A Common Right: Defending Communal Forests in India

By Mansa Ram and Foundation for Ecological SecurityonOct. 17, 2016inEnvironment and Ecology

Editorial Comment: The term ‘Community Forests‘ is used in India for such traditionally managed forests.

Kayarakhet Village in Rajasthan, India is one of many communities across the world who have struggled to defend and seucre rights to their common lands.  The reality is that 2.5 billion people depend on land and natural resources that are held, used or managed collectively, with only 1/5 of that land being secured.

Thanks to the support of ILC Member, the Foundation for Ecological Security (FES), communities like Kayarakhet Village are able to fight this injustice and have been able to succeed in restoring and conserving their community lands.

Mansa Ram, one of the village leaders shares the story of how they were able to protect their lands and secure the future of their community.

©Jason Taylor/Source Project

Early morning and wheat crops in one of the agricultural valleys in the district of Udaipur, Rajasthan.

Sumi Bai climbs one of the trees outside her house to feed her goats. Every day people climb and cut these trees to subsidize their animal fodder.
Sumi Bai cuts up the branches of the tree she has just cut as fodder for her goats in Kayarakhet village, Udaipur.

Mansa Ram processes ‘Bheda’ fruit from the forest. These hard green bitter fruit are then dried in the sun then sold at market as a stomach medicine for 15 Rs ($0.22) a kilo. This is just one of many of the resources local people have access to in the forests.

The men from Kayarakhet village have formed a group, who take turns to walk around their 340 hectares of forest land, protecting it from people stealing resources. Every day the ‘Lathi’ (stick) is passed from house to house as the community take their turn. At the front is Mohan Ram. If a trespasser is caught, they are fined for breaking the community laws. The last person caught taking wood was fined 101 Rupee ($1.50).

Mansa Ram harvests some of the bamboo from their protected forest. After a lengthy campaign, the village was finally able to persuade the forest department to let them keep 90% of produce harvested from the area, an increase from their original 50% entitlement.

Early morning and wheat crops in one of the agricultural valley’s in the district of Udaipur, Rajasthan.

Bullocks rest in the early morning sun. These beautiful animals are used for ploughing fields and turning the huge irrigation wheels.

Mansa Ram cleans the freshly cut bamboo. These have not been cut for the market but will be turned into ‘Lathi’ sticks used to patrol their forested area.

Kani Bai and Panri Kumari, Rima Gi are one of the families from the neighboring village of Krach, made up of around 250 houses. Learning from Mansa Ram’s community, they have also begun to protect their 350 hectares of degraded forest.

One of the ‘Lathi’ men with his ‘Lathi’. Thavra Ram takes his turn in patrolling the land to protect it against any further degradation. In addition to having access to forest land he also has 2 hectares of private land and a few livestock.

Mansa Ram weeding in his one hectare gram field close to his house. Most of the family income will come from crops grown on personal land and the sale of goats. The average yearly income for families in this area is around 25,000 Rupees ($370).

In Kayarakhet, women play a significant part in the production of food. A portrait of Champa Bai, Pintu and Shanti in the family wheat plot. Their crops are all organic and the community spend everyday in their fields. The weeds are used as a crop, either to feed the animals or as a green vegetable for cooking.

Pintu in her family wheat field in the village of Kayarakhet, Udaipur.

Mansa Ram and a neighbors’ child, Kishan stand in one of the village wheat fields. Although there is a school in the village, children often spend much of the time during the planting and harvesting season helping their family.

Once a thick forest, the lands in Udaipur have been devastated over the past decades. Most of this area came under the forest department who almost immediately began contracting the forests out to charcoal companies. Within just a couple of decades, the forests had been stripped leaving just a few small trees standing on the hillsides.

One of the many boundary walls that have been built in the area to protect the remaining lands. This has been paid for by the forest department after many years of the community and FES advocating for its protection. 

Mansa Ram 55 and his wife Hansi Bai, stand at the front of their small dwelling in the village of Kayarakhet, Udaipur. Hansi is dressed in her traditional stitched clothes, once made by hand, now made on a machine.

One of Mansa Ram and Hansi Bai’s eight daughters. We were told she was 18 years old. She is married and has a five month old boy. In this culture there are not the same stigma’s attached to having girls. Mansa Ram has an impressive 8 daughters with 7 of them married and with children.

One of the local community process ‘Bheda’ fruit in the village of Kayarakhet, Udaipur. These hard green bitter fruit are then dried in the sun then sold at market as a stomach medicine for 15 Rs ($0.22) a kilo. This is just one of many of the resources local people have access to in the forests.

Even though, what remains of the forest is protected, people who own their own land are able to degrade it at will. This tree has been cut down on private land so the owners can sell the wood to a brick factory.

After a good monsoon the perennial rivers keep feeding the agricultural lands. Because of the topography of the land, industrialised agriculture has not taken off and the water table has managed to be kept stable for the
communities who live and farm here. This is also thanks to the help of a water shed development project run by FES.

Once thick forest, this region was destroyed shortly after India got independence when the lands were handed over to the forest department, who in turn sold most of the trees to charcoal producers in the area. Charcoal
making is now an illegal activity in the area but is still practiced in some parts.

Kaleesh, the five month old son of Reaha who is around 16 years old. They sit by the traditional ‘chulla’ in the family’s open kitchen. This open area is the home… they sleep, eat, work and entertain guests.

Hansi Bai spends much of her time preparing chapatti for the family. With wheat being to local staple, she produces around 60 heavy breads a day, to be eaten with ‘subji’ mixed vegetables.

Mansa ram takes his lunch at his home.

It’s not just food that comes from the forests, it’s everything. All the houses in the village have been constructed with stone, mud and timber that come from the land.

As with most extended families, a child is not alone for long as it is passed from family member to family member. Everyone takes their turn in playing, feeding and washing young children.

One of if not the most important resource to come from the common land is the fodder or dry grasses that grow everywhere. Men and women work collecting these grasses to feed their cattle every day and without it would find it difficult to have livestock. Ramzu and Babli Bai finish cutting the grass and prepare to head home with the fodder.

A village meeting is held to discuss the building of a communal structure. Costs are estimated and people vote on the processes of the project. Because Mansa Ram has a basic education so he has the job of documenting the meetings. As well as this, he is respected by the rest of the community and chairs all the meetings.

Mohan on his rounds of the protected forest area with his ‘Lathi’ stick. He will walk the 340 hectares of land, calling out to let people know he is there. If caught stealing resources, the person will be fined. The last man caught was fined 101 rupees, about $1.50. These fines will vary depending on the law that has been broken.

Water is one resource the community have plenty of. Because there is no industry or industrialised agriculture, the water table is still healthy for now. These systems of irrigation, using bullocks to turn a wheel huge wheel, drawing water from a large well, goes back hundreds of years.

Bhaga Ram stands in front of the family irrigation system. Because there is no industry or industrialised agriculture, the water table is still healthy for now. Also thanks to the help of a water shed development project run by FES. These systems of irrigation, using bullocks to turn a huge wheel, drawing water from a large well, goes back hundreds of years.

First published by International Land Coalition

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Arun singh June 26, 2020 at 2:17 pm

fascinating story looking forward to listen more.

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