Collecting fodder and firewood to keep the household running once took Sunita Arya four hours every day. Today, she spends just half-an-hour on the chore. What brought about this near-magical turnaround? The systematic protection of the village forest, thanks to an effective van panchayat (forest governance unit).

The 32-year-old resident of Guna village in Lamgarha block, in Uttarakhand’s Almora district, recalls the tough times: “Earlier, just finding fodder, firewood and even water sources was so difficult. We women, with our children, would spend a lot of time — sometimes walking up to 6 km every day through degraded forests, carrying back heavy headloads of fodder and firewood.” Due to the shortage, they were even forced to break branches off trees that were not fully developed. There was fierce competition for the scarce resource, and each would try to rise earlier in the morning to be the first on the scene and collect the maximum amount.

All that is history now. The van panchayat has established strict rules that apply to everyone. Sudha Gurwant, sarpanch of Guna’s van panchayat, says the women are now careful to collect only leaves instead of lopping off entire branches. “We have also grown Napier grass for fodder because it is thicker, easier to cut and ensures a good milk yield from our cattle.” The grass grows close to their home and this saves time in collecting it. They also cut only what is needed in order to prevent wastage.

Thirsty no more

Alongside fuel and fodder, new systems of water supply are in place as well. Homes now have water storage tanks — mostly large, open pits lined with plastic — built at no great cost. Nainital-based NGO Central Himalayan Environment Association funded the material for the tanks, while the locals built them on their own.

In Guna, all the 22 homes each have a water tank that is used for household needs, including irrigating vegetable gardens and watering livestock. The CHEA encouraged the villagers to dig small pits in the forest to collect rainwater. This helps prevent run-offs and replenish the groundwater. It has also helped rejuvenate sources of spring water.

Anita Arya, a homemaker, says, “All these changes have brought us a lot of comfort. Instead of spending hours making three or four trips to distant springs to collect drinking water, we can concentrate on other activities, including income-generating ones.” So now there is a little extra money coming into households.

Vanishing woods

Sexagenarian Padmavati in the neighbouring Tori village is perhaps best placed to describe the changes witnessed in the region down the years. “When I came into this village as a 13-year-old bride, it was green. We never had problems getting fodder. Over the years, I have seen our forests vanish. Thankfully, things are slowly recovering. Two years ago, I joined the van panchayat samiti and have seen what we can achieve if we work together. These days I earn most of my income from the milk I sell.”

But she is aware of the many challenges too, such as the increase in the number of forest fires in recent years. “Our forest caught fire four years ago,” says Beena Rawat of Thatt village, adding that they were waiting for the replanted forest to grow back.

Women in the region blame the fires on the rising temperature, absence of winter rain, longer summers and delayed monsoons. “We never had a summer as hot as it was this year. I worry about the impact on our forest and water supply,” says Sudha, the sarpanch of Guna village.

Standing guard

Although none of them use, or seem aware of the term ‘climate change’, they have noticed how changing weather patterns are impacting the environment. Their response has been to search for solutions — some of which certainly seem to be working, seeing how the forests have been growing denser. In each of the 15 villages in which van panchayats are being reactivated, four out of the nine members are women, and they take a lively interest in forest protection issues. Padmavati, for instance, stands guard for two hours every morning and evening to ensure that animals and outsiders don’t encroach on it.

When replanting forests they opt to have a variety of trees rather than follow the pine monoculture model promoted by the Forest Department, as pine needles are extremely inflammable and contribute to forest fires. Oaks are particularly favoured as their roots hold rainwater and help retain moisture in the soil. “We try and pick up all fallen leaves and dried wood. This gives us manure and cooking fuel, and helps in fighting forest fires,” says Anita.

The van panchayat samiti members want government assistance to build fences around the village forests and help in hiring forest guards to protect against fires. Almost two-third of Uttarakhand is under forest cover, which is a major source of revenue — not just for the State but ordinary people too. So deforestation clearly undermines community well-being, which is precisely why the van panchayat is so important. It gives local people, particularly women, a stake in forest protection.

Sarpanch Sudha makes this pithy observation: “When our van panchayats work well, our forests are healthy and our people are happy.”

© Women’s Feature Service

(This article was published on September 13, 2012)
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