Tribal Women, Community Forestry and Climate Change Mitigation

“I felt very angry that after cutting down all our forests to supply timber to the cities, the Forest Department should blame us for the destruction. So I got the women of our village together and started protecting these hills and now nobody can blame us anymore,” says Daheli Bai, a Bhil tribal woman of Attha village in Alirajpur district of Madhya Pradesh in India replying to a question as to what had prompted them to protect their forests over the last two decades and render them as verdant as they are.

Growing forests, greater availability of flowing water leading to reduced demand for artificial energy and greater agricultural productivity achieved through organic practices all contribute significantly to mitigation of climate change. When this is done through communitarian collective action and especially by women, then the gains in terms of social justice achieved are an added benefit. Thus the women of Attha have been mitigating climate change from much before it became a buzzword.

The Forest Department had through commercial exploitation for timber production upset the fragile hilly eco-system of the region and with the forests gone the thin soils too were washed away. The Natural recharge of the rain was greatly reduced leading to the drying up of the streams. The Bhils’ livelihoods were the most affected as the fertility of their lands as well as the supply of forest produce went down.

Then in 1983 the Bhil tribals of the area formed an organisation called Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath (KMCS) and began protecting the forests in about fifty villages in Sondwa Block. The women of Attha village under the leadership of Daheli Bai began the struggle and it soon spread to nearby villages. Daheli Bai along with Vesti Bai went upstream along the stream that ran through their village to the villages of Gendra and Fadtala and explained to the women there that since the stream originated in Fadtala, full benefits of forest protection in terms of greater availability of soil, water and forest produce would only be gained if they too began to protect their forests. The stream in Attha had begun to go dry in summer due to the heavy deforestation. Over a decade, by the early nineteen nineties the stream had become perennial once again.

The uniqueness of this forest conservation effort is its reliance on the traditional labour pooling customs of the Bhils. These customs had begun to decay due to the inroads of the monetary economy and the destruction of the natural resource base of the Bhils. However, under Daheli’s leadership the women of Attha formed groups of five or six women and began patrolling the forest to ensure that they were not grazed and the root stock was allowed to regenerate. Thereafter they made sure that the new trees were not cut. The grass would be cut only after the monsoons and distributed equally among the protecting families to be used as fodder for cattle. The women of Attha, emboldened by their success, then began another conservation activity. The small teams that had been formed began working in groups on the farms of their members to plug the gullies in between their hilly farms with stones so as to catch the soil and some of the water that was being washed off their farms by rain. Over a period of a decade and a half since the mid nineteen nineties hundreds of such gully plugs have been constructed leading to the creation of many small plots of land with deep soil adding to the productivity of the village. The first ever woman awardee of The Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics in 2009, Elinor Ostrom, was honoured precisely for her theoretical and empirical work in establishing the validity of such collective action for sustainable natural resource management. The United Nations too has declared 2011 to be the Year of Forests with a stress on People and Forests.

Rahul Banerjee

In the early 1980s, fresh out-of-IIT Rahul Banerjee answered an inner calling to work among the less-privileged and went to work in the interiors among the Bhil adivasis. Over the years, he has helped grow empowering initiatives among the Bhil tribals and helped preserve a society’s rights amidst several challenges.

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