Secure Land Rights for Forest Health and Secured Incomes

Baimaha is one of the villages of Kandhamal district in Odisha where CARE India is implementing the Pathways project. The village comprises of 18 households, all belonging to Scheduled Tribes community, with a total population of 89 persons (44 males; 45 females).

The community in Baimaha, especially the women, express their joy and feeling of empowerment when one mentions their forests. This was not so, till not very long ago. For the tribals of Baimaha, the forest adjacent to their village has been the primary source of sustenance, in the form of fuelwood for kitchen-hearths and a variety of Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) for food and sale. However, over the years, their access to forest resources has been dwindling in the absence of ownership right over a resource that the tribals owed their lives to, and hence considered rightfully theirs.

When the Forest Rights Act 2006 was implemented in the State in 2008, the community saw an opportunity to lay their claim on their forest. They submitted a claim as per laid down procedures, and were conferred Community Forest Resource (CFR) rights in 2013. When CFR Facilitators initiated interaction with the community on Resource Management Planning, it came to their notice that a CFR hand-map already existed for the forest area but the community did not have information on the same. During the map validation process initiated under Pathways, the community came to a conclusion that the existing map is not correct in terms of both boundary and extent.

Women in Baimaha were a particularly concerned lot, because this meant denial of their traditional rights and access to resource over which they have been dependent for sustenance and livelihood for years. Among the forest products collected, the major ones are firewood, berries, myrobalans, tamarind, mahua seed, herbs and; mango kernel and different types of leafy vegetables, which contribute significantly to their food basket during lean period. Around 20-25% of household income comes from forest, particularly from NTFPs like mahua flower and seed, kendu fruits, sal seed and leaves, and edible mushrooms. This income is largely contributed and controlled by women, and is invested in purchasing food items for the household, and in the education of their children which is a priority for most women.

The women say they also get the freedom to use their income to buy clothes and other accessories for themselves, something they will not be able to if they had to rely on income brought in by the male members of their households. There are also other concerns associated with insecure forest access. With forest area diminishing, there has reportedly been a reduction in availability of forest products. In case of their forest being an open access resource, women feared that their NTFP resource base would be further eroded, and they would need to travel longer distances for collection. This would lead to extra hours of work and drudgery, and reduced incomes of women who are primarily responsible for collection of forest products to supplement household food and income requirements.

Baimaha was not alone in facing this threat; of the 52 villages in the district where CARE India undertook the process of validation, forest-dependent and tribal communities in 19 villages faced a similar threat and felt a need for CFR area revalidation. This was revealed when CARE India initiated a series of interventions focusing on CFR map validation process in other villages of Kandhamal. This process started with a village level community meeting including members of the local Forest Rights Committee (FRC) to discuss the CFR map as approved, and a discussion on their concerns. Wherever the community raised concerns and suggested alterations of the map boundaries and area to reflect ground realities, the FRC and other community members supported in validating the map to arrive at a revised hand-drawn CFR map.

The FRC members used the GPS device provided by the Integrated Tribal Development Agency (ITDA) to CARE India for this purpose. The role of women in the revalidation exercise was crucial. Covering the forest area on foot, almost on a daily basis, for collecting fuelwood and NTFPs, women have an intimate knowledge about the traditionally used boundaries. Thus, women joined men in the mapping process and helped in demarcation of their CFR boundary. The local CFR facilitator helped women and FRC members to undertake forest boundary demarcation through GPS machine. The next step is to prepare a digital CFR map, which would be submitted to the Gram Sabha for approval, and then forwarded to the Sub Division Level Committee (SDLC). In this process too, the local CFR facilitator would play a major role.

Having undertaken the CFR map revalidation process and re-demarcation of community forest resource area boundary, the community, particularly women, in Baimaha have become motivated to protect and maintain their forest resources, and with CARE India’s support, have also initiated the preparation of a Community Forest Resource Management Plan to ensure non-destructive harvest and sustainable management of forest resources from the CFR area. As the first step, they have already prepared an inventory of NTFPs that they collect from the forest, as this will allow them to organize forest protection efforts at the local level in return for harvesting and marketing rights of these NTFPs.

The women of Baimaha are happy and optimistic, and say “… this (revalidation) is a big achievement for our village. We are delighted that we could now claim our forest belongs to us. It’s a great feeling!”

– Contributed by India’s Pathways Team, originally posed here