Balkrishna Nathuram Bhomkar,a resident of Bopoli village in Satara district of Maharashtra, co-owns 18 acres of private forest with his family members. The village is part of the northern Western Ghats connecting Koyna Wildlife Sanctuary and Chandoli National Park, both part of the Sahyadri Tiger Reserve.
Bhomkar is not the only one who owns a private forest. There are 60 such owners in the Koyna-Chandoli wildlife corridor situated in the tiger reserve’s buffer zone. Bhomkar has planted fruit trees in his forest, to supplement his income.
With lifestyle changes private forests degraded over time. With support, the villagers are restoring the private forests, by planting native and fruit trees. The eco-restoration efforts would not only help their livelihood but conserve biodiversity as well.
Private forests are known as malki lands in the Western Ghats, a UNESCO biodiversity hotspot. “In many parts of India forests are mostly owned by the government. But here we have both private as well as government forests. In this high rainfall area with a hilly terrain, shifting agriculture used to be the norm some 40 years ago,” said Jayant Kulkarni of Pune-based Wildlife Research and Conservation Society.
“Then the local people started shifting to Pune and Mumbai for jobs. Their lifestyle changed and they discontinued the cultivation of traditional millets like naachni (ragi)and vari(little millet),” Jayant Kulkarni told VillageSquare.in.
As a result of migration, private forests witnessed degradation and many owners started felling trees for timber and firewood. Rohini Chaturvedi, who is on the board of the Global EverGreening Alliance, said that though private forests exist, there is a lack of adequate record of such forests and their status.
Protecting private forests
The Western Ghats is a linear narrow zone which runs from north to south. If protected well, private forests can provide continuity which is vital for biodiversity conservation and maintenance of wildlife corridors. In southern Maharashtra’s Tillari forests, there is a viable wildlife population, including tigers. This has been possible because of private forests, said Kulkarni.
Many owners are not interested in maintaining private forests due to lack of a good livelihood development model, resulting in gradual degradation of such forests and fires at times. But these forests are valuable for their ecosystem services like soil conservation and regulation of river water flow. Thus, eco-restoration of private forests between Chandoli and Koyna became necessary.
“There has been a misconception that owners will not be able to protect and manage the forests. From their perspective, private forests are a bane rather than an asset, because in most cases, they cannot enjoy the resources due to restrictions on selling,” said Rohini Chaturvedi.
In 2012, Wildlife Research and Conservation Society (WRCS) started an awareness drive in this region about the benefits of eco-restoration of private forests through the plantation of native tree species.
As part of the eco-restoration project, plantation is carried out every monsoon with the help of volunteers, local communities and private owners. Every year an area of 30 acres is covered but in 2019, plantation was done on 100 acres.
“Maintenance is carried out for three years. As regular tree plantation is resource-intensive, we have experimented with other techniques like assisted natural regeneration,” said Kulkarni.The project will continue for the next five to 10 years.
“The rate of degradation is faster than the rate of natural revival. That is why we need restoration as nature is unable to cope up with degradation which is happening across the world,” said Venkataraman, founder of Junglescapes, grassroots restoration non-profit organization.
Sunil Kale, who is in charge of the project, said that initially the villagers did not show interest in forest restoration. Some did, after personal interaction, as local support is vital in any eco-restoration project. “Owners who wanted to restore their forests planted trees under our guidance,” said Kale. Jagannath Ramchandra Sapkal of Deoghar village, who owns 12 acres of forests, has been planting trees for five years.
Work is on in 16 villages between Koyna and Chandoli. The total extent is about 8,000 ha, of which private forests make up about 4,000 ha. So far eco-restoration has been carried out on 250 acres. Apart from tree planting, the existing vegetation is being protected by involving women.
In 2015, Bhomkar planted jamun (Java plum), amla (Indian gooseberry), cinnamon, jackfruit, kokum and bamboo in his private forest to supplement the family income. “I keep bees and act as a tourist guide. As this is a scenic spot, many visitors come, especially from Pune,” he said.
Till now 45,000 seedlings have been planted and the survival rate is 80%. To help the villagers, a demonstration site has been set up with jackfruit and amla trees. About 1,000 volunteers have worked on the project and helped in watering, grass cutting and seed collection.
“The area has great scenic beauty and people come for treks. So, home stays are being developed where visitors can enjoy the ambience and consume fresh fruits and vegetables. In the villages lying in the buffer zone we are trying to develop eco-tourism with the help of the forest department’s funds,” Sandeep Kumbhar, the range forest officer of Koyna, told VillageSquare.in.
Amit Ashok Bhonsle, the range forest officer of Helwak range in Chandoli National Park, said eco-restoration in private lands will help maintain dense forest in the entire area. Bhonsle said that the forest department is coordinating with WRCS as there are many private forest lands in the buffer area.
“People did not have adequate livelihood opportunities here. Illegal felling of trees stopped after the tiger reserve came up,” Bhonsle told VillageSquare.in. “But now eco-tourism is giving them many opportunities.”
Apart from the eco-restoration drive, a community program aimed at livelihood generation has been launched, under which local people are being trained in preparing food items and making handicrafts, besides acting as guides on nature trails and treks.
Vishakha Vilas Kadam from Helwak villageabout 3 km from Bopolivillagesaid women have been trained to make snacks, jam and pickles, and the women have formed self-help groups for this purpose. About 70 women are involved in the program. When tourists come the women prepare breakfast and lunch.
Swati Shelar, who lives in Koynanagar, loves painting on bamboo key chains, wall hanging, T-shirts and laptop bags. She is also training a handful of women in her village so that they can earn money through such craftwork.
Sunil Kale, said that from this year organic agriculture is being promoted through the Saguna rice technique on a trial basis because many farmers here cultivate paddy. It is a direct seed sowing method which assures high yields and low labour.
ShambajiChalke owns four acres of private forest but also cultivates organic rice. “Most jobs are found in cities and that is the reason people migrate. But this project can revive forests and create local livelihood opportunities,” he said.
Deepanwita Gita Niyogi is a Delhi-based journalist. Views are personal.