“If we don’t save our forests, then our livestock will starve. Where will the rain come from if the trees aren’t large enough to store water?” exclaimed Kapoori, a young woman living in the small village of Bhoanta-Kolyala, Rajasthan. “That’s why we only use dry wood and leaves that have fallen to the ground. We rarely take anything from the tree itself.”
I was amazed by the amount of ecological knowledge that this woman possessed about the forests that surrounded her village. Reflecting on my own education, I realized that I did not understand ecological theory until I took upper-level biology courses in high school. However, here was Kapoori, a woman without a high school education, lecturing me on the concepts of sustainable harvesting and watershed regeneration.
Bhoanta-Kolyala, a small pastoral community set in the Aravalli hills of Rajasthan, has been working together to conserve its surrounding forest cover and water resources for the past twenty years. With the help of the NGO Tarun Bharat Sangh, Bhoanta-Kolyala formed a village governing body, termed a gram sabha, to create rules on how to preserve the village’s natural resources as well as to serve as a forum for village discussions. Through these gram sabha meetings, Bhoanta-Kolyala was one of the first villages in the region to institute a set of laws to preserve its natural resources.
For one, the village has prohibited the cutting of any trees that fall within its jurisdiction; fines ranging from 101 INR to 1500 INR, depending on the frequency and level of lopping, are charged to anyone who is caught chopping down trees. Second, villagers from Bhoanta-Kolyala are only allowed to use and remove dry branches and leaves that have fallen to the ground; they are not permitted to cut any leaves or timber for their daily livelihood needs. Thanks to these restrictions, most people in the village agree that the forests have significantly improved in quality over time. Instead of an almost barren landscape with a sprinkling of trees, Bhoanta-Kolyala has transformed its land into a healthy forest that provides enough dry wood and leaves for all of its citizens’ livelihood requirements. In addition, with help from Tarun Bharat Sangh, Bhoanta-Kolyala has built multiple dams and wells, which provide an abundant supply of water for both household needs and crop irrigation.
However, less than 10 kilometers from Bhoanta-Kolyala is Boriavas, a village that has had a much different story unfold over the past two decades. Until 20 years ago, the forests of Boriavas were similar in quality to the forests of Bhoanta-Kolyala. However, unlike Bhoanta-Kolyala, Boriavas has not established a village wide conservation strategy to protect its water and forest resources. Instead, families harvest whatever they need from the surrounding forests, which usually entails cutting almost every tree down to a stump. As of now, most villagers state that they have enough firewood to sustain their families, however, due to the high degradation of their landscape, the villagers believe that they will fall short of their daily firewood requirements within a few years. In addition, most villagers complain of a severe water shortage that inhibits them from properly irrigating their farmlands.
What caused these two villages to fare so differently over the past twenty years? Both villagers from Bhaonta-Kolyala as well as Boriavas agree that it is a matter of land rights. For the past twenty years, the village of Bhoanta-Kolyala fought hard to retain ownership over the forests that it uses for its livelihoods. Since they own the land, the villagers believe that it is their responsibility to keep the forests healthy; doing so is the only way to secure their livelihoods both now and in the future. Boriavas, however, never felt as if the land that they use for their livelihoods was ever their own; most villagers believe that the land belongs solely to the government. Therefore, the villagers assume that even if they preserve the forests, the government is the only one who will eventually reap the benefits of conservation. Thus, in the minds of the villagers, it is more profitable to extract as much as possible from the surrounding forests than it is to preserve natural resources over time.
Determining the most effective management strategies to curtail deforestation is now more important than ever considering the plight of India’s forest animals, such as the tiger, and the possible negative ramifications of deforestation on climate change. This case study suggests that the best way to preserve forest cover and biodiversity may be to devolve land rights to local, indigenous communities who use the land for their livelihoods. They, more than any other group, directly benefit most from conserving forest stands – with the preservation of biodiversity comes the preservation of their traditional ways of living and a source of livelihood. Therefore, it is time that we start giving village communities more credit for managing their own natural resources and look towards community based conservation to preserve India’s vanishing forest cover and biodiversity in the decades to come.