In Eye of the Forest: Conserving Biodiversity, Building Sustainable Futures

Members of the women’s SHG look on as Sushila Behn sews together mahul leaves in Bari Umrao village, Chhattisgarh
Members of the women’s SHG look on as Sushila Behn sews together mahul leaves in Bari Umrao village, Chhattisgarh

Recognizing the close communion between communities and natural resources, UNDP is supporting several initiatives in Chhattisgarh to help communities conserve traditional knowledge, build awareness on conservation-friendly gathering practices and help people, particularly women access the market to sell their produce.

The erosion of India’s biodiversity and natural resources is threatening the livelihoods of millions typically dependant on the forest. Recognising the close communion between communities and natural resources, the United Nations Development Programme is supporting several initiatives in the state of Chhattisgarh to help communities conserve traditional knowledge, build awareness on conservation-friendly gathering practices and help people, particularly women access the market to sell produce. In doing so, it aims to demonstrate a model of community based natural resource management that supports a sustainable forest ecosystem for all.

Highlights

  • Aim is to conserve natural resources by involving communities, helping them to build on traditional knowledge, promoting sustainable use of natural resources, and improving market access for their products
  • Self-help groups help women build a sustainable livelihood from forest produce
  • Hundreds of villagers and members of Joint Forest Management Committees have been trained
  • Project underway in 4 states across India

“When I am in the jungle I am at peace and feel at home,” says Manyano, a 62-year-old resident of Badhbhad village in the Katghora forest reserve in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh. Like most of the residents in the 24,036 kilometre square of protected forests her sentiments reflect the close relationship that people share with the forests.

Since as far back as she can remember she has walked the woods collecting non timber forest products (NTFPs) to support her family. Manyano belongs to one of the most marginalised Scheduled Tribes communities who make up for the majority of the 320 million people in India who live on less than a dollar a day.

The communion between communities and natural resources is evident in the entire state of Chhattisgarh. Forty four percent of the geographical area of the state is covered by forests that provide sustenance to one-third of the population -- tribes who traditionally lag behind in most development indicators in the country.

But overexploitation of forests is fast depleting the natural resources and threatening livelihoods. Working with the government and partners, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in India is endeavouring to conserve natural resources by involving communities, helping them to build on traditional knowledge, promoting sustainable use of natural resources, and improving market access for their products.

The Katghora forest reserve is one of the locations for the project --Biodiversity Conservation through Community-Based Natural Resource Management-- that is ongoing in four states of India. The project aims at improved natural resource management by promoting sustainable livelihood practices.

To help women like Manyano build a sustainable livelihood from forest produce, the project has facilitated the creation of several self-help groups. Seven SHGs of women in Bhadbad, Haathibadi, Kathgora Pahadgaon and Sapalva, help women collectively benefit from NTFP collection such as mohul leaves and mahua flowers. Each group comprises between 12 – 15 women who pool together about Rs.20 or about 43 cents every month.

Several SHGs have started processing produce to add value and ensure higher incomes for the groups. In Bhadbad, Sushila bhai stitches together as much as 200-300 leaves daily in her house using a sewing machine provided by the project. The stitched leaves are then sold to another SHG in Kathgora which processes the produce for sale in the market. They are able to mould 20-50mahulleaf plates and bowls a day. These eco-friendly plates and bowls find their way to religious ceremonies and social events across the state and to various parts of the country. Members of these SHGs have also benefited by increased and more stable incomes that have helped tide over difficult times.

Awareness on conservation friendly practices is a critical component of efforts to support community based natural resource management. As B.P. Singh, an official in the forest department, points out: “While the forest needs to be protected against fire, grazing, and over exploitation, of equal importance is to build awareness so that the traditional knowledge can be harnessed.”Chadh Devi, an SHG member who participated in a training session focused on strengthening traditional NTFP collection practices to ensure they are conservation-friendly, says: “I never gave a second thought to how I collected forest products. But at the training session I learnt that if I lit a fire on the ground to clear the area for flowers to fall, I was only destroying my future income if the fire spread to the nearby mahul plant.” Members of the SHGs have been spreading the word across villages in the area and in many cases, have been instrumental in efforts to protect their environment. Also trained, as part of the project, are hundreds of villagers, members of Joint Forest Management Committees set up to protect the forests.

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