- A group of 35 men have created a lush green forest by planting over 1.4 million saplings over the past fifteen years in Assam state in north-eastern India.
- The group say they’ve received no significant recognition from authorities, despite having spent their lives on conservation of the environment.
- Their efforts have proved an inspiration for youngsters, who have come forward to create a forest and also earn a livelihood from it.
Prinson Daimari is overwhelmed with pride every time he visits the lush green forest with birds’ nests perched on the treetops inside the Bhairabkunda reserve forest in Udalguri district of Assam in northeast India.
The 52-year-old stands under a canopy of trees and recalls those days when he, along with his 34 colleagues, spent countless hours shoveling the boulders and stones from beneath the earth to make the barren, sandy land fertile. For a first-time visitor, it is hard to believe that the same stretch of barren land now boasts of a dense forest spread across 750 hectares, rich in biodiversity, with elephants frequenting the area even during the day.
“We have virtually spent our prime years in converting a barren and uneven land filled with rocks and stones, into a picturesque forest inhabited by venomous reptiles and wild animals,” Prinson said with a smile on his face as the sun’s rays peeked through the tall bamboo trees. “We have not only created a forest but have also set a successful example of environmental conservation through our hard work.”
From stirring a movement to creating a forest
The seeds for creating the dense forest were laid during the late 1980s, when the 35 men credited for the man-made forest, were youth members of All Bodo Students Union (ABSU), a student organisation formed in 1967 to fight for a separate territory, meant to be carved out from Assam state. The Bodos are an ethnic and linguistic community centered on the Udalguri and Kokrajhar districts of the Indian state of Assam.
On February 20, 1993, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed between the state government of Assam and the ABSU-Bodo People’s Action Committee (BPAC), restoring some sort of normalcy following the ethnic conflict that began in 1987.
“We were waging a non-violent movement for the separate land but quit the struggle after the accord was signed. We decided to return to our homes and earn a livelihood for our families,” said Bilup Daimari, 53, who was also part of the movement. For the next decade, the 35 men did odd jobs to eke out livelihoods, but found it difficult to keep the kitchen fire burning. “We worked in agro farms and did other jobs but it proved to be a daunting task to run our families. We decided to try something else,” Bilup added.
In 2003, the group of men then earmarked land for farming and poultry inside Bhairabkunda reserve forest. “It was a small area in which we decided to do farming and other activities. We had already formed a co-operative and took permission from forest department in this regard. We started with farming, fishing, and also poultry. But it hardly brought any profits because we didn’t have much experience and connection with the local market,” said Alfred Daimari, 54, another member.
As they were pondering over their future, a forest ranger came to their rescue in 2004. He offered them a livelihood opportunity of planting saplings on the barren land inside the forest for the next five years. “We were in desperate need of work and readily agreed. We thought that at least we would be able to sustain our families for the next five years,” Alfred said.
Severe challenges during the implementation
The project to plant saplings over 750 hectares of land eventually kicked off in 2005. “The flash floods of 1989 had caused massive damage and eroded the top soil, exposing the hard rocks beneath the earth,” Prinson said. “It was a challenging task to remove the rocks and turn the land suitable for plantation. But we didn’t give up. We used to cycle or even walk for 7-8 kilometers to reach to the forest for the work.”
He added: “It was an open area with no toilet and other facilities to cook our food and temporary shed for our rest during the day. We walked for nearly three kilometers every day to fetch water from a stream for drinking and other necessities. The scorching heat made our work more difficult as we worked under the open sky. We virtually ate sand that flew inside our tiffin boxes. We were too poor to afford an umbrella to protect us from sultry heat and heavy rains. We planted around 35 varieties of trees and used to receive a paltry sum of Rs 56 ($ 0.79) as daily wages in exchange of working for 8-9 hours a day that reached to Rs 111($1.57) in 2010.”
Alfred points to another major problem they faced during the plantation: “We also created our own nursery for plantation. But the villagers became envious of us. They thought that we were trying to grab the land by growing the forest while others thought that it was a ploy to gobble the funds. Some of them conspired to set the forest on fire. We came to know about it and started patrolling during night hours. We walked for 3 kilometers and brought water from the stream and kept it ready in case of any eventuality. The fire indeed broke out thrice during the night hours and we had to rush with water gallons on our back to bring it under the control. Unfortunately, some of the saplings were lost and were planted again.”
Increase in biodiversity
Their hard work finally paid off. The more than 1.4 million saplings they’ve planted since 2005 have now turned into a dense green forest inhabited by snakes, deer, wild boars, and birds. The area is also frequented by elephants from the neighbouring state of Arunachal Pradesh and neighbouring country Bhutan. The group has also built a treehouse for tourists.
“Earlier, we hardly used to see elephants in this region but now jumbos crossover from the Arunachal Pradesh and Bhutan borders located at a distance of a few kilometers and roam in this part of the forest that was once barren sandy land,” said Anshu Daimari, 59, a local.
In 2016, the men formed Gethsemane Joint Forest Management Committee (JFMC) as a governing body bringing six village sub-committees under its umbrella. The JFMC won a ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ from Kaziranga Wildlife Society in 2016 and restoration award from Balipara Foundation in 2017.
The members are now mostly involved in farming and other jobs, but they still have strong emotional connections with the forest. “The government doesn’t pay us anymore but the forest is our child whom we have given birth. We cannot leave it alone. At least two members of the JFMC regularly come here to inspect it. Local villagers immediately inform us if there is any attempt of timber theft,” according to Prinson.
The members unanimously urge the state government to promote tourism. “We have spent our lives in growing the forest but have got nothing in return. We do not have the same energy left and do odd jobs for survival. We urge the government to promote tourism so that the money earned can be utilised for its maintenance. Our work can never be compensated in terms of materialistic awards. The only remuneration is its preservation when we are gone,” Bilup said.
The forest department says it has heard the men’s pleas and is working to boost tourism in the region. “We understand that tourism is the only way to create livelihood for them,” said M.K. Sarma, divisional forest officer, Dhansiri forest division. “We have already built a guest house and [we are] trying to come up with more such accommodations for tourists.”
Similar initiative kicks off in Dhansiri
Taking cues from the 35 men’s commendable efforts to restore the forest, a group of around 62 members stepped in from ten villages and started a similar plantation drive in another part of the reserve forest. Subsequently, seven village sub-committees have been formed under Dhansiri JFMC.
The afforestation project was officially launched in January 2019 through a partnership between Balipara Foundation and the Dhansiri JFMC. “The project is tasked to plant [350,000] trees over 250 hectares of land over the next two years,” said Proloy Daimari, President of Dhanseri JFMC. “We have already planted [180,000] saplings of 20 varieties this year. The aim is not only to save the environment but also to turn it into a revenue model by promoting eco-tourism, agriculture, and poultry. We want to ensure that the members can earn their livelihood from it instead of venturing outside.”
“We are funding around 74 lakh for the two-year project that would end by December 2020. The aim is not only to conserve the environment but also to offer livelihoods for the villagers so that they take an active part in conserving the environment. We are also promoting eco-tourism and cottage industry for the villagers under Udalguri Landscape Mission (ULM),” said Robin Eastment, an operations manager for Balipara foundation who has been working to create livelihood opportunities for forest fringe communities. The ULM aims to identify drivers for conservation and development and invest in projects that help balance ecological and social outcomes.
This story was first published on Mongabay.com