Forests in Nayagarh are rich in varieties of tubers, fruits, medicinal plants, bamboo, and Sal trees, but threats of illegal logging and smuggling have haunted the area for decades. However, since the formation of women-led forest protection committees and patrolling contingents, instances of logging and smuggling have drastically decreased, helping to regenerate the forests’ rich biodiversity.
The fact that the Committees’ activities are carried out entirely by women applying traditional knowledge and democratic decision-making processes is what makes this forest conservation system so unique.
When women take over
For the women belonging to the Kondh tribe, each morning begins with a march to a local meeting spot, with sticks in hand to patrol the forest that sustains them and their families. Some of these women have been patrolling and protecting the forests for over 30 years. But it wasn’t always this way.
Members of the Kondh tribe recall a time when only men conducted patrolling duties, and the community was facing a massive depletion in forest cover.
While some of the male members were working hands-in-glove with the loggers and smugglers, others were unable to put up a strong enough defense. The reduction in forest cover resulted in women having to travel farther distances in search of food, wood, and water for their families’ sustenance.
That was when women from across the district stepped up to take over the responsibilities of protecting and patrolling the forests. As observed by some independent forest conservation groups, since the takeover, forest cover has improved remarkably as a direct result of the women’s institutionalized methods of protecting the forests.
The forest protection committees led by women maintain a roster detailing the patrol duties so as to equally divide the workload. Thengapalli, or ‘turn to wield the stick’ is a common practice, where after a woman’s patrol shift is over, she leaves a stick outside the house of the woman next in line.