A few weeks ago, when Google India marked the 45th anniversary of the Chipko movement with a doodle, it was a refreshing flashback to forest communities sacrificing their lives to protect trees from being felled for timber use.

One of the first such recorded community protests was at Khejarli village in present-day Rajasthan. In this village, around the year 1730, about 300 Bishnois led by Amrita Devi are said to have sacrificed their lives to protect Khejri trees. The Bishnois, particularly the women in the community, considered Khejri trees (Prosopis cineraria) sacred because of their multi-use benefits. Amrita Devi, before she was beheaded with an axe bought inside the forest to cut trees, said: “Sar sāntey rūkh rahe to bhī sasto jān.” If a tree is saved even at the cost of one’s head, it’s worth it.

Two centuries later, in the 1970s, the Chipko movement across Uttar Pradesh shaped community forest management in India. Women were at the forefront of this movement too, as they hugged trees to protect them from felling by the timber industry.

The reality has not changed much, as is evident from the case of Kabiben Kalara, a member of the Bhil tribe from Rajasthan. In 2016, she was uprooted from her family farmland –which she was claiming under the Forest Rights Act – because of a road widening and upgrading project in Bagidora tehsil of Banswara district. “How many women have to be killed or displaced with their families and face violence before the government realises that forests and water should be protected?” she asked.

Karbi women forage for wild edible forest resources. Photo credit: Aakash Doshi

‘Wood is good’

A search for the words women and gender in the Draft National Forest Policy, 2018 – which governs the formulation of all laws and schemes related to forestry – returns zero results. While terms like wood, economic or timber appear all over the 10-page draft policy released by the Indian government in March.

“Why do women’s rights to forests…remain a secondary issue?” asked Sarita Katkar, a young Katkari Adivasi from Maharashtra. She belongs to particularly vulnerable tribal groups and believes that for the Forest Department, forests are all about wood. It fails to see the non-timber products which support the livelihoods of over 100 million people in India.

Indeed, in 2017, the ministry launched a “Wood is Good” campaign to promote timber for industrial or commercial use. It collected over Rs 50,000 crore through a Central Compensatory Afforestation Fund, which should have then been used for afforestation. Instead, the fund is being directed mainly towards building timber plantations in forests and private properties, often without the consent of households and gram sabhas.

Brinda Karat, a leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), voiced her concern. “[Typically] indigenous trees should be planted. And who knows best about that? Obviously it is tribal communities. But what is happening in all these [forest] areas is, plantations after plantations are being planted according to commercial interest. If you go to any of these new plantation areas, you will see Eucalyptus trees and trees that are useful for paper industries. The Compensatory Afforestation Fund is (a) giving the private corporate a say, (b) destroying the rights of tribal peoples under various legislations, and (c) destroying the conservation and biodiversity of the environment.”

A woman collects dry fuelwood. Photo: Purabi Bose

“Many Adivasi women in our village cannot read and write, but they hold indigenous knowledge about every single tree – its use for household consumption, medicinal value, for livestock and for biodiversity,” said Sunita Kanko, a 30-year-old Munda Adivasi schoolteacher in a forested village in Jharkhand. “How can we comment on the draft policy if it is written in English just like in the days of British India? There is no effort by the environment ministry to translate it in other Indian languages. Our forest connects us culturally and spiritually with our ancestors, while policymakers and private companies think of wood as economic gain.”

Uday Mengal, a volunteer helping tribal communities claim their collective forest land rights, agreed. “We were one of the first countries to introduce historic legislation recognising the rights of indigenous peoples and traditional communities through the Forest Rights Act, 2006,” he said. “Ten years later, India has not yet fully implemented this legislation. Such failure has resulted in social movements like the farmer’s march we saw in Maharashtra.”

While India is debating the role of indigenous peoples in forest governance, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos made an unprecedented move a few weeks ago by announcing that the country intended to add 8 million hectares to its protected land, and grant indigenous communities the ability and autonomy to govern their territories.

Women as guardians

“Women are always at the forefront of the fight for environmental rights, but when it comes to rewards, they are always left out,” said Indavi Tulpule of Shramik Mukti Sanghatana, a non-profit that works in Maharashtra’s Thane district. “Forest Department officials often forget the important role women play in forest protection. Every year we have forest food exhibition in tribal villages, and women share information about each of non-timber forest products that is used for food, medicine and preservation of biodiversity. They are the guardians of the forests.”

Sunanda Kewar, the head of a women’s self-help group in the Rajanandgaon district of Chhattisgarh, said, “We go out to collect firewood, collect non-timber forest produce and even to patrol the forest in group of two just like our men in the village because we are equal. But outsiders bring women-insensitive policies that change our relatively equitable world for worse.”

Sarhul festival. Photo credit: Purabi Bose.

Every year, Adivasis in Jharkhand celebrate the festival Sarhul, by paying respects to prakriti, that is, the gifts of nature, such as fruits, leaves, water, trees. It is a practice followed by forest-dependent communities around the world. Like Jharkhand’s Adivasis, many indigenous communities in the Andean region of Latin America pay respect to the Mother Earth or Pachamama. For them, Pacha forms the central notion of life. In 2010, Bolivia’s Law of Mother Earth (Ley de Derechos de La Madre Tierra) recognised the land as sacred and as a living system with rights to be protected from exploitation. India, instead of following this example, has taken steps backward through this draft National Forest Policy. The worst-affected groups when the rights of nature and of indigenous communities are not recognised are women and children.

The environment ministry had invited feedback from the public on the draft National Forest Policy, which received criticism for promoting privatisation of forests. To fix it, there is a need for gender mainstreaming and women’s involvement in the making of the policy. Some ways to do this are:

  • The Section 3.5 suggests afforestation will be intensified to cater to the needs of fuel wood, and that liquid petroleum gas will be promoted. A majority of indigenous women collect dried firewood from forest, saving cost and maintaining forest biodiversity. The idea of intensification should be backed by impact assessment studies on fuel wood energy consumption in India.
  • Section 3.6 blindly proposes to improve the income from non-timber forest produce such as seeds, wild edible foods, bamboo, grass, etc., but fails to acknowledge their cultural value, indigenous women’s role in their management and their importance for a tribal household. Economic benefit is secondary and management of this produce has to involve women in every step of the value chain.
  • Overall, the draft policy fails to address the fact that India’s grassland and ‘wasteland’ is the richest source of fodder for livestock of smallholders. Its collection is often the responsibility of indigenous women and youth.

The first step to overcome the challenge is for the environment ministry to acknowledge that the draft policy fails to discuss gender integration and women’s issues in the management of forests, trees, agroforestry and afforestation. The next step will have to be to open up the dialogue for social and gender inclusion, and to ensure that environmental defenders, including women, are protected through India’s forest policy. With these measures in place, perhaps there would be a chance of saving India’s forests and the communities who depend on them.