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Kama Pradhan, a 35-year-old indigenous woman, with her eyes fixed on the screen of a portable GPS device, moves rapidly through the trees. Ahead of her, a group of men rush to clear the pillar bushes scattered throughout this dense jungle in the Nayagarh district of eastern Odisha state.
Heavy stone markers, laid out by British forces 150 years ago, mark the outer perimeter of an area that the colonial administration determined to be a state-owned forest reserve, ignoring at the time the presence of millions of forest dwellers, who had lived off the land for centuries.
Pradhan is a member of the Gunduribadi tribal village, made up of 27 households in total, and works with the other residents to draw the boundaries of this 200-hectare forest that the community claims as their ancestral land.
It will take the group days to scour the mountainous terrain using government maps and their rudimentary GPS systems to find all of the markers and determine the exact extent of the forested area. But Pradhan is determined to do it.
"No one can steal a single meter from our mother, the jungle. She gave us our lives and we give our lives for her," the woman told IPS, her voice trembling with emotion.
At the forefront of this movement are tribal communities in states like Odisha, determined to use the A2012 amendment to the Forest Rights Act to claim title to their land.
One of the provisions of the law that restores more power to forest dwellers and tribal communities gave them the right to own, manage and sell non-timber forest products, on which some 100 million landless people depend for their harvest. their income, medicine and housing.
Women became the natural leaders carrying out the law enforcement efforts as they have been the traditional stewards of the forests, sustainably supplying the landless poor with food, fuel and fodder, as well as through harvesting. of materials to fence their gardens, and obtain medicinal plants and wood to build their houses with thatched roofs.
Under the leadership of women like Pradhan, 850 villages in the Nayagarh district collectively manage 100,000 hectares of jungle land, and consequently 53 percent of the area's land mass is now covered by forest.
That's more than double the national average for all of India, which is limited to 21 percent forest cover.
In all, 15,000 villages, mainly in the eastern states, protect some two million hectares of forest.
When life depends on the land
The latest Forest Survey of India found that the country's forest cover increased 5,871 square kilometers between 2010 and 2012, bringing the total to 697,898 square kilometers, or approximately 69 million hectares.
Yet research indicates that every day an average of 135 hectares of forest land is turned over to development projects, such as mining and power generation.
Odisha tribal communities are no strangers to large-scale development projects that take advantage of the land.
Forty years of illegal logging in the state's forest belt, along with the commercial sale of teak, sala (Shorea robusta) and bamboo, rendered the hills barren.
Streams that once irrigated small patches of farmland began to dry up, while sources of groundwater gradually disappeared. Between 1965 and 2004, Odisha experienced recurring and chronic droughts, including three consecutive dry spells between 1965 and 1967.
Villages became depopulated, as nearly 50 percent of the population fled in search of alternatives.
“Those of us who stayed had to sell our families' bronze utensils in exchange for cash to buy rice. The scarcity of wood was such that sometimes the dead had to wait while we went from house to house asking for logs for the funeral pyre, ”recalls Arjun Pradhan, 70, head of Gunduribadi village, in dialogue.
When the crisis worsened, Kesarpur, a municipal council in Nayagarh, devised a campaign that now serves as a model for community forestry in Odisha.
The council assigned rights to each family, according to their needs, to collect firewood, fodder or edible products. Anyone wishing to cut down a tree for a funeral pyre or make repairs to their home had to ask for special permission. Also, axes were forbidden in the forest.
Villagers took turns patrolling the jungle using the “thengapali” system, which literally translates to “rotation of the stick”. Each night, representatives of four families made their rounds with carved sticks. At the end of their shift, the guards would leave their sticks by their neighbors' doors, signaling the changing of the guard.
The council imposed strict but logical sanctions on those who violated the rules. Those caught stealing had to pay a fine corresponding to the theft. Failure to report to patrol resulted in an additional night on duty.
As the jungle slowly regenerated, the villagers made additional sacrifices. All the goats, the sale of which meant easy money in difficult times, were sold and banned for 10 years to protect new shoots in the forest. Instead of cooking twice a day, families cook both meals over a single fire to save wood.
From deforestation to reforestation
Some 20 years after this pilot project was implemented, a stream runs through the outskirts of Gunduribadi and allows the irrigation of small gardens grown with lentils and vegetables ready for harvest.
Under the shade of a tree, clean water gushes from a depth of 120 centimeters into a newly dug well. Older women carry buckets of water with ease.
Manas Pradhan, who heads the local forest protection committee, explains that the rains deposit jungle humus on the 28 hectares of farmland managed by the 27 families. That resulted in soil so rich that a single hectare produces 6,500 kilograms of rice without chemical reinforcements, equivalent to three times the normal yield of farms around forests that do not receive the same protection, he said.
“When the potato was scarce and sold at the unaffordable price of 40 rupees (65 cents) per kilo, we replaced it with pichuli, a sweet tuber abundantly available in the jungle,” explained Janha Pradhan, a landless indigenous woman. pointing to a small pile of the produce he harvested during his patrol the night before.
"We made good money selling some in town when potato prices went up a few months ago," he added.
In a state where income averages $ 40 a month, and hunger and malnutrition affect 32 percent of the population, with half of the children underweight, this community represents an oasis of health in a desert of poverty.