Speeding down a freshly tarred, silken highway through dense plantation forests in North Bengal, I almost missed the little wooden carts carrying away long, green sticks. Women were walking out of the forest with the sticks to load a cart. Several other voices floated out from the forest in Alipurduar district, West Bengal. Walking in, I saw a group of boisterous Rabha women in colourful woven skirts sifting through sacks of seeds, sesame seeds.
The Rabhas traditionally practiced shifting cultivation before they settled down here. They still practice inter-cropping which means they use the space between trees in plantation coupes to grow crops. The forest floor is used by villagers to grow sesame, turmeric and several vegetables.
This was the time for the sesame harvest and villagers, mostly women, were out to get their share. The sesame plant, that was being loaded on to the carts, would be used to fence their cropping area. “The forest floor is richer with nutrients and water," said one of the women. "It is great for vegetables actually. It is also easier to dig and sow on these lands."
These areas are continually under risk though. The plantations, which are managed by the forest department, were sown solely in the interest of timber. Once fully grown, they will be harvested by the department. And once the forest is gone, the nutrient cycle doesn’t work. Villages in the area are trying to officially gain rights on these forests for community use – a right accorded to them under the Forest Rights Act. Though they haven’t been recognised yet, the villages are determined to see it through at some point, so the forests are not cut down and the delicate ecological balance of trees and crops is maintained.