The mechanism evolved by some so-called illiterate villagers in Nayagarh district of Orissa to manage their forests has attracted educationists in United Kingdom. Now students in UK study the forest management skills of the villagers in their textbooks.
The ancient forest management plan of thengapali?turn of baton?is now being studied in Andrews? Endowed Church of England Primary School and Glasllwch Primary School as a geography subject. The topic makes an effort to investigate the extensive indigenous knowledge of people and the practices followed by communities. The practice has scientific validity and can be proved at par with scientific forest management practices as prescribed by the forest department.
Often self initiated forest protection and management practices have come under severe criticism and debates are also raised on the technical and ecological validity of their practices. However, the practice of forest dwellers to protect forest across some districts of Orissa has attracted management gurus all over the world. Success stories of forest protection have been taken from a number of villages in Angul, Dhenkanal and Nayagarh districts of the state.
According to thengapali system, every evening two batons are left at doors of two adjacent households in village. It implies that one member from each of those households would take the responsibility of patrolling a forest patch for the following day. Even though two villagers watch the forest, villagers are bound to come together to drive away any timber smuggler spotted by the watchman. With batons in their hand, the volunteers ensure that nobody enters the forest with an axe and take away anything from forest. Besides regular surveillance, the villagers also impose self-restrictions of not letting their goats into jungles. It is found that goats nibble down tender shoots. Many communities who critically depend on forest have now adopted the thengapali management plan. The number of villagers involved in managing their own forest resources is now estimated to be over 12,000.
Thirty-two years ago, residents of Kesharpur, a small village in Nayagarh district resolved to protect and help regeneration of nearby Binjhagiri Hill. To execute the plan their immediate mantra was ?Love Trees?. After many years, now the love has taken the shape of a people'smovement and has been spread out among 65,000 households in 850 villages yielding a 2.5 lakh acres of forest area protected by community in Nayagarh district alone. Besides, 4,000 volunteers could be seen patrolling forests on any given day. Whereas 10,000 sal-leaf plate makers, 8,000 kendu leaf-makers, 6,500 fuel wood sellers, 5,000 bamboo artisans, 4,000 beedi rollers, 200 forest traders and 100 wood carvers eke out their livelihood from the protected forest.
In Orissa, it could be very rare occasion in post independence era where villagers in such a number came out for a common cause that ironically would not have yielded any immediate benefit. The journey to success has never been a cakewalk. Some hard decisions coupled with villager'ssacrifice had set the motion for the movement in 1970s.
From the year 1960 to 1970, the Kesharpur and its adjacent villages had witnessed as many as six droughts. By then, villagers noticed visible change in climatic conditions in the area. There was considerable decline in rate of rainfall and people bore the brunt of excessive hot air in summer. The effect was also begun to be witnessed in agricultural field. Agricultural production came down to a very low. Situation worsened to such an extent that marginal farmers started migrating distance places in search of work.
Kesharpur village, which then had only seven per cent literacy, failed to understand the reason behind continuous drought. Dr Narayan Hazari, a retired professor from Utkal University and a resident of Kesharpur says, ?During 1960, tree felling was rampant. Then the administration played the role of a silent spectator while degradation of dense forests was on. The forests on Binjhagiri Hill, which were virtually undisturbed with, soon wore a deserted look by 1970.?
The three-kilometer long, one kilometer wide and 280 metre high, Binjhagiri Hill was playing an important part in providing fuel and fodder to households of 13 villages situated on its foot. As the plundering of forest continued, villagers faced an acute shortage of fuel wood.
The situation began to worsen with every passing day. The incident, which set alarm among Kesharpur villagers, was that a body could not be cremated due to paucity of logs. Although attempts were made to compensate the lost forest by plantation, all was half-hearted, describes Dr Hazari.
Udaynath Khatei, a marginal farmer of Kesharpur, took the lead to unite villagers and held several camps to motivate them. Khatei now in his eighties says, ?The villagers drew their initial inspiration from the then local divisional forest officer Pratap Patnaik who had won the confidence of villagers. But it was the compulsion of villagers to survive on their own resources that initiated forest protection in Kesharpur.?
Villagers even used to cook once in a day to reduce fuel consumption, which indirectly decreased pressure on forests. Within a very short period of time the villagers were able to reap the benefits of protecting and replanting the Hill. Grasses which had previously been nibbled down to their roots by goats grew longer and provided grazing for cattle. Soil erosion from the hill slowed down considerably.
As the forest regeneration on Binjhagiri increased, the threats of timber smuggling increased too. It became imperative to involve other villagers in the protection act. Nine villages came forward to join hand with Kesharpur followed by 13 others.
Villagers looked to three leaders for any advice. Udayanath Khatei, a marginal farmer, Joginath Sahoo, a teacher of upper primary school of Kesharpur and Prof. Narayan Hazari. It was their inspirational leadership that resident of 22 villages worked together although all villages had their own village committees to take any final decision.
In 1982, the people'smovement took a momentous turn, in an informal meeting attended by at least five members from each village took an important decision to form an organisation?Friends of Trees and Living Beings (Bruksha O Jeevar Bandhu Parishad (BOJBP). From here on, the people'smovement moved in a more organised manner. To spread the message of afforestations, leaders used campaigning as an important tool.
Starting from padayatra to poster and cultural programmes, the leaders ensured that villagers did not detach from their task.
Joginath Sahoo says, ?Campaigning slogans were spontaneous. We used different social occasions?marriage, birthday, pujas and village annual function?to spread the message. We used to write songs keeping in view the tradition and social custom of local people that played major role.?
At present, more than 1,080 acres of forest on Binjhagiri Hill is being protected while 121 village ponds are being managed by 22 villages. Beside, BOJBP has identified five villages to introduce organic farming and the organisation is contemplating to create medicinal plant nursery in every villages. A seed bank has also been raised to cater the demand of villagers on no-profit-no loss basis.
More than 116 varieties of seeds have been stored in the seed bank of BOJBP to reduce dependency on private and government seed agencies. Very early on, Kesharpur has evolved a different and very democratic system, which reduces the possibility of nepotism. Every adult over 18 years of age casts his or her vote.
To deal with governance at the village level, a general body of 170 members is now operating comprising representatives of all 22 villages. The general body is responsible for all major policy decisions relating to the organisations. With village councils being responsible for protecting their adjacent hillsides, the executive committee of BOJBP chalks out awareness programme for the establishment of sister organisations.
Now, women are also taking lead in the people'smovement. BOJBP president Jugal Bhat says, ?It is the women who are the main motivating force behind all type of developmental programmes. Even, womenfolk lead different padyatras which are being organised time to time.? The womenfolk have also addressed social issues such as domestic violence, which has been reduced considerably in Kesharpur and it'sadjacent villages.
After years of forest protection, villagers admit that water level has increased, new streams have surfaced in Binjhagiri forest. Bhikyakari Hazari of Kesharpur says, ?In 1970, we had to dig 60 feet for a well that could provide water throughout the year. In 1988, there was dramatic improvement in ground water level. Water could be found at a range of 20 feet.