing land titles to the remaining persons and they hope to receive the titles soon.

Vasundhara, another NGO that works in the region, has helped the village map its land and resources with GPS-enabled devices. This makes it easier for the community and the individuals to stake their claim to the land. Vasundhara has also trained women in alternative livelihoods practices; the women of Kaptapalli now weave leaf plates and sell them for one source of income.

Similar examples have also been seen in parts of Maharashtra like Melghat. And in Odisha, even an institute, the Green College, is promoting indigenous ways of living and sustainable livelihoods through the way they train their students. Like the women of Nayagarh, the students of Green College also learn about the importance of forest conservation and sustainable livelihoods.

What is most important to the women of Kaptapalli or to the Maa Mainang Jungle Surakha Parishad and to individual activists like Sasibhushan is the rights-based approach to forest resources that the Forest Rights Act guarantees, and they work not only to preserve and conserve their forests but also these rights.

Video by Video Volunteers Community Correspondent Anupama Sathy

Article by Alankrita Anand, a member of the VV Editorial Team

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