Remote villagers in India saved their forest from destruction — and forged an emotional bond to ensure its long-term survival.
Khirodhar Prasad Mahato and Jodha Mahato, both in their 50s (and not related though they share the same last name), have been friends since childhood, when they used to graze cattle in a forest near their homes in the village of Kanjkiro in eastern India. The forest was rich with several rare species of trees, some with edible fruits and others that were used for making herbal medicines, Khirodhar told me in his native language of Hindi. But villagers also cut wood from the forest for cooking. And members of a local mafia stole wood to sell to furniture-makers. Concerned that the forest’s survival was threatened, in 1982, Jodha and Khirodhar launched a campaign to educate those around them about the importance of conserving the trees.
It was initially difficult, Khirodhar said, because people had become accustomed to cutting the trees for firewood. So the young pair went door to door to explain how a healthy forest was better for everyone. Their youth helped: “We were still children, and people, especially the village women, liked and supported our initiative,” he said.
They assembled an eight-member team to patrol the forest around the clock. Despite threats from organized crime members, the villagers didn’t back down, and it was this unity, Khirodhar says, that eventually drove the mafia away.
The two also organized rallies against deforestation, and, slowly, others have joined the boys’ save-the-forest movement. Even local schools have gotten involved. “We conduct regular plantation drives on our school campus to educate children about the importance of trees in our lives,” said Jai Laxmi, department head at the local government school. “[We] often bring them to the forest to show them the benefits of nature that offers fresh air and reduces pollution.”
Emotional bond with nature
In 1996, inspired by the boys’ work and seeking to join their efforts, Gulab Chandra, a local environmental activist, suggested tying cotton ribbons called rakhi around tree trunks. Named for the ribbons, Rakhi is an annual festival in India celebrating sibling dedication, in which sisters tie cotton ribbons on the wrists of their brothers, who then promise protection. Chandra wanted people to feel the same sense of promised protection with regard to the trees. “The goal was to forge a protective and an emotional bond of humans with nature and consider trees as a family member,” Chandra explained. It worked: today, villagers continue to tie rakhis to the forest trees during the Rakhi festival and on World Environment Day in June.
Increase in Livelihood
Since committing to protecting their forest, villagers have noticed a variety of positive impacts. A healthy forest means greater rainfall in the area, which has revived several small streams and extended the farming season. “We used to cultivate paddy and vegetable in less quantity,” says Prakash Kumar Ranjan, an area farmer. The increase in rainfall has allowed him to diversify his crops and grow seasonal vegetables, bringing in additional income that enables him to afford a good education for his two sons.
Locals have also begun to appreciate that a forest rich in biodiversity means more fruit to eat and sell, as well as greater availability of the plants they need for herbal medicine.
These days, villagers rely on dead trees for their firewood, no longer cutting healthy trees. Khirodhar and Jodha remain active in promoting conservation. They understand the need for continued development, but they maintain that for any new government projects, conservation must be a priority.
Interviews with sources were translated from Hindi.