Apart from sharing traditional knowledge, the women at these meetings also spread awareness on ownership rights
Once a month, Gondei Pradhan finishes all her household chores and heads to meet other women of the village at a small hut, or kutir, at the edge of the forested area near her village Dengajharai. She is eager to not just share how her family has benefitted from the forest resources, but also to learn from others. “At these meetings, we also discuss how to best protect the forest. Women take turns to stay back at the kutir at night to look out for thieves,” she says.
Such meetings have been taking place for the past seven years, after the tribal village in Nayagarh district, Odisha, set up the first jungle kutir. “This is a centre where women of the village educate other residents, particularly youth, on how to sustainably manage herbs, shrubs and fuelwood,” says Bhagyalakshmi Biswal, a programme officer with Bhubaneswar-based non-profit Vasundhara that works for forest and tribal rights and has helped set up the kutir.
The idea of the centre came up after a meeting of Gram Sabhas in Nayagarh in 2015, wherein older members of tribal communities noted that the younger generations were not involved with the forest. “We wanted to educate children about traditional practices and uses, so that they can protect the forests after us,” says Pramila Pradhan, a resident of Kodalapally village.
After Dengajharai, Tinmauza, Surkhabadi, Kodalapally and Nuagaan villages in the district also set up kutirs in 2016-17. While in Dengajharai, a local politician provided funds for the hut; the other villages built them independently. “We get everything for construction from the forest: bamboo, wood and straw for thatching and mud for plastering,” says Pramila.
Apart from sharing traditional knowledge, the women of the centres have also begun to spread awareness about the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act or the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, to help residents understand how they can claim ownership to the forestland and conserve, manage and regenerate its resources.
After the kutirs were set up, all five villages applied for community rights (to access forest land for grazing and other uses) and community forest resource rights (for sustainable use of products). Tinmauza, Surkhabad and Kodalapally received both titles in November 2021, while Dengajharai and Nuagaan are awaiting news on their claims. “Since the forest is ours, responsibility becomes greater. We constantly discuss how to improve its management as well,” says Pramila, president of the Kodalapally Community Forest Rights Committee.
This was first published in the November 16-30, 2022 print edition of Down To Earth.