Between 1880 and 2013 India has reportedly lost 40 percent of its forest cover. Now folks in the government have reported an actual increase in forest cover between 2013 and 2015, which is the kind of General Knowledge and Whatsapp Forward item that you actually want to hear on a Monday morning, so happy a factoid that you don’t want to inspect it carefully. Because what if all that glimmers green is not a forest? But if at all our forests have been preserved in a way, it’s often because of the tireless and fearless efforts of Adivasi communities, especially women.
Like this group of women from Muturkham of Purbi Singhbhum, Jharkhand, who’ve spent the last two decades protecting their local Sal Forest from the forest mafia, reports Malayala Manorama. Since 1998, Jamuna Kundu (superbly, she’s known locally as ‘Lady Tarzan’) has been leading efforts to in the area preserve the local forests from deforestation and the mafia by getting women residents involved in forest protection efforts.
She was always enamoured by trees and the forest, and rightly saw them as her community’s primary source of sustenance, and also their birthright, and felt a reflexive anger when she understood what was happening to it. When she started trying to mobilise locals to help save the forests, she says found it difficult to convince other women in the village to join her group, as they were wary of fighting the men from nearby areas. She told IANS that she found it particularly hard to understand how they could feel ambivalent, since the mafia was clearly draining away their most precious resource just to spend it all on liquor. She eventually managed to convince a few women to join her.
Her Van Suraksha Samiti (Forest Protection Group) now comprises of 60 women, and some men, who patrol the local forests in groups three times a day, armed with sticks, bows and arrows, spears and a dog. They don’t take on any help from the authorities because they feel certain most of them have been paid off by the mafia. The women have managed to successfully conserve fifty hectares of forest land deep in an area that sees frequent clashes between the government and Naxal groups. The women have been attacked by the mafia in retaliation before: they’ve had stones pelted at them, and Jamuna and her husband have had to flee their residence at night on being chased by a mob.
Of course, women have historically always been at the forefront of forest conservation measures in India, and seems to have a particularly deep emotional connection with their local forests. Just last year, we were reading about the women of Ghunduribadi, Odisha, who made headlines when it became known that they were patrolling their local forests and hills every dawn, “clad in colourful sarees and armed with sticks and machetes”, to protect it from illegal intruders and woodcutters. They were also pushing for ownership of parts of the local forest under the 2006 Forest Rights Act (FRA) law, which “recognises forest-dwellers’ rights over their traditional lands and resources”, saying that the forest is like an ‘old friend’ to them.