A community-led vision for India's rural future

Local forest management committee members in India. Photo by: Balipara Foundation

UDALGURI, India — Not long ago, this lush land was nothing more than sand and stone. In the absence of shade trees, Alfred Daimari remembers carrying an umbrella to protect his face from the scorching sun and shielding his dinners from a fierce, dusty wind.

“Now look at it,” Daimari said, gesturing at the thick canopy that hangs over the bench where he’s resting in Udalguri, a district in the Himalayan foothills of northeast India near the Bhutan border.

Daimari and 34 other members of the local forest management committees have been the land’s caretakers for nearly 20 years — but they started with a very different landscape and an entirely different plan. In 2003, the same group was granted government permission to establish a multipurpose farm on the reserve forest area, where they planned to raise cattle and chicken, and grow vegetables. But long-ago floods had devastated the landscape, scattering large boulders across the ground and blanketing it with clay and silt. Farming the land was harder than they expected, and the group of young men — many in their 20s at the time — needed a new idea.

A local forest ranger inspired them to consider planting trees they could use for various agroforestry practices and helped secure government funding for seeds and saplings in 2006. Now, 1.5 million trees later, the group is busy building several guest houses where they can welcome tourists interested in nature walks through 750 hectares of forest.

It’s this variety of community-owned conservation and development that Robin Eastment, who manages rural landscape programs for Balipara Foundation, hopes to see proliferate in the region. The India-based foundation is assisting Daimari’s community forestry association with its ecotourism and other agroforestry plans and seeks to leverage conservation for development throughout the Eastern Himalayas.

The socioeconomic mobility of forest-fringe communities is key to the survival of forests and wildlife. But in agricultural areas plagued with human-wildlife conflict, creating viable solutions such as ecotourism is tricky for the forest’s local guardians and partner organizations involved.

“It was hard to get the support [of other villagers]. They wanted land to be empty. They would say: If you put up a forest, elephants will come,” Daimari said of getting his own neighbors on board with the project. Community members from several of the six nearby villages grazed their cattle on new growth and burned parts of the forest down twice to show their disdain for the idea.

It wasn’t easy for Eastment either, who was assigned by Balipara to Udalguri due to the district’s high rate of human-elephant conflict-related deaths. It might have been elephant habitat conservation that attracted the foundation in the first place, but Eastment quickly changed tact as they developed their “rural futures” methodology, promoting human-centered design for conservation efforts.

“You can say conservation matters because it can help mitigate climate change and protect biodiversity … but what does that actually mean to the people who live in or near the forest?” he said.

The concept of conservation on its own would have drawn few backers among people concerned about losing crops to packs of passing elephants. Instead, conservation conversations must be “10 percent science, 90 percent negotiation,” Eastment explained.

In this case, he lucked out by identifying a group already committed to protecting what they’d worked hard to grow. But in other cases, negotiation might involve bringing in partners to help villages divert fresh river water to their communities, or advising on planting black pepper to climb the trees and mushrooms to grow in their shade to serve as alternate sources of forest income — and as further incentive not to strip vast swathes of land.

Wildlife and the habitat that attracts them can, in turn, entice tourists and provide another revenue stream, and the foundation would eventually like to see a timely compensation program for infrastructure or crops damaged by elephants.

“Ultimately, you want to do this across the [northeast India] landscape,” Eastment said of the model.

It’s a far different approach than India took 30 years ago, when wildlife conservation groups didn’t always get it right, according to famed environmental activist and writer Bittu Sahgal.

“We were not at all focused on tourism, we were just focused on saving tigers, but what a disastrous error we made.”

— Bittu Sahgal, environmental activist and writer

The founding editor of wildlife and ecology magazine Sanctuary Asia has dedicated his career to protecting tigers, which in the ‘80s meant forcibly removing people from tiger habitat for the creation of parks. Now, he’s advocating for turning national park borderland back over to the people and transforming their farms back into forest.

“We were not at all focused on tourism, we were just focused on saving tigers, but what a disastrous error we made,” he said of early tiger conservation work. “We never planned for success, and the result of that was that the tiger numbers went up and the tigers began to spill over outside, and who was paying the price for my success? It was only the communities living on the edge, it was their cattle, their goats and sometimes their children. It was always their crops.”

The combination of tourism demand, high human-wildlife conflict, and failing farms is now the perfect recipe to create a Community Owned Community Operated Conservancy, or COCOON conservancy as Sahgal calls them. The initiative seeks to improve the lives of stressed Indian farmers by rewilding their failed farms back to biodiverse forest status, and helping them find new sources of income, including ecotourism.

Community members can bundle their land — perhaps 100 acres or more — to create a limited liability partnership, and invite established lodges or companies to invest in wildlife viewing areas or guesthouses. The agreement might specify that the company gets their return on investment within 30 years, but the key is that the communities must own the land and the buildings, Sahgal said.

“Ecotourism and sustainability are two of the most abused words that I can imagine,” he added. “If it doesn’t benefit the community, it is not ecotourism. If it doesn’t enhance the biodiversity of the area, it isn’t ecotourism.”

During the early rewilding transition, the Sanctuary Nature Foundation matches what communities were earning from farming, and helps identify other livelihood opportunities or jobs within the new COCOON system. There is a COCOON initiative underway in Nagpur district, adjacent to the Umred-Karhandla Wildlife Sanctuary, which is known for sightings of tiger, wild boar, monkey, and deer. Yet Bittu sees the recipe already in countless other areas around India’s protected parks. And there is growing interest from nearby communities — nearly 50 people turned up to his last meeting asking whether they could pool their farmland to do the same, Saghal said.

“Guys like us created wildlife tourism,” Sahgal said. “I would like to disrupt wildlife tourism in India.”

In the meantime, in Udalguri, community members are putting finishing touches on a new guest house. Soon, they’ll begin building several rustic tree houses for guests who wish to sleep in the forest.

“Ecotourism and sustainability are two of the most abused words that I can imagine. If it doesn’t benefit the community, it is not ecotourism. If it doesn’t enhance the biodiversity of the area, it isn’t ecotourism.”

— Bittu Sahgal, environmental activist and writer

“Sometimes, even we get frustrated and think about cutting down the forest,” Daimari said. But they never do — and they won’t until they’re able to cash in on the government’s promise of 50 percent of the profit for valuable timber after 50 years of growth. Until then, they remain the guardians of their jungle, and hope income from tourism efforts will serve as further proof of its value to others.

“Right now, If we leave for one week, one month, the forest won’t last,” Daimari said.

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.