Meet the forest warriors of Nayagarh

In Kodalpalli village of Odisha, women have carried on a revolution for forest conservation since 1999. Their dedication paid off after the village received community forest resource rights last year under the Forest Rights Act, 2006,  writes Deepanwita Gita Niyogi

Climbing atop the bare rocky surface seemed an impossible feat in the heat of August, which is incidentally the peak monsoon season in India. But rainfall which brings instant relief on a hot day was a distant dream.

Around midday, 10-12 women armed with bamboo sticks, locally called thengapali, started the arduous climb. Some of them inadvertently showed their slipper-clad feet adorned with alta, a red dye usually applied by married women in India.

“All of us climb this hillock to take a look at the dense forest surrounding it. None of us fears falling down and getting hurt,” said Kaushalya Pradhan.

Welcome to Kodalpalli, a tribal village in Ranpur block of Odisha’s Nayagarh district, about two hours’ drive from state capital Bhubaneswar. Here, women have carried on a revolution since the 1990s to protect the forest which provides them sustenance. The fight started seven years before the historic Forest Rights Act, 2006 was passed. The Act allows tribal communities and forest dwellers rights over forest resources.

Guide Susanta Kumar Dalai, who works for non-profit Vasundhara which focuses on the conservation of forest resources for food security of communities, informed that forest in this part of the world has survived due to the prolonged fight put up by these bravehearts.

“The women patrol the forest on a rotational basis. Instead of men, they took up the responsibility of protecting the forest,” Dalai said.

Owning the forest

Reaching the top after a few minutes yielded a view of hills and lush forests. Some of the women started looking for things they wanted to gather like edible mushrooms which is usually savoured during monsoon in rural households. A few also brought over peacock feathers. The women informed that the birds are frequently spotted thanks to their conservation efforts.

In Ranpur block, women’s participation in forest conservation has been on since 1980s. In several villages like Kodalpalli, women have struggled despite odds to emerge victorious.

Their dedication paid off when the villages of Kodalpalli and neighbouring Sinduria received the community forest resource rights (CFRR) in September 2021 over 760.20625 acres. Of this, reserved forest is on 706.67625 acres and gramya jungle (land reserved for village forest) covers 53.53 acres. The CFRR claim was made in 2008, two years after the Forest Rights Act was passed. Under CFRR, a village is given the legal right to manage a forest land which it has been traditionally using for years.

At the village community centre, Kaushalya Pradhan informed that women were drawn into forest management in Kodalpalli in 1999 after the men failed in their duty to protect an important resource.

“The timber mafia was dominant and our forest wouldn’t have survived had we not intervened. Men came from outside and did not show any scruple in felling trees. It led to food and firewood shortage. To take control, a meeting was organised in the village where it was decided to pass the baton to women,” Pradhan said.

The women of Kodalpalli carry out joint protection of the forest along with Sinduria. After a group comes back from their duty by late afternoon, it leaves the bamboo sticks at common points to be picked up by those who would visit the forest next. Many of them belong to the Kondh Adivasi community.

The success story of Kodalpalli is laudable at a time when in several parts of India, rural communities are still struggling for the recognition of rights under the Forest Rights Act.

Praising the women, Vasundhara executive director Giri Rao said there is also another side to the struggle. “Because of forest protection duty, the women feel burdened. They have to cook and clean their houses as men usually avoid household work. Instead of waking up at 5 am, many women are now up by 3- 4 am to finish their daily chores. Usually, they go in the morning and return by 11am and then resume again after a brief rest in the afternoon.”

Rina Pradhan prepares meal for the family and sends over her two sons to school before going to the forest about a kilometre away. Sometimes, she and her friends gather on the hilltop and offer prayer for good rains.

Her companion Pramila Pradhan said the women continued their struggle hoping for a better future. “After receiving the CFRR title, the fear of being prevented from visiting the forest has subsided. Earlier, the forest department staff used to prevent us sometimes.”

Towards a better future

As Kodalpalli has received CFRR, the women are gearing up to prepare a management plan for future. Rules and regulations regarding forest protection are being finalised.

The title will benefit them in many ways. Earlier, cashew collection was controlled by the government-owned Odisha State Cashew Development Corporation Limited. “It did not allow people to participate in the auction. Cashew is a decent livelihood option in an area where mostly paddy is grown in monsoon due to the lack of irrigation facilities,” said Ashok Parida who works for Vasundhara as a district coordinator and is based in Nayagarh.

Parida added that the corporation initially promised the involvement of the women in cashew collection and auction but later went back on its words by taking the entire produce outside. Auction started around 1985. But now the women are in control.

As cashew trees come under the CFRR area, ownership now rests with the people of Kodalpalli. In 2021, the earning from cashew stood at about Rs 2 lakh and this year it has been Rs 1.5 lakh. Sinduria has 2.70 acres of cashew plantation and Kodalpalli 50.83 acres. The corporation has been developing cashew plantations since 1999-2000 in Odisha. In the Khurdha forest division of which Nayagarh is a part, there are 146 plantations spread over 6720 hectares according to Right to Information Odisha.

Besides income from cashew, the women are also planning to do something meaningful with bamboo, besides selling plates made from Siali and Sal leaves for income generation.

As women are sidelined in decision-making processes in India’s rural areas, the battle over forest resources in Kodalpalli is a fine example of female empowerment. In tribal communities, collection of minor forest produce forms a major part of livelihood throughout the year. It is mostly women who enter forested areas to collect mushroom, mahua flowers, leafy greens and Siali leaves. Thus, control over forest is linked to women’s economic and social well-being.

In many villages of Nayagarh, communities themselves came forward to protect forests. The reason was that post-independence, management by the forest department was poor and the rate of deforestation increased. The department restricted people from entering reserved forest areas, fined them and even slapped cases. Thus, communities faced problems in accessing firewood and grazing lands.

Independent researcher Tushar Dash, who works on forest rights, said as many as 60 villages in Nayagarh have received titles under community rights and community forest resource rights or CFRR in short. “In many villages, communities felt an acute scarcity of resources. So, they started forest protection in an organised manner which was somewhat informal in nature. It is remarkable how these women carried on with their struggle, created legal knowledge and took part in forest mapping. Now that they have legal representation and participation, forest governance will only get strengthened.”

The story was covered in collaboration with the International Women’s Media Foundation based in Washington, D.C.