“We couldn’t survive for a single day without the forest”, says Kanhaiya Lal, aged 42, and father of four daughters. And he proudly explains: “The forest gives us berries, mushrooms, mixed leaves and vegetables to eat, timber for building houses, and medicinal plants when we are sick.” He and his family belong to the Baiga people who traditionally live off the forest. “I feel at home in the forest; it gives us everything that we need.”
For nine years, since his village was granted the right to use it with the support of SWISSAID, together with his wife and a further 95 families, he has been ‘managing’ the forest of Sinjahar, his village in central India. Now, there are 25 different forest products that the families either consume themselves or sell on the local market to earn a little cash.
Farewell to monoculture
The village families decide in the forest committee how to use the forest, and how to ensure reforestation and fire protection. This isn’t easy because they must repeatedly defend themselves against state interventions – regardless of their licensed usage rights. For decades, the state managed the forest as it pleased. The Baiga must stand together if they want to assert their rights against the authorities. “But the forest belongs to us and we’re fighting back!”, says Kanhaiya Lal.
Decades of mismanagement of monocultures by the Indian forestry authority have caused considerable damage. “The forest has very little diversity”, the Baiga say knowingly. The state tree surgeons also cut back the small trees in the undergrowth, as well as climbing plants, from the forest. “But this is the habitat for a vast number of animals and edible plants.” The Baiga have therefore started to reforest trees, rare varieties and climbing plants.
This will take time. But the Baiga people have plenty of time on their hands. They have a saying that: “For us, the forest is our grandfather and grandmother.”