Forest report

A ‘people’s forest’ in Assam holds new hope for rhino conservation

The Mulai forest, created with the efforts of Jadav Payeng, needs a concerted protection effort.

In 1980, the social forestry wing of the Assam state forest department in northeastern India launched an experimental programme that aimed to measure how well tree cover could protect against rapid and catastrophic floods and erosion. Over the course of five years, thousands of trees were to be planted on a 200-hectare (494-acre) plot of land on Aruna Chapori, a barren sandbar in the middle of the Brahmaputra River.

Three years later, funds ran out. Unpaid and disgruntled labourers abandoned the trees, and the scheme was discontinued.

However, one of the labourers, a young man in his late teens, chose to stay behind on the island. Jadav Payeng, now 58, took it upon himself to tend to the trees planted under the scheme, and continued planting new ones.

Over nearly four decades, Payeng’s lone but unrelenting efforts have resulted in the creation of a 550-hectare (1,360-acre) forest on Aruna Chapori. Known as Mulai Kathoni, this forest is now a wholesome ecosystem that hosts iconic and threatened species like Asian elephants (Elephas maximus), Bengal tigers (Panthera tigris tigris) and greater one-horned rhinoceroses (Rhinoceros unicornis). The forest also has a rich diversity of flora, including more than 100 species of trees and medicinal plants.

In addition, Mulai Kathoni supports nearly 250 families who live in several clusters of 10 to 12 huts. Most of these families belong to Assam’s indigenous Mishing community, a riparian tribe scattered across the state’s fluvial landscape.

Jadav Payeng lives in a humble, traditional Mishing house in his native village of Kakilamukh, 3.1 miles off Mulai Kathoni. Photo Credit: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya
Jadav Payeng lives in a humble, traditional Mishing house in his native village of Kakilamukh, 3.1 miles off Mulai Kathoni. Photo Credit: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya

Payeng is himself a Mishing tribesman, hailing from Kokilamukh, a village five kilometers (3.1 miles) off Mulai Kathoni. Payeng said his zeal for planting trees stemmed from two things: his love for nature and his commitment to the Mishing community that’s been threatened by the river’s erosion.

“We Mishing people are connected to the river. The river’s bounty has blessed us. But erosion caused by the river has posed a serious threat to our existence. I’ve planted several hundred trees on the sandbar to stop soil erosion,” said Payeng, who has been dubbed the “Forest Man of India” for his conservation efforts.

According to Assam state government figures, from 1950 to 2017 the state lost 4,270 square kilometers (1,650 square miles) of land to erosion, 7.4% of the state’s total area. The National Flood Commission of India categorises about 40% of Assam’s land, nearly 32,000 square kilometers (12,350 square miles), as flood-prone, and therefore vulnerable to erosion.

To control erosion and floods, the Assam government’s Brahmaputra Board, a body responsible for flood management in the state, has adopted measures such as construction of dikes and embankments. But these are largely area-specific, short-term structural measures, and have met with limited success.

Nevertheless, Payeng, with his lifelong experience of witnessing the river’s surge and erosion, believes “more than anything else, growing vegetation on the riverbank and sandbars could stop erosion.” And with this conviction, he has been planting trees since 1980, transforming the barren sandbar of Aruna Chapori into a vast expanse of green.

A view of the forest cover on Aruna Chapori from across the river. Until the 1980s, it was a barren sandbar without any vegetation. Photo Credit: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya
A view of the forest cover on Aruna Chapori from across the river. Until the 1980s, it was a barren sandbar without any vegetation. Photo Credit: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya

A ‘people’s forest’

Although Payeng is credited with single-handedly planting Mulai Kathoni, he likes to call it a “people’s forest.” Because, he said, the forest not only shelters rhinos and other wildlife but also provides crucial ecosystem services to the people living nearby, ensuring their livelihoods and food security. “Villagers get food, fodder, firewood, medicinal herbs, and timber for domestic use from the forest,” Payeng said. “In fact, many families came to settle on Aruna Chapori only after the forest had transformed the sandbar. Earlier this was all sand and only a few families lived here.”

The people living around Mulai Kathoni are mainly livestock farmers, who earn a living selling milk. Thickets of grass that intersperse with the trees inside the forest serve as grazing sites for the cattle raised by the locals and Payeng himself. “Without the forest it would have been very difficult for us to keep cattle and survive here because earlier it was a mere sandbar,” said Tarun Taye, a local Mishing tribesman who’s lived on Aruna Chapori since 1999. “The forest Payeng has planted benefits the whole community.”

The role of local people’s traditional ecological knowledge was crucial in creating Mulai Kathoni, another reason why Payeng calls it a people’s forest. He employed indigenous methods of soil preparation, planting seeds, and irrigation. “I used cow dung and organic matter as manure to improve soil fertility; to water the saplings, I employed an indigenous drip irrigation method that uses dripped earthen pots placed on bamboo platforms; and I also released earthworms to prepare the soil,” Payeng said. “Earthworms burrow into the silt-hardened surface, making it porous and arable. They feed on withered leaves and convert them into organic matter that facilitates plant roots to go deep and feed on.”

In countries such as Uganda and Nicaragua, small-scale, community-led reforestation efforts have shown promise ecologically as well as in terms of providing economic benefits to local communities. Payeng’s reforestation efforts, too, have been both an ecological success and a boon for local peoples’ livelihoods. “Payeng’s decades-long reforestation efforts, which resulted in the creation of Mulai Kathoni, have served multiple purposes,” said Naveen Pandey, a conservationist with the Corbett Foundation, who is based in nearby Kaziranga National Park. “It’s helped [in] reducing erosion and led to biomass and carbon sequestration, in addition to providing economic benefits to local communities. Local residents eking out a living from livestock farming and apiaries largely depend on the forest.”

A herd of domesticated buffalo roams on a sandbar of the Brahmaputra. Photo Credit: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya
A herd of domesticated buffalo roams on a sandbar of the Brahmaputra. Photo Credit: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya

However, not everybody speaks so positively about the forest. Many local farmers contend Payeng invited trouble for them by allowing Mulai Kathoni to grow unchecked. Since 2008, a herd of elephants has frequented the dense and expanding forest. The herd established a pattern of rampaging through the rice paddies that abut the forest, prompting many local farmers to take up alternative livelihoods. “It’s become impossible to get along with paddy farming,” said Shiv Kumar, a former paddy farmer who’s now shifted to livestock farming. “The elephant herd’s regular crop raids leave little for us to harvest. Therefore, I’ve stopped growing paddy altogether and taken to livestock farming.”

Exasperated farmers also threatened to cut down the forest in a bid to keep the elephants away. “When the elephants first damaged their crops, the farmers were very angry. They even planned to cut down the forest,” Payeng said.

He said he succeeded in stopping disgruntled farmers from clearing the forest by making them realise its value. “I constantly reminded them of the benefits they’re getting from the forest and how it helps stop erosion on Aruna Chapori. I explained to them that clearing the forest will only weigh against them, given the ecosystem services they’re procuring from it. At first they would not listen and would hurl abuse on me, but finally they understood. Now they’ve adapted to sharing the forest with elephants,” he said.

A greater one-horned rhinoceros in nearby Kaziranga National Park. Mulai Kathoni plays host to animals straying out of the park, but some question how vulnerable they are to poaching. Photo Credit: Anuwar Ali Hazarika via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
A greater one-horned rhinoceros in nearby Kaziranga National Park. Mulai Kathoni plays host to animals straying out of the park, but some question how vulnerable they are to poaching. Photo Credit: Anuwar Ali Hazarika via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Rhino security in Mulai Kathoni

According to Payeng, Mulai Kathoni is also home to three rhinos: two adults and a calf. He said the forest plays host to animals straying out of Kaziranga National Park, Assam’s famed rhino park that hosts more than 2,400 individuals of the valued species.

“Rhinos from Kaziranga National Park sometimes make it to Mulai Kathoni – particularly when annual seasonal floods inundate the park, and grasslands dry up in the months of December and January,” said Kaziranga divisional forest officer Rohini Ballav Saikia, explaining the importance of the man-made forest as a temporary rhino habitat.

But conservationists think danger lurks for the rhinos in Mulai Kathoni. A recent incident of rhino poaching on a sandbar near Mulai Kathoni has kindled the fear that poachers might find easy targets in the unguarded forest.

“There is no provision in place to ensure the security of rhinos and other wildlife in Mulai Kathoni. As it is not an officially protected forest, the forest department hasn’t allotted guards to it,” said the Corbett Foundation’s Pandey. The absence of forest guards could easily lure poachers to the forest, he said, exposing the rhinos to a greater risk of poaching.

In 2012, poachers killed an adult rhinoceros in Mulai Kathoni, the only one living in the forest at that time.

Currently, Payeng and five of his fellow tribesmen keep a round-the-clock vigil on the forest. All of them are subsistence livestock farmers by occupation. In addition to tending to their cattle that graze in Mulai Kathoni, they work for the upkeep and safety of the forest.

But conservationists like Pandey think this is not enough to protect rhinos and other wildlife in the forest. “Government should intervene and arrange for proper security measures,” he said.

Pros and cons of protected status

To ensure the security of Mulai Kathoni and its rhinos, conservationists have also demanded protected status for the forest under Indian forest laws. “Getting a legally protected status for the forest is the first step towards its protection. Because once it has legal sanction, the government can map the forest and accordingly chalk out a strategy to ensure its security,” said Dharanidhar Bodo, a former park ranger and conservationist in Kaziranga.

However, Payeng doesn’t favor the idea of according protected area status to Mulai Kathoni. He fears if the forest is formally declared a protected forest under Indian forest and wildlife regulations, the local residents’ access to the forest resources could be restricted or curtailed. This, he said, goes against the grain of his conservation ethos and the conservation model he’s been envisioning and trying to achieve in Mulai Kathoni.

“I’ve always envisaged Mulai Kathoni as a space to be shared by wildlife and humans,” Payeng said. “I believe it’s possible, and we’ve seen it happen in Aruna Chapori. Local residents are sharing the forest and its resources with wildlife. But once it is declared a government-protected park, the forest regulations could restrict local residents’ access to Mulai Kathoni.”

India’s 2006 Forest Rights Act recognises local communities’ traditional and customary rights over the resources in a protected forest. But multiple studies have shown that the implementation of the law has been poor across the country. Many contend that conservation strategies in protected areas such as Kaziranga National Park have undermined the Forest Rights Act, and customary rights of forest-dwelling peoples are being violated.

A traditional Mishing tribal house, called a chang-ghar, close to Mulai Kathoni, Aruna Chapori. Photo Credit: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya
A traditional Mishing tribal house, called a chang-ghar, close to Mulai Kathoni, Aruna Chapori. Photo Credit: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya

Given this, Payeng is worried: if Mulai Kathoni is declared a protected area and the Forest Rights Act is not properly implemented, it could bring troubles to the forest.

Instead of declaring Mulai Kathoni a protected forest in a bid to ensure its security, he favors educating villagers and helping them understand the value of forests and wildlife. “The forest I’ve planted here is a peoples’ initiative. I believe the interplay between conservation and peoples’ livelihoods in Mulai Kathoni has so far been a sustainable one,” Payeng said. “In fact, the forest is a lifeline to the people living here. So, the local people are already aware of its value. Only if we can enhance their appreciation of the forest and wildlife and involve them in safeguarding it, we’ll be able to protect it from poachers and lumberjacks. Peoples’ awareness will ensure rhinos’ safety in Mulai Kathoni.”

A 2002 amendment to India’s 1972 Wildlife Protection Act presents a possible middle ground, creating a category of protected areas known as “community reserves.” This designation can be assigned to any private or community land where a community or an individual has volunteered to conserve wildlife and its habitat.

“This Act mandates community reserves be managed by a community reserve management committee, the majority of whose members are nominated by the local village administration,” said Bodo, the former ranger. “This shields local villagers’ power in the control and management of a community reserve. In Mulai Kathoni, a community reserve model may just strike a balance.”

Payeng embraced the proposition: “If the community reserve model serves both purposes, conservation and indigenous peoples’ forest rights, I’ll certainly welcome it.”

Payeng said he prefers traveling by bicycle rather than relying on polluting vehicles that use fuel. Photo Credit: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya
Payeng said he prefers traveling by bicycle rather than relying on polluting vehicles that use fuel. Photo Credit: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya

This article first appeared on Mongabay

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.