Over tea served in steel bowls, Sawaji Gameti recalled those days when tree felling was rampant in the forest located near his home in Karget, Rajasthan. “People logged trees for money, which often made me worry about the forest’s future. Luckily, Udaipur-based non-profit Seva Mandir took note of the situation and held a meeting with us, in which we were educated about the ill effects of unsustainable felling,” the octogenarian recalled.
Dominated by Gameti tribals, Karget and nearby villages in Girwa tehsil of Udaipur district have developed a sense of ownership over the forest from which they derive daily sustenance. “After the subsequent awareness drives, women pledged to collect only dried branches for firewood. They made trenches and worked alongside men to protect this precious resource. The forest is now healthy,” beamed Sawaji.
Besides Seva Mandir, Karget residents derived inspiration from NGO Hanuman Van Vikas Samiti (HVVS), founded by Rajkaran Yadav in neighbouring Sakroda village in 1984. It was registered two years later, with an aim to prevent rampant tree felling in the area that had almost 40 per cent forest cover. On the other hand, the villagers’ zeal inspired the forest department to form a Joint Forest Management Committee (JFMC) in 1984 itself. Though they were supposed to be dismantled after the implementation of the Forests Rights Act (FRA), 2006, the JFMC still functions in this region and elsewhere in India.
Karget resident Bhurelal Gameti was 24 when the conservation efforts began. “Back then, camels were used to transport the cut wood. To prevent this, villagers split into groups under the JFMC to watch out for the timber mafia. Once a camel emerging out of the forest was caught and the people involved were made to pay hefty fines to the panchayat. We roamed the jungle and got full support from the forest department,” Bhurelal (62) told 101Reporters.
The balancing act
According to Assistant Forester Laxmi Meena, Santu Maata protected forest covers an area of 1,704 hectares, while Amar Beed reserve forest has 401 hectares under it. The unclassified forest area comes to 213.39 hectares. Together they form the Karget forest covering an area of 2,318.39 hectares.
Maize and wheat are the main crops in Karget and surrounding villages. The villagers also grow guar to extract gum and soybean, which can give good profit from oil extraction. Yet, most families cannot afford LPG cylinders to date, making them dependent on firewood from the forest.
“Initially, there was too much emphasis on protection. However, after a point, people realised that their lives and livelihoods were suffering. This led to the introduction of sustainable management practices into their conservation efforts,” HVVS founder Rajkaran told 101Reporters.
“These days, women mostly prefer using dry branches of babool trees,” said Rajkaran’s colleague Hitesh Sharma. Thorny trees and neem, babool, mahua and kher are found in abundance in Karget.
By carrying out plantation drives in the monsoon season, women who collect firewood ensure that the forest survives. Sharma said they told women to plant five saplings per family member per year. The HVVS works in tandem with the forest department and gets saplings at minimal rates from the government nursery. The non-profit also takes a call on where to plant, after holding discussions with the JFMC and villagers.
So far, the women have planted about 6,000 saplings of fruit trees in 2020. Besides providing refuge and fodder to birds and animals, the trees keep the water level intact in summers. Though the conservation movement of JFMC and HVVS involved six villages with its origins in Karget, it then slowly spread to at least 15 other villages.
“Both men and women work for almost a month in the rainy season to plant tree varieties like sheesham, jamun and bamboo in the forest named after our Adivasi goddess Santu Maata. It has been successful to such an extent that even leopards can be spotted in the evenings. Cattle cannot be left on their own as there are chances of leopard attacks,” said Nathibai Meena, who works at a brick-making unit in Karget.
The Udaipur North Forest Division also carried out tree plantation drives in 2021-22 by employing villagers on 100 hectares of forestland using funds worth Rs 40 lakh. In 2022-23, planting was done on 50 hectares for Rs 25 lakh. A former forest official distributed about 7,000 saplings. At present, the villagers and forest staff jointly take care of the plants.
Sawaji’s son Chunnilal Gameti recalled how dense and lively the forest was with its abundant wildlife before tree felling became rampant. “When the time came, many of us became chowkidars (gatekeepers) and prevented timber smuggling. But I would not say the urge to protect the forest was sudden,” said Chunnilal, a JFMC member.
In all, 2,300 hectares are protected as forestlands across the villages of Bhallon ka Guda, Karget, Bhekra, Sakroda, Sinhara and Tank by involving 1,500 families, according to HVVS. Apart from tree plantation, the forest department has carried out soil conservation work. An anicut or check dam to reduce water flow and arrest soil erosion was built recently using funds worth Rs 5.96 lakh, wherein the women’s share of labour was 60 per cent.
The HVVS also worked on natural resource management in the area by implementing a watershed project to increase the water table. “From 2011-2014, we joined hands with the government for an MGNREGA convergence project. People wholeheartedly participated in the work, which involved Geographical Information System mapping,” recalled Sharma. In all, six villages have been part of the watershed management effort.
As trees can increase soil moisture content and reduce erosion, watershed management can help conserve the natural streams from drying up, thereby promoting better forest cover. To help villagers, grazing land for cattle has been developed on the forest fringe.
Asked if Karget villagers have got community forest resource rights under the FRA, Laxmi Meena said, “The people are demanding it now. This was discussed at a gram sabha meeting held a few days ago.
(The story has been published via a syndicated feed.)