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Green Warriors: Conserving local biodiversity through community conservation initiatives in Orissa

Traditional systems of resource management have conservation values and principles ingrained within them that officially recognized or managed areas often lack. Community conservation initiatives at the mouth of the Devi river in Orissa clearly illustrate this. Rather than imposing alternate models on the local communities and undermining their conservation efforts, it is critical to understand the values of these initiatives and provide locally appropriate legal recognition and support.

Mangrove forest regenerated by the conservation efforts of the local communities.

Mangrove forest regenerated by the conservation efforts of the local communities.

Devi river, located about 60 kilometers from Bhubaneswar, the capital city of Orissa, has great ecological, historical, and economic significance. The Devi river mouth is one of the three mass nesting sites of the Olive Ridley turtle in Orissa. It also provides habitat to many species of residential and migratory birds. The surrounding forest area is also home to many wild animals such as chital, hyena, and jackal. This rich diversity in flora and fauna adds immeasurable value to local communities’ livelihoods and well-being.

Around 15000 traditional fisher-folk from 36 fishing villages are directly dependent on the river mouth for their daily livelihoods. On average, a traditional fisher-folk can earn around 10000- 12000 Indian Rupees per month from the fishing activities. Floods in 2003 and 2009 in the Kadua and Devi rivers have seriously affected several hundreds of acres of crop in Gundalba and other neighbouring villages. Fisher-folks and other farmers have not received any compensation for their losses and many of their lands still lie inundated with water. Those who do not practice fishing or agriculture, work as migrant wage labourers, often outside the state.

Exemplifying the type of conflict that arises between Government conservation priorities and community livelihoods in this area, during the six-month turtle breeding season from November 1-May 31, the Orissa State Government imposes a ban on fishing. Out of 240 fishing days in a year, the restriction of these 180 fishing days for turtle conservation greatly affects the traditional fisherfolks, who have no alternative sources of livelihoods during this period. The total amount of loss incurred by the marginalized communities in each year is around 403.7 million rupees.

Apart from being a mass nesting site for Olive Ridley turtles, the area has a good mangrove forest cover. The many species of mangrove vegetation play a vital role in the coastal ecosystem, including in the mitigation of coastal erosion, as nurseries for variety of fish and prawns, and as natural barriers to tidal and storm surges associated with tropical cyclones, which cause considerable damage to the ecosystem and communities’ livelihoods. Good mangrove cover thus increases the resilience of the surrounding and constituent social and ecological systems.

In 1985, mangrove cover in the Devi estuary was 2.58 square kilometers (km2) which was reduced to less than 2 km2 by one cyclone in 1997. A super cyclone in 1999 hardly left any trace of mangroves or coastal casuarinas in the area, leading to high soil salinity (up to 15 parts per million) and reduced agricultural productivity. Villagers who were previously not very conscious of the need to protect the surrounding forests were driven to do so in order to prevent high salinity, minimize the intensity of future natural disasters, and ensure the ability to meet their daily livelihood requirements.

Women’s committees for ecosystem conservation

Overview of Community Conservation Initiatives (CCIs).

CCIs play a crucial role in the conservation of vital ecosystems, critical wildlife habitats, and threatened species. Many function as wildlife corridors and establish biological linkages between official State protected areas. Some are responsible for the maintenance of essential ecological services such as soil conservation, water security, and conservation of traditional crop varieties. They integrate links between traditional agricultural systems and forest ecosystems, thereby conserving at the landscape level. Some CCIs are crucial aspects of local economies; thousands of people depend upon them for survival and social and cultural values and uses. CCIs can be seen as community-based models of development built on local ecological knowledge systems that integrate traditional knowledge with current advancements in conservation science.

In the face of these multiple challenges, women’s groups from these seven villages have driven successful initiatives to conserve the forest and coastal biodiversity. This social revolution started in 2000, with many of the women coming forward and resolving to conserve the adjoining forest areas and other natural resources, including casuarina forest.

Today, the positive impacts of the CCIs on the protection and conservation of the rich biodiversity of the area are quite evident. For example, the women of each village have formed Community Forest Protection Groups or Committees and have adopted the practice of thengapalli or regular patrolling to protect the nearby Astarange Forest. They have successfully protected and regenerated around 15 km2 of casuarina forest, which also help provide a barrier against the saline wind and sand particles that enter the village from the beach.

The women of the village of Gundalba have pioneered CCIs in the area by forming the Pir Jahania Jungle Surakhya (Pir Jahania Forest Protection) Women’s Committee in 2000. The village has 60 households and one woman from each household is part of the Pir Jahania Women’s Committee. With this strong foundation of 60 members, the Committee adopted the practice of rotational patrolling of two to four women at a time to protect the forest within their traditionally identified boundary. The extent of the forest boundary has been demarcated mutually between the villages and the boundaries are identified by physical landmarks.

At their monthly meetings, the Committee formulated and passed resolutions for a set of regulations for the management of the forest. With the meetings presided over by the President or Secretary of the Women’s Committee and attended by the local forest officers as special invitees, the resolutions were passed only when the decision was accepted by two-thirds of the Committee members.

Once a resolution is passed, it is then shared with the rest of the villagers in a palli sabha (village meeting). For example, the Women’s Committee has fixed one day each month during which all 60 households in the village are allowed to collect fuel wood from the forest. Similarly, a different day (usually after three or four days after the villagers of Gundalba have collected) has been fixed when the neighbouring villages dependent on the same patch of forest resources can collect fuel wood from the forest.

There is no conflict between these villages over the shared resources, as the boundaries and forest protection rules and regulations have been defined by mutual agreement of all seven neighbouring villages, many of which also have women’s committees. Those from outside Gundalba have been given this privilege on the premise that they refrain from cutting or chopping any trees, which they used to do prior to the women-initiated forest protection system. During the remaining days in the month, the Women’s Committee patrols the forest and nobody is allowed to collect additional firewood.

The regulations established by the Committee are strictly adhered to and respected by the villagers. The Committee has also fixed different levels of fines, as a sort of localized compliance mechanism. For example, if a member of the Committee does not fulfill her patrolling duty, then she must pay a fine of 50 Rupees. If anyone is found to be chopping trees or collecting firewood on any day other than the fixed one, the guilty party faces a fine of 200 Rupees. For minor offences, the defaulters are given a strict warning to not to repeat the act.

Green Warriors: standing tall against all odds.
Green Warriors: standing tall against all odds.

The strong commitment of the community members has yielded rapid and positive ecological results. Since the widespread destruction in 1999 spurred their initiatives, newly regenerated mangrove vegetation and the forest cover (especially of mangroves) has gone up 63% from 2.58 km2 in 1985 to 4.21 km2 in 2004, even after the super cyclone decimated nearly all mangrove cover. This is due to natural regeneration within newly formed mudflats and the concerted efforts of the local communities to restore the forest.

The mangrove vegetation has attracted a lot of residential and migratory birds, which are also a tourist attraction. Furthermore, the mangrove forest serves as a coastal buffer against natural disasters. Buoyed by these results, the Women’s Committee plans to expand the mangrove cover in their area even further.

In addition to the effects of this well-organized social institution on the regeneration of the forest, the initiatives of the Women’s Committee have also influenced the local youth and children of their village and adjoining villages. The local youth have formed groups to help protect the Olive Ridley turtles (a Scheduled I species under the 1972 Wildlife Protection Act13) during their breeding season. The Women’s Committee has constructed an interpretation and learning centre and aims to earn some income through regulated tourism during the breeding season.

The youth are also engaged in maintaining an eco-friendly ambience for the tourists and suitable habitat for the local wildlife by collecting garbage and segregating the degradable and non-degradable waste. The degradable waste is converted into organic manure and used in the agricultural fields. But due to lack of technical knowledge and support, the non-degradable waste is left as such. The villagers not only protect the turtles during the breeding season, but also have special fishing norms during the mating and nesting times to avoid contributing to sea turtles’ already high mortality rates.

The youth groups and Women’s Committee, in addition to elders and others from the community, have recently started thinking beyond environmental protection and have plans for the sustainable development of their village and conservation of the whole coastal ecosystem. They have come together to develop a People’s Biodiversity Register of their area and have started devising their own community management plans. All of the above mentioned activities demonstrates the social resilience of the villagers around the mouth of the Devi river and the mobilizing effect that CCIs can have within and among villages towards collective aims of biodiversity conservation.

Challenges

Lack of legal security threatens to undermine community conservation initiatives. After years of concerted efforts in regenerating the mangroves and casuarinas, the communities now feel betrayed when the Forest Department claims it as Government property and restricts the communities’ mobility and access to the resources.

In July, 2010, the Forest Department leased part of the area to the Orissa Forest Development Corporation to fell casuarinas trees. The women’s groups who have been protecting the forest vehemently opposed this, snatching the axes away and embracing the trees to prevent the Forest Department from chopping the trees that they considered priceless for their livelihoods, as well as a strong protection barrier against natural hazards. In spite of fierce opposition from the villagers, the tree-felling operation has gone ahead. This is occurring at a time when the coast is most vulnerable to cyclones and other natural disasters (July-August) and only 8-10 lines of casuarinas plantation is left; the communities feel that this will no longer protect their villages from the saline ingress or cyclonic storms. The villagers also doubt that this plantation would survive strong winds or cyclonic storms, as they would be uprooted without a protective barrier in front of them.

Furthermore, the Forest Department has undertaken a plantation on around 20 acres of land within 50 metres of the coast of the village of Daluakani. This area is the mass nesting site of Olive Ridley turtles, which travel around 200 metres inland to lay their eggs. The overlap of these plantations with the nesting sites will undoubtedly cause destruction for the turtles, which, as a Schedule I species, are afforded the highest legal protection.

Frustrated with the actions of the Forest Department, these communities are now demanding legal recognition of their selfdriven conservation initiatives. They have started applying for community rights under the Forest Rights Act over the forestland and the forest resources over, which they have depended on for generations. They are also demanding recognition of their rights to “protect, conserve and manage their own community forest resources which they have been traditionally doing. They firmly believe that such recognition would enable them to better manage and conserve the coastal resources and ecosystem.

In addition, there is no law or policy in India that recognizes the customary rights of traditional fisher-folks and other coastal communities that depend upon the coastal land and water for their livelihoods and well-being.

Need for appropriate recognition and support

The conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity requires full and effective participation of local communities whose livelihoods depend directly on these resources in decision-making and governance processes. The above example of the initiatives of the Women’s Committee near the Devi river mouth illustrates the need for appropriate legal recognition and support of CCIs.

A separate (but mutually reinforcing) Act that explicitly recognizes the CCIs of traditional fisher-folks and coastal communities would grant them the right to continue their livelihoods that contribute to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. This would also assist India in fulfilling its obligations under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, particularly Articles 8(j) and 10(c), which call on Parties to protect and support indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ traditional knowledge and customary ways of life.

To implement such an Act, village councils (Gram Sabhas) should be given the authority to develop, implement, monitor, and evaluate their own coastal management plans, and the local authorities (Panchayats) should be given the power to take punitive action against activities deemed illegal by federal and state law and by the local management plan. Also it is important that the communities are provided the required technical and financial support for conservation activities as well as promotion of sustainable livelihood options. This calls for a holistic approach to development by making it a people-centric development.

This is an edited version of the original article “Green Warriors: Conserving Local Biodiversity through Community Conservation Initiatives in Orissa, India” published in Policy Matters, 17, 2010

Sweta Mishra

Team Leader, Technical Support Unit Department of Sports and Youth Services Government of Odisha
C-1 Nayapalli, Bhubaneswar
Email: swetamishra1@gmail.com