Communities in the central Indian state of Maharashtra depend on the natural resources of forests and ponds to survive. But these resources are increasingly threatened by climate change and poor natural resource management. A SWISSAID project has been working on resource reclamation by and for communities in central India.
The project aims to strengthen indigenous communities through institutionalized cooperatives. They learn about their rights over natural resources and how to use them for their own benefit. As a result, the communities have better food security and greater resilience to climatic and social shocks.
The project is financially supported by the SDC.
The vast water area extends over several hectares. At the edge, men in life jackets bring their nets to shore. Others, with their feet in the sand, help them pull the day’s catch out of the water. The nets are filled with local species; dadak, boatri, gani, poshti. “We sell all these fishes in the village, then in the neighboring villages, and if there are any left we bring them to the weekly market,” explains Karu Meshram, member of the local fishermen’s cooperative, with a smile on his face. A beautiful day ahead.
Although the fishermen seem to be fishing peacefully, until recently this land was still an impassable pond. Thanks to SWISSAID’s resource protection project, communities dependent on forest and fishing in India have been able to reclaim their livelihoods.
Mismanagement in question
The setting was not always so peaceful. Endangered biodiversity, dried up ponds, overpriced fishing grounds; the mismanagement of resources in these remote areas of India has taken a toll on nature. And, consequently, on the population. Although community rights over natural resources are enshrined in laws and acts, they are only enforced where cooperatives or institutions are strong. Most of the time, it is the state that controls the resources, leasing them to contractors or at exorbitant prices to poor people.
To address these inequities, SWISSAID India launched a project in 2019 to build the capacity of cooperatives in forestry, agriculture and fish farming management. Members benefited from institutional strengthening that enabled them to understand and enforce the rights they held over their environment.
I was able to use some of the money for my children’s education and health and some for the maintenance of our house,
says Karu Meshram, one of the 81 active members of the fishing cooperative in the village of Bolda, Gadchiroli region, about the extra income he now earns from fishing.
Fishing, a significant income
Karu Meshram is one of the 81 active members of the fishing cooperative in the village of Bolda, in the Gadchiroli region. He lives with his wife, their two sons, and their wives and children. They belong to a nomadic tribal community and have an income of about 26’000 INR (295 CHF) per year. This income complements their farming, fishing and occasional small farm work for their own consumption and provides stability to this household of 10 people.
Since joining the fishing cooperative, Karu’s annual income has increased further. “I receive a salary of INR 200 (CHF 2.20) for every day I fish. The surplus from the sales is kept by the cooperative to pay the annual lease amount,” explains the 48-year-old fisherman. In 2021, he earned about INR 3,000 (CHF 34) from fishing, which represents a 10-12% increase in his annual income. “I was able to use part of the money for my children’s education and health and another part for the maintenance of our house.”
Solidarity with India
Clear water and native fish
150 kilometers away, in the district of Gondia, lives Kiran Khushal Valthare and her family. Here too, fish have played a role in the daily life of the young mother and her family. Encouraged by the project and supervised by professionals, the women’s group of which she is a member decided to rent the lake adjacent to the village. It was a risky gamble since the space was more like a muddy body of water with few fish. “The 3 hectare lake was deserted, there was no food for the fish, nor any local species,” she recalls. Long weeks of work allowed them to remove the besharam (wild plant) that was engulfing the lake and plant six species of marine plants that support aquatic life. “Local fish species have been reintroduced and are acclimating well. These species are in demand and their price is higher than foreign fish,” reports Kiran. An additional gain for farms that already do not require chemical inputs or antibiotics.
Kiran Khushal Valthare and her group of women rented the lake adjacent to the village for fishing. They had to start by cleaning the entire lake and then replanting marine plants to support aquatic life. Today, many local fish species have been reintroduced. And this for the greatest happiness of the women and their families!
Success stories that withstand the seasons
Like Kiran’s women group, each cooperative in the villages supported by the project has been working to rehabilitate the surrounding ponds. The ponds were cleaned and the dams were rebuilt for greater water density. Four years after the project began, in August 2022, Eva Syfrig, India program manager, visited the various villages. “The project has restored the dams, allowing more water to be kept. We are at the beginning of the rainy season, so at the lowest level, and they still contain a considerable level of water”, she exclaims delighted.
The project trained groups of women to build nurseries using local bamboo. Women have developed the skills to operate the hatchery and ensure the availability of adequate, quality fish seed. Finally, the unaffordable cost of fish food has prompted the residents to produce their own product from agricultural waste.
Karu, Kiran, and all the community members supported by the project are eager to continue protecting the resources they depend on. “I am confident. With better management, my family and I will be able to earn a better income and gain stability in the future,” says Karu. Kiran added, on behalf of her entire group of women: “We are happy with all these changes. We still have a lot to learn but we are well on our way.”