Sulia takes charge

Sulia takes charge Looking at the verdant landscape, you'd agree with the spirited voices chanting, " Brikshyo bina jeevan nahi, brikshyo aamaro jeevan bhai '. Around 100 kinds of trees, shrubs, herbs and climbers thrive here and major species include sal, piashal, asana, bandhana, amla, mahua, kendu and satabari. This has also revived the local streams, and more water is available now.

Magarbandha, in Nayagarh district, Orissa, is the headquarters of the Sulia Paribesh Parishad, a network of 18 villages that spearheads the community forest management initiative in the nearby Sulia reserve and protects 1,416.5 hectares (ha) under the Nayagarh forest division. These community efforts have saved forests in this region from virtual extinction.

A long struggle Looking at the situation now, it's hard to believe how starkly different it all was just 15 years ago. Forests here were totally denuded. With streams drying up and the soil turning sterile, agricultural productivity in the region had also come down. Consumption patterns changed as food became scarce. There was a severe fuelwood crisis. The tribal people, used to surviving on forest produce like sal and mahua leaves, harida and amla, besides fuelwood, could no longer make a living from their forests.

With all avenues drying up, the villagers living in the villages near the Sulia forests held a Gram Sabha meeting to discuss the crisis. Out of this, in 1990, was born the Sulia Paribesh Parishad, inspired by another forest movement within their district, the Brukshya O Jeevar Bandhu Parishad. The Brukshya parishad began in the nearby Kesharpur village, grew to have its headquarters in Kashipur (a district that has seen strong resistance to mining in forest areas) and saved 35,000 ha of degraded forests.

Interestingly, the parishad members themselves, in A Story Untold, Sulia Paribesh Parishad, have documented the entire process of how the Sulia Paribesh Parishad transformed and brought the forests back to life. They had one clear objective: to protect forests at any cost.

But to achieve this meant taking difficult, collectively acceptable decisions. Grazing was completely banned, so villagers had to sell their cattle, a crucial source of income. By and by, some amount of bamboo and twig picking, one-time fuelwood collecting and restricted grazing were allowed. To prevent outsiders from exploiting the forests, the villagers used thengapalli, a traditional system where one family at a time was assigned patrolling duty, and wielded the symbolic thenga (stick).

Managing forest resources Magarbandha's livelihood is also closely linked to its local ecology. "We have wood for agricultural instruments. Renewed water and improved soil, thanks to leaf litter, has also improved our crops,' says Vikhyakari Lanka, a local farmer. The villagers of all the 18 parishad villages are now able to harvest bamboo, fuelwood and wood for medha (platform to stack paddy) once more.

Once the forest returned, the parishad put a system in place to manage its resources. Forest produce could be extracted only with permission from the parishad committee, which also decided the quantity, fees, area and day of collection and kept a tally of the process.