When I first spoke with Bhagoti Devi, I attempted to break the ice by telling her how warmly our mutual acquaintances spoke of her. She was nonchalant. "Of course they will recommend you speak to me”, she said. “After all, it took a lot of hard work to have such a thick forest standing here.”
Bhagoti Devi has reason to be proud. Under her leadership, the previously denuded 280 hectare forest in Parwada, Uttarakhand is once again thriving. Not only are the various planted trees flourishing but also the women practice a strict quota and rotation system where they harvest fodder and wood from the forest. In the seven years that Bhagoti Devi was the sarpanch of Parwada village's Van Panchayat, the forest has gone from being unable to meet one village's needs to supplying several neighbouring villages with fodder and leaf litter.
Van Panchayats: History and functioning
The Van Panchayat is unique to Uttarakhand. Instituted in colonial times (Kumaon Panchayat Forest Rules 1931), these panchayats allow for a part of the forest to be governed by a democratic village-based institution. Lately, they have been subjected to several changes in the laws governing them (Panchayati Forest Rules 1976, The Uttaranchal Panchayati Forest Rules 2001 and 2005). These changes have been criticised for transferring increasing amounts of power away from the villages to the state.
The Panchayats also face challenges in that while they are entrusted with much of the responsibility towards maintaining forests, they are not given sufficient authority to do so. For both punitive measures and fund management, they are dependent on the district authorities or the Forest Department. Despite these hurdles, Uttarakhand is home to several instances where Van Panchayats have successfully conserved and generated revenue from their forests. The lessons learnt from them can be transferred to other village-based conservation organisations.
Parwada Van Panchayat
In 2007, the Parwada forest was denuded to the point where conflicts would arise over the sharing of fodder and grass. Extensive lopping for firewood and fodder without the thought of conservation meant that the forest had very little chance to regenerate. Today, after nearly a decade of protection and conservation by the Van Panchayat, the forest is lush and healthy. "Women are aware of the need to conserve forests from childhood", said Bhagoti Devi. "From an early age they need to go and collect grass, leaves, and firewood from the forest. They know how difficult it is when the forest is poor but without proper information, the women themselves become the destroyers. Desperate for resources, they do not listen when a ban on lopping is in place, or when fencing is done.”
This can change with information. It took her a little over a year before the women would listen to her. Now, nearly a decade later, they enthusiastically support conservation measures. They practice fencing and take turns to do 'chowkidari'. “We had a lot of struggle to understand, but the younger women now know it from childhood. They will find it easier”, said Bhagoti Devi.
The Kosi watershed is the location for an exemplary story of one woman's determination to conserve her forest. In the 90s when Almora district was drought stricken, Basanti Behen read about the connection between forest loss and declining river flows. She then took it upon herself to speak to the women, form groups and implement bans on indiscriminate tree felling.
In 2013, a cement plant was proposed in the valley of the Mansa, a tributary of the Kosi. This would mean the death of the painstakingly conserved forest and also of the Mansa itself. The women of the four villages along the river decided that they would not allow it to happen. Several demonstrations later, the plant was relocated to another area. Today, the forests of the Kosi valley continue to be protected by the women who assumed the responsibility of watching out for forest fires, preventing theft, and organising systematic harvesting of non-timber forest produce. The once barren slopes are now clad with rhododendron and oak, and leopards have begun to return to the area.
Mahila Ban in Makku
In the 1980s, members of the Mahila Mangal Dal of Kail village were frustrated with the lack of access to forest products. They were encouraged by the Pradhan at the time to assume responsibility for the degraded civil land adjacent to their fields. With regular patrolling and protection, the forest regenerated itself to the point the where women could collect fodder and fuel from this land rather than venturing into the Panchayat forest. This success is due to two reasons: First, as has been discussed earlier, the women have the greatest incentive for conserving their forests. A degraded forest means that they need to labour significantly more to gather leaf litter, fodder and fuel than in the case of a dense forest. Second, in this case, the women had greater autonomy over the forest than the Van Panchayat did. Since the forest was on civil land, they were not answerable to the Forest Department and could make their own decisions regarding punitive measures and patrolling.
The above stories indicate that community conservation of forests is successful when womens participation is ensured. Ganga Joshi of CHIRAG, an organisation working in the Central Himalayas, explained, “It is mostly the women who harvest resources from the forests. They also visit the forests more and are more aware of changes there. They are frequently aware that forests are denuded. If they are given options to conserve the forests, then they take it upon themselves to implement conservation measures”. This is often challenging. In Uttarakhand, women have often formed the backbone of conservation programmes but are marginalised when it comes to decision making or recognition.
Some steps can be taken to address this:
Raise awareness: Motivation is key, according to Joshi. It is important that people understand that the forest belongs to them. They also need to be aware of their rights and the steps they can take to ensure them.
Sensitise development workers: Inadvertent exclusion of women is possible even with the best-intentioned programmes. It is important that development workers be keenly aware of gender issues and keep equal participation of all genders in the forefront of their goals.
Accept the struggle: According to Bhagoti Devi, we should not be asking how to minimise the initial difficulty of getting participation from both men and women. Struggle is necessary to create change. There will be a struggle for the first year or two but the next generations will have it easier.
Women are the major actors in forest management in the Himalayas. In the present gendered distribution of rural household and agricultural tasks, women are responsible for the collection of grass, fodder leaves, leaf litter, firewood and water. All these are dependent on a healthy forest. While depleted forests lead the women to be in stiff competition for resources, they also have the greatest incentive to come together and conserve forests.
While women have been the chief supporters of people-led conservation movements, their leadership capabilities have not been acknowledged to the full extent. With access to proper information and motivation of both the villagers and development workers, it is possible to increase the number of women taking a lead in forest conservation. The results, as shown, are well worth the effort.