Yelavali is a small village with a population of 80 in the foothills of the Sahyadris, nestled within Pune district’s Bhimashankar sanctuary.
The nearest tarred road is 2 km away.
Until two years ago, the villagers depended on the forest for their livelihood, using wood for fuel, grazing their cattle on wild grass and selling medicinal herbs and wild honey for small sums that were used to buy basic necessities such as kitchen utensils and medicines.
Then, a month ago, the state government’s forest department inaugurated a lodge and camping area in the village, a project that it had been working on with the villagers and NGO Kalpavriksh for a year.
The villagers will run the outfit, earning money and helping spread awareness among the many tourists drawn here each year by the sanctuary.
The lodge has been built under the Village Eco-Development Scheme, launched by the central government in 1992 and amended for simpler implementation with more powers to people by the government of Maharashtra in December 2011.
Funds from Village Eco-Development Scheme have also been used to reduce their dependence on the forest, with solar streetlamps installed on mud paths, and water heaters and pressure cookers given to reduce the villagers’ dependence on forest resources.
“In a village where we worried about how to pay for a doctor if our children got ill, the income from the lodge — at least in the six months when there are tourists — will help us very much,” says Namdev Banare, 36.
Eventually, the forest department and Kalpavriksh will also train some of the villagers as guides, to help them earn more by taking tourists on guided walks in the jungle, and to spread further eco-awareness.
With the help of Kalpavriksh, villagers have also filed claims for community use and management rights under the Forest Right Act of 2006. This was done in 2010 after the villagers decided to use, manage and conserve their forest.
Then & now
Until two years ago, the relationship between the Yelavali villagers and the forest department was very different. There were constant clashes over illegal grazing and tree-cutting in the protected forest area.
“We lived in constant fear of being caught by the forest guards,” says Banare. “But we had no option but to continue venturing into the forest. It was our only source of fuel and income.”
Efforts to explain why it was important for the villagers to reduce their dependence on the forest also failed, since there were no alternatives available to the villagers.
Then, Pune-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) Kalpavriksh started working to mobilise the villagers towards self-governance and conservation, explaining their rights and responsibilities. The NGO helped the villagers to push the state government to implement the Centre’s village eco-development scheme, to offer the villagers alternative means of making a living.Yelavali was included in this scheme in 2011, and Rs 10 lakh allocated for the lodge, camping ground and training programmes. "Recent initiatives have completely changed the way the villagers treat the forest department. There is healthy dialogue and discussion now," says MK Rao, chief conservator of forests, Pune wildlife circle.
In three other villages nearby, similar initiatives have been launched to help villagers earn a living sustainably through bee farms and eco-tourism.
And it isn’t just the Bhimashankar area. In villages around the Melghat tiger sanctuary in Amravati, the Kaas plateau UNESCO natural world heritage site in Satara and the Armori forests in Gadchiroli, similar initiatives have taken shape.
“There has been positive action in areas where sensitive officials and NGOs are working as a bridge between villagers and the forest bureaucracy,” says conservationist Ashish Kothari, chairperson of the Greenpeace India board and founder-member of Kalpavriksh.
The global trend can be traced back to the fifth IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) World Parks Congress in 2003, when more than 60 countries, including India, recognised local empowerment, rights and involvement as a powerful tool to boost conservation efforts in eco-sensitive zones.
In India, the Forest Rights Act of 2006, though some of its clauses continue to be debated, recommended the involvement of local communities as a key component of conservation efforts in all states.
With an added push from local NGOs working across the state, existing schemes such as Joint Forest Management and Village Eco-Development were invoked to create the funding for small yet potentially powerful grassroots initiatives such as the Yelavali eco-lodge and eco-guide training programme.
“Now that this realisation has occurred, such initiatives need to be implemented across many more districts in Maharashtra, for even better results,” says Vidya Athreya, wildlife biologist at the Bangalore-based non-profit trust Centre of Wildlife Studies.
Employment for villagers, from a plateau to full bloom
Six months ago, alarmed by how a growing number of tourists were treating the Kaas plateau, the Satara division of the forest department decided to involve locals from four villages — Ekiv, Ghatai, Atali and Kaas — in conservation, via the joint forest management scheme.
“We are now training villagers to monitor and manage tourists while earning a living acting as guides, garbage collectors and gatekeepers,” says NR Praveen, deputy conservator of forests for the Satara division.
The first batch of guides tackled their first batch of tourists in the 2012 flowering season, between August and November, when more than 800 types of flowers bloom on the 1,000-hectare plateau.
One of them was Ranoji Kirdat, a 50-something Kaas village resident. Kirdat and his son earned Rs 40,000 in four months as a guide and a gatekeeper respectively — enough for a comfortable living in Kaas.“I have bought a sofa and a cupboard with some of our savings,” says Kirdat, grinning.
However, Sunil Boite, president of local NGO Drongo Environmental Movement cautions that the forest department needs to focus on scientific methods of conservation.
Birds return to nest in once-barren land
Until the early 1980s, Paivihir village was surrounded by 132 hectares of lush green forest. By the turn of the century, many of the trees were gone and the lush grass was fast disappearing too.
In mid-2011, environmental NGO Khoj began a campaign here to educate villagers about how the degradation of forests had affected their lifestyles and their earnings, and how re-forestation could help them and their local ecology.
Roping in youngsters, Khoj applied to the state government to seek forest rights for local villagers under the 2006 Forest Rights Act.
A year later, they were granted rights, enabling the villagers to make sustainable use of the area, help the state forest department monitor it and restrict access to outsiders.
Khoj then launched an afforestation drive with the youngsters, teaching them to patrol and keep watch for outsiders chopping down trees or using the land to graze cattle.
The reforestation programme — which will include planting 50,000 saplings in the next phase — has been incorporated into the national rural employment scheme, thus using central government funds to pay villagers a daily wage for their work.
Finally, the villagers will be trained by the forest department to sustainably harvest the forest produce, mainly fruit, so that they can live off the land while protecting it.
Journey to self-reliance
Most of the men in Murumbodi village have been migrant farm labourers all their lives. Their village could offer only subsistence farming.
It all started in early 2010, when local NGO Vidarbha Nature Conservation Society began educating the villagers about conservation and self-governance and encouraging them to claim their due under the Forest Rights Act. The NGO then launched a voluntary initiative, encouraging the villagers to work as guards, patrolling the protected forest area to prevent outsiders from cutting trees for firewood, grazing their cattle or burning down grass for small farms.
Community forest rights were accorded in April 2011, after which state government funds could be used to employ villagers in conservation schemes launched under the national rural employment guarantee act.
Today, there are jobs to be had here, working on water-conservation projects such as bunds and canals.
The forest department has also handed over 7,000 indigenous saplings to be planted in denuded parts of the jungle, to restore the green cover.
Thanks to improved water management, farm produce has increased. The village is now growing enough pulses and spinach to feed itself, and hopes to sell surplus to surrounding villages next year.
“People in the village are happy,” says Dilip Gode, secretary of the Vidarbha Nature Conservation Society. “Though I have my complaints about the forest department, it’s nice to see them involving locals in their conservation projects.”
In the past few months, the forest patrolling team of the village have caught and fined outsiders illegally farming in the forest, stealing the soil and hunting.
With the fines collected the village has set up a small scholarship fund that will be awarded to promising students who want to pursue higher studies in the cities. Some of the funds will also be allocated to new mothers their babies as medical expenses.