Odisha’s Tribal Women Stand United to Save Their Forest

Under the green canopy of towering Sal trees, a small white shrine is home to a clutter of baked earth animal idols. Phoolmani, 45, a tribal woman in eastern India’s state of Odisha, worships here every day. In the silence of this forest, which is a primary source of sustenance for Phoolmani, who lives in the Budhikhamari cluster of villages on the edge of Baripada town in Mayurbhanj district, faith meets livelihood options.

For women belonging to local tribes like Santhal, Kolha and Lodha, making Sal leaf plates is one of the key income generating activities. They also collect mahua flowers, mushrooms and other non timber forest products. “This forest belongs to us. It offers us our livelihood. Here, among these trees, we also pray to our gods. They protect us, just as we, in turn, protect the forest by guarding it all day in rotational groups,” states Phoolmani, emphatically.

Phoolmani and her friends keep a strong vigil over these woods. They have organised themselves under the Budhikhamari Joint Forest Protection Committee, a pioneering land rights collaborative intervention that covers 100 villages near the Manchabandha Reserve Forest.

Usually, it’s the women who are the first to perceive any danger to the forest. This January, for instance, when they noticed some unusual felling of trees they decided to investigate. What was revealed left them stunned. The state Forest Department, which is meant to protect the forest, had quietly given permission for the building of an eco-tourism resort there, in clear violation of the 2006 law that empowers the tribal people with forest rights.

The Indian Forest Act, 1927, which is the country’s main forest law, is a colonial one, and since it was enacted to serve the former British rulers’ need for timber, it does not speak of conservation. This is what makes the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, popularly called the Forest Rights Act, a key piece of legislation. The Act secures the rights of forest dwellers to land and other resources.

While the local body elections were taking place, the Forest Department began fencing off the entire forest and also knocked down as many as 1,500 trees in the first phase of construction for the eco-tourism park, reveals Rights and Research Initiative (RRI), an international non-profit group, and its local partner, Vasundhara, which works along with the tribal communities here. The RRI is a global coalition of organisations working to encourage forest land tenure and policy reform as well as the transformation of the forest economy so that business reflects local development agendas and supports local livelihoods.

When the women realised that their control over the 118 hectares of forest land was slowly slipping away, they decided to raise their voice. Lilima, 23, from Gaudadiha village, took the lead in the fight to stop this project. She says, “We cannot allow outsiders to come in our forest. It makes the local women vulnerable.” Sarla Devi Singh, 23, another woman leader from the village, echoes Limila’s concern, “Eco-tourism can make us vulnerable and take away our rights. Our womenfolk can be attacked; our culture can be threatened.”

The duo mobilised a large number of people to lead a protest rally outside the district collector’s office in March this year. “We ensured that the collector gave written instructions to the Divisional Forest Officer of Baripada to stop the project,” says Lilima.

By the end of March the communities living adjacent to the forest managed to halt the eco-tourism project through the political processes defined under the Forest Rights Act. This has been seen as the triumph of the tribal people’s power, especially that of the women. But they are not resting easy.

Ever since the 1992 Earth Summit took place in Rio de Janeiro 20 years ago, the world had set for itself the key objectives of sustainable development, protection of the rights of indigenous peoples and local community management of forests. “But somehow the Forest Department in India is yet to come to the terms with the fact that the right to the forests are now with the local people, especially since the new law,” says Tushar Dash, who leads Vasundhara’s thematic group on Forest Rights Act.

Sudhansu Sekhar Deo has spent many years working directly with communities within the Similipal Biosphere Reserve for the protection of their rights over the natural resources in the biosphere. The reserve lies 15 kilometres outside Baripada and is home to tigers as well as the dreaded Maoist rebels whose power, according to Deo, is derived from the fact that poor people, especially tribal communities, have been at the receiving end of urban greed. He says, “The felling of trees to make the road is in itself an illegal act by the Forest Department which is supposed to be the custodian of the forests and here they got a young man of a tribal family arrested and imprisoned for the protest.”

When Bijay Kumar Panda, Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) of Baripada, was approached with the demand to stop work on the resort, his first reaction was to say that the tribal people were being instigated by a few individuals. When confronted with the facts he went to on to explain why in the first place the Forest Department had tried to fence the area and start an eco-tourism project without the permission of the local ‘gram sabhas’.

For now, the project has been shelved due to the timely action of the women. Panda says, “We protect whoever protects the forest. I was under a deadline to spend the funds meant for the project, but we stopped the work when there was a protest. Now a decision on the eco-tourism project can be taken at a meeting of the Sub-Divisonal Level Committee (SDLC).”

According to Radha Krushna Rout, Sub-Collector of Baripada, the views of the local tribal communities are taken into account when any kind of infrastructural work happens in the area. “If the tribal people approach me I definitely recognise their concerns. I did receive an application on this earlier and had since sent it to the DFO,” he says.

Meanwhile, Baripada’s tribal women are clear: They will stand united in the exercise of their forest rights and any move to encroach on their territory will henceforth be met with strong resistance. Lilima sums up the mood, “We go and pray in our sacred grove – known as ‘jahira’ in tribal language – for the well being of the villages and the forest. We will never allow the destruction of our forest.”

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