Udalguri, Oct 1


he change was slow but stark. In a decade's span, a pristine forest in Assam was ruined to such an extent that only barren wasteland remained of the place where tigers and elephants once roamed freely.

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The 22.24 sq.km area encompassing Bhairabkunda forest in Udalguri district, located at the tri-junction where Assam meets Arunachal Pradesh and the neighbouring country of Bhutan, has a fascinating tale of rebirth to tell, though it was ripped apart by rampant deforestation, deadly floods and ethnic clashes between 1979 and 1989.

"The migration to this region during the insurgent movement not only raised the demand for house plots, but also fuelled the creation of tea plantations by former militants. People had no livelihood options before them, and aid from the government or prominent NGOs was not forthcoming. Hence, chopping down trees for timber was the easiest way to make money then," explained Saurav Malhotra, who designed the Rural Futures programme of Balipara Foundation.

"Insurgency was not all to blame. In fact, the socio-economic conditions were really bad."

Prinson Daimari, a conservationist who was once a member of the All Bodo Students' Union (ABSU), told 101Reporters that he never thought that a place so rich, thriving and abundant in biodiversity would undergo such a radical transformation.

Udalguri in north Assam was a hotbed of insurgency, witnessing clashes and agitations, the most prominent being the 1987 Bodo Movement seeking a separate state of Bodoland. The ABSU was the foremost students' body among the Bodo community, the largest plain tribe of Assam. It wanted nearly 25,500 sq.km to be carved out of Assam along the Brahmaputra's north bank for the proposed state of Bodoland.

The movement culminated in a Memorandum of Understanding signed between the Centre, Assam government and the ABSU-Bodo Peoples' Action Committee on February 20, 1993, which brought back a semblance of peace to the area. Udalguri presently comes under the autonomous Bodoland Territorial Region, administered by the Bodoland Territorial Council.

"Only tree stumps were left behind. Besides illegal felling, two devastating floods in the Dhansiri and Jampani decimated the greenery," recounted Prinson, the president of Gethsemane Joint Forest Management Committee (JFMC) that presently manages the restored areas of Bhairabkunda, now a reserve forest.

"Timber smugglers were active here until early 2000s, contributing immensely to deforestation," Udalguri-based wildlife activist Rewati Raman Sapkota told 101Reporters.

From livestock rearing to planting trees

Prinson and his friends, Atul Basumatary, Sunilal Boro, Helena Basumatary, Someswari Daimary to name a few, from neighbouring villages started the Sonai Regional Multipurpose Farm in 2003. The commonality between them was that most of them were members of the ABSU's Sonai regional committee.

Though not trained in farm work, they were driven by the zeal of entrepreneurship. "There were 35 of us, all in our 20s and 30s. We started off by rearing cattle, piglets, ducks and poultry on about 7.5 hectares of wasteland," said Gethsemane JFMC secretary Bilup Daimari. "Much to our dismay, the farm activities were hit by our lack of expertise and humid/arid climate. As financial losses mounted, we had to close it in 2006."

However, in a serendipitous turn of events, the group regained momentum after an enthusiastic Naba Kumar Bordoloi joined as Forest Range Officer in Darrang district in 2007. He also happened to supervise neighbouring Udalguri. "Bordoloi studied the region's ecosystem, observed our zeal to shield the place, and suggested that we form a JFMC to take up afforestation under a Central government scheme," recalled Prinson.

Thus, the residents of Sonaigaon, Goroimari, Sapangaon, Bhairabpur, No 1 Majargaon and No 2 Majargaon villages assembled under the Darrang Forest Development Authority to register six JFMCs. They planted saplings under a micro-plan approved by the National Afforestation Programme. The forest department provided seeds, while the duties of sowing, watering and keeping vigil were divided among the JFMCs, which had 25 to 30 members each under the leadership of its president.

"The creation of JFMCs made the process more authorised, which funds to support the community conservation. Though the idea of involving local communities in conservation practices was a good step, the system is still failing to utilise their full potential by not creating easy systems, and due to poor fund access," Malhotra said.

Mission mode

The government-sponsored afforestation programme ensured daily wages to the collaborating villagers, besides infusing a fresh lease of life into the denuded landscape. "We received nearly Rs 80 lakh based on the progress of work over a span of five years. Gradually, we began to see the changes. By 2012, trees covered 550 hectares of the total 1,200 hectares of barren land that came under plantation," Prinson said.

"Over 11 lakh saplings were planted, including timber species such as Tectona Grandis, Indian Rosewood, Catechu Bombax Ceiba, Teak, Duabanga Grandiflora and many types of bamboo," informed Bilup. Fruit-bearing trees such as mango, gooseberry, blackberry, guava and elephant apple were also included, as wild animals, birds and butterflies could feed on them.

"It was a herculean task, though. The saplings wilted under scorching heat. The village youth then dug three channels to get water from the Dhansiri. It is now protected with an embankment, a wall along the river, so that the whole 550 hectares could receive water from it," Prinson added.

Interestingly, even the officials who came for routine inspections were sceptical about the restoration at first. "We are happy that the lost forest has been regenerated. Now the region is a dense woodland," said Helena Basumatary from a neighbouring village.

Mining turns villain

The afforestation project was completed in 2012, and the six JFMCs were subsequently dissolved as the central scheme came to an end. However, within a few months, the community decided to form a 35-member committee under the Gethsemane JFMC fearing their six-year-long efforts might prove futile in the absence of a decision-making body at the village level. The new committee had members from all the dissolved committees.

The JFMC's name has its origins in the Bible's 'Garden of Gethsemane', where Jesus had prayed the night before his crucifixion. It is now an urban forest at the foot of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

Despite their best efforts, Gethsemane JFMC was worried about the long-term sustainability of the forest as it witnessed massive erosion due to unscientific and uncontrolled lease-based mining in Dhansiri river bed. "Though we have not entered into any conflict with the sand miners, we have repeatedly requested the forest department to stop granting mining leases, but in vain," rued JFMC member Ismail Daimari.

"Although we voluntarily protect the forest without any honorarium, we still look up to the government to assist us in safeguarding this forest, which is our second home," he added.

(The author is a freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)

The Return of the Native Part 1: Unity brings back diversity into Udalguri's barren forest

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