In 1983, Lalia, a tribal, was beaten up by forest guards for cutting trees in a forest in Alirajpur district. His wife Dahelibai was let off with a reprimand. Rather than making them resentful, however, the incident turned the couple into formidable conservation crusaders in their native Attha village.
Led by the couple, the 700-odd tribals of this village started forest and water conservation in 1983 and converted a barren stretch of land in the vicinity of Attha into a lush green forest having a radius of about 10 km.
The women of the village, under Dahelibai's leadership, undertook a vigorous forest protection programme that has rejuvenated the green cover in the watershed, about 35 km from Alirajpur district headquarters.
The villagers constructed huge stone gully plugs on the deep nullahs in between the hills to stop soil erosion and create new farms. Apart from this, they constructed field bunds on the sloping farms to prevent soil loss.
This has led to a continuous supply of water through a stream even during summer months.
To further hold the soil together, the villagers planted bamboo plants along with other saplings. A bountiful supply of bamboo is now used in house construction and making of baskets.
"Farmers in the watershed can now grow a second crop in the Rabi season to augment their agricultural income. All this has been achieved through collective labour contribution organised under the traditional labour pooling custom called Dhas," said Lalia.
Under this, groups of ten families work together on each other's farm for soil and water conservation work besides assisting in other agricultural and house construction work.
The success of these efforts has inspired nearby villages to emulate the forest conservation and mutual cooperation.
"That incident in 1983 also sparked off the struggle of the Bhilalas adivasis of the Mathwar forest range for their rights to access to the forests from which they had been deprived," recalls Lalia.
According to Rahul Banerjee, an activist working among Alirajpur tribals, the forest department had in the 1980s arbitrarily deprived the Bhils of the Mathwar forest range the right to cultivate their land.
"But the struggle of the Bhils under the aegis of the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath (Farmers and Labourers Consciousness Union) not only led to the restoration of the forest rights to Bhils but also gave rise to a unique natural resource conservation effort that has transformed the watershed consisting of the villages of Attha and Gendra," he added.