What we can learn from the women in Odisha about sustainability and our collective strength
In the isolation of our urban lives, we often forget about the power of collective action, and of the ability of a collective to make tangible changes.
The communities from Nayagarh in Odisha, who have together set forth a roadmap for sustainable foresting in the region, act as a lesson to all of us who believe that change is impossible without involving Big Government and Policies. And what is even more inspiring is that a lot of this change has been led by tribal women from the region. Unfortunately, this is the kind of good news that doesn’t make it to an increasingly Delhi and Mumbai-centric media (ask them what Bollywood tweeted about Salman Khan’s bail instead)
As a recent article in Global Issues reports:
“Unfolding out of sight and out of mind of India’s policy-making nucleus in the capital, New Delhi, this quiet drama – involving the 275 million people who reside in or on the fringes of the country’s bountiful forests – could be the defining struggle of the century.”
But first a background. The last couple of decades have not been kind to the communities in Odisha who rely on forest-based activities for their livelihood. They’ve lost land to mining and power generation projects, lost forest cover to commercial and illegal logging, and suffered from one successive drought after another. What’s worse is that they’ve also lost their sons and daughters with 50% of villagers escaping to the city for a livelihood.
But things began to change when the community of Kesarpur designed a template towards sustainability.
The council allocated need-based rights towards the wood in the forest and prohibited the carrying of axes into the forest. By establishing a collective responsibility over a shared resource (the timber and the forest cover), that they all depended upon, they made every local more involved in the protection of their forest land.
Today-interestingly-women are at the forefront of a movement to reclaim their forest land- and hence their source of livelihood in the region.
Here’s how they are changing things:
- By Challenging Traditional Gender Roles: In Lunisahi, in Nayagarh district, women had an interesting story to tell. The village of about 90 families has been guarding the forest since 1970; the local Forest Protection Committee (FPC) was largely managed by men. About seven years ago, they fell prey to petty squabbles and infighting. After witnessing this for months, the women got together and formed a women-only FPC. They issued the men a notice, giving them 10 days after which entry to the forest would be banned for everyone without prior permission of the FPC. By taking over the protection of the forests themselves, they forced the men to become more cognizant of the issues at hand too!
- By Handling Law And Order: Instead of relying on Governmental support, Villagers are taking turns to patrol the forest using the ‘thengapali’ system, literally translated as ‘stick rotation. Each night, representatives from four families carry stout, carved sticks into the forest. In fact,they’ve even been successful in challenging the police in regions where they are in cahoots with the timber mafia! In one village– Gunduribadi- they have been successful in holding the rights to the cashews they produced for the welfare of the community instead of selling it to industrialists or corporations.
- By Understanding Their Rights and Exercising Them: Women (and men) are using the Indian Forest Rights Act and rudimentary GPS and maps to demarcate the land that belongs to them and lay definitive claim on it to increase their agency over the resources this land produces
The women from Odisha act as an example not only to other forest communities but also to those of us despairing at work or at homes with unfavourable circumstances. Networks of women together can make a difference in the way we are treated at work, at home on in the bus back home from work. Sometimes the best solution begins with research- understand your rights and the law. So go ahead, form those sisterhoods which help you take on the patriarchal behemoth which may individually defeat you. And most importantly, reach out to help other women- whether it is an intern, someone who can benefit from your advise, or an issue which needs a voice. There is nothing more powerful in the world than women helping other women.
Research and Opinions by Mouli Chatterjee. Mouli is a Master’s Student from JNU. She is an independent self-styled sociologist analysing different aspects of the society