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Protecting Forests, Conserving Seeds: The Story of Jardhargaon

Jaishree Suryanarayan and Ashish Kothari
April 19, 1999

The Setting

Tucked away in a picturesque part of the Himalayan foothills, the village of Jardhargaon has a remarkable story to tell. A story of how a community organised itself to conserve precious forests, achieve equity in irrigation water distribution, and revive agricultural traditions which conserve and develop an amazing range of crop diversity.

Jardhargaon is situated in the district of Tehri Garhwal, Uttar Pradesh, at an altitude of 1500 meters. Access to this village involves a 3 kilometer trek from Upli Nagni, which is the nearest road-head on the Rishikesh-Tehri highway. Cutting across boundaries of administrative blocks, local people refer to this entire region as Hemvalghati, the valley of the river Hemval, which originates from the Surkhanda peak in the Garhwal Himalayas and merges with the Ganges at Shivpuri, about 16 kilometers upstream of Rishikesh.

Jardhargaon is a typical hill village nestling in serene and picturesque surroundings. The higher ridges of the village consist of dense Reserve Forest of oak, apricot and rhododendron trees. The village has about 17 settlements/hamlets situated at quite a distance from each other. Each settlement comprises approximately of 4 to 5 houses, with the exception of the earliest settlement quaintly referred to as Propergaon by the villagers. Cultivation is carried out on terraced fields and in the valley, the latter primarily dedicated to paddy and wheat.

The population of the village is about 3000, up from 1,137 in 1981. The predominant communities are Rajputs and Harijans. As is usual in the ‘money-order’ economy prevalent in the hills, male members of majority of the households are employed in jobs outside the village. The women stay back and cultivate the fields and take care of the elders and children. Given the small landholdings, there do not seem to be any major livelihood possibilities to keep the youths back.

Agriculture and cattle rearing occupy the foremost position in an economy, which is primarily subsistence in nature with the forest being an important source of sustenance. The main resource uses from the forest are collection of fodder, fuelwood, fruits, leaf litter, medicinal plants and wood for wedding and house construction. Quarrying is also done for purposes of house construction, but commercial sale is not allowed. Resin collection from pine trees was also done till a few years back, but is not practiced any longer.

Rebirth of the Forest

A couple of decades ago, the heavy dependence on fuelwood and fodder from the forest, along with other factors, led to indiscriminate felling of trees by the villagers. The resulting erosion of forest cover led to shortages of fuel and fodder, soil erosion, and deterioration of soil fertility. It was in this scenario, that the community initiative to protect the forests was taken in 1980.

The late 1970s and early 1980s were the peak periods of activism of the Chipko movement, the famous Himalayan struggle to protect natural forests against contractors and other forces of destruction. Jardhargaon, too, came under its influence, primarily through the active involvement of one of its residents, Vijay Jardhari. In 1978, Vijayji and two other activists from Hemvalghati, Dhoom Singh Negi and Kunwar Prasoon, had been instrumental in mobilising the people of Badyargarh against commercial felling of trees in the surrounding forests.

On returning to Jardhargaon after working for the Chipko movement, Vijayji along with like-minded individuals in the village, succeeded in mobilising the villagers in protecting their forests. The constitution of the Van Suraksha Samiti (VSS) was the first step in this direction. First and foremost, the VSS imposed a total prohibition on cutting of green wood. It also started regulating the distribution of dead wood to the needy for house construction and firewood, and the quantum of wood sold to people for house building and weddings. It now also ensures that minerals and stones from the village are not sold commercially.

The VSS appoints Van Sewaks (Chowkidars) to ensure compliance with the rules. Violators are fined. The VSS comprises of around 10 members, although the number is not fixed. There is normally a woman member too. The members are chosen by common consensus in a meeting of the gram sabha (village council), which comprises of all the adult members, i.e. above 18 years of age, of the village. The gram sabha normally meets twice a year ? after the Rabi and Kharif crop harvest. All the hamlets are by and large represented in the VSS.

Another institution involved in forest protection is the mahila mangal dal (MMD, or women’s committee), which started functioning around 1987. The members are selected by consensus. The MMD was very active in the beginning. It mobilised women to protest against limestone quarrying in the vicinity of the village and also against sheep grazing by migratory graziers. The MMD was also involved in plantation work in nurseries under the Government of India’s Greening the Himalaya scheme in the 1980s. The MMD is not so active now on a regular basis, though in times of crisis, as when there was a recent threat of mining near the village, it gets activated. Some of the problems faced by the MMD are lack of finances, difficulty in communication due to the terrain, and above all, the burden of housework and agricultural operations on the women.

After almost 18 years of starting the VSS, the results are apparent. What was once a degraded and in parts barren slope, now has several hundred hectares of dense mixed forest. A diversity of Oak (Quercus incana), Burans (Rhododendron arboreum), Horse Chestnut (Aesculus indica), Pine (Pinus roxburghii) and other species are present. In places,especially further away from the village, the forest is as good as any found in a wildlife sanctuary.

Indeed, wildlife has obviously benefited from the protection work. Villagers report that wild boar, deer species, tiger, leopard, and bear have made their re-appearance in the forests. For avid conservationists, the presence of tiger (though undoubtedly not resident) is indeed very encouraging. Visits to the forest by members of the environmental action group Kalpavriksh, which has been involved with the village over several years, have also yielded a long list of bird species. The resurgence of wild animal populations is indeed causing another problem, that of livestock and crop damage, for which the villagers have yet to evolve a coherent strategy.

Grass, Water, and Seeds

Another area of regulation pertains to grass cutting. A section of the Civil Soyam Forest (meant for village use), has been declared by the VSS as `Bandh Van’ and is used as grass-cutting area subject to certain regulations. This area is closed from August to December to allow the grass to regenerate during the monsoons. When it opens in November or December, one member from each family is allowed to cut one head-load of grass per day during specified hours only. Bulk of the grass that is cut during this season is stored for the dry months. During the monsoons i.e. July to October, there is enough grass in the vicinity of the houses for the cattle to graze and women do not have to go deep into the forest for fodder.

These regulations are enforced by the pani panchayat (water council), which functions under the supervision of the gram pradhan (village head). The pani panchayat’s main functions are regulation of supply of water from the river to the fields, equitable distribution of irrigation water, warding off animals from the fields, and regulation of grass cutting. There are 8-10 members who are chosen by consensus. One of the members is chosen as the thekedar, to oversee the entire team. The members are paid in grains, and this payment depends on the size of landholding and the nature of duties performed.

As if these initiatives were not enough, Jardhargaon is leading the way in yet another field: the revival of agro-biodiversity. Recognising that modern techniques of agriculture which the government extension officers were bringing them are only yielding short-term benefits, some of the village farmers have revived traditional practices. Vijayji, for instance, is trying out 150 varieties each of rice and beans, along with other traditional crops like millets, and then spreading back to other farmers those varieties that are particularly useful. He and his other Chipko colleagues named above, along with young people like Raghu Jardhari and Saab Singh, have formed a Beej Bachao Andolan (Save the Seeds Movement). The Andolan has actively pursued the revival of traditional farming methods, such as baranaja, in which about a dozen crop species grown together yield a variety of produce which fulfil a variety of domestic requirements, while maintaining soil fertility.

Continuing Concerns

By no means is Jardhargaon’s a perfect success story. Cohesion in the village organisations is not always there, and conflicts do break out. Hunting is still prevalent, though considerably less so than earlier. Women remain essentially underprivileged, and some conservation oriented decisions may even cause them further hardships. Attempts to sustain the movement, including the Beej Bachao Andolan, through local-level processing of biological resources and subsequent sale, have run into problems of marketing and quality control. With a severe lack of funds, forest guards have sometimes not been paid for long stretches. But these are not hidden issues, they are vibrantly reflected in village-level democracy and conflict-resolution initiatives, and the more progressive elements in the village are trying to tackle them.

One main problem confronting the VSS today is lack of effective enforcement, as there is no way of ensuring that offenders comply with the imposition of fine on them. Perhaps, the violations are not serious enough to undermine the very process of community involvement itself. On the other hand, what this raises is the urgent need to provide some formal authority to the VSS. So far, whatever the village has achieved is through sheer people’s power, and there has been no formal recognition by the government. Indeed, the Forest Department has not even entered the forests for years now. Increasingly, however, it is being realised that with greater integration of the village into larger systems of governance and the market, some legal authority may provide the VSS the means for dealing with troublemakers from both within and outside. But if at all this is opted for, it must be done with utmost caution. The initiative’s main strength has till now has been the moral conviction of the people, that the forest is theirs, it provides them with fodder, fuelwood, water and clean air, and therefore it is their responsibility to conserve it not only for present but also future generations. It would be a tragedy if this sense of responsibility were to be replaced by a sense of fear of reprisal, which is how the government attempts to conserve forests. It would be an equal tragedy if the tolerance that people feel towards wildlife were to be replaced by hostility, which is what has happened in many a national park and sanctuary of India because conservationists have tried to protect wildlife from local people, rather than with them. Perhaps these, along with the importance of empowering village-level institutions, are the greatest lessons we can learn from the remarkable villagers of Jardhargaon.