Dear Forest, With Love

If you thought Durga Devi would stop her plantation drive after having already planted half a million trees, think again. Durga, under whose watch the Department of Forest spearheaded its forest conservation efforts, has returned with a new aim. This time with SOIR-IM’s partner Mount Valley Development Association.

Ask any resident of Kandial village about Durga Devi they would immediately respond in strong phrases like ‘leader’ or ‘shield’. It has been 24 years since Durga Devi waged an ideological fight with the department, the same authority which later appreciated her zeal and gave her an honorary job to save forests.

Dear Forest, With LoveBack in 1995, Durga Devi re-kindled a very important question – how does non-timber products have multi-use benefit specifically for women in the villages and how does it generate employment for the women? Forest woods in her village were being cut illegally and it was against this backdrop of deforestation that 35-year-old Durga started her activism.

“That was my first fight with the forest department when they failed to answer why were they felling so many trees. I was threatened that I’ll be charged with sections or jailed. But I was not afraid. I knew I was fighting for a good cause and I knew I was right about it. Finally, the department accepted that the trees were cut for illegal timber. That is when a senior official from the same department saw my love for trees and encouraged me to lead their plantation drive across the region,” says Durya Devi, now 60 years old.

Women have always been at the forefronts of forest movement. In the 1970s, the Chipko movement across Uttar Pradesh shaped community forest management in India, and women stood with trees and hugged those to protect them from felling by the timber industry. It is women who are affected the most by forest products.

Durga further puts more light on women’s dependence on forest products for survival: “Most men have migrated from the villages leaving women and their children behind. The burden of responsibility falls on the shoulder of women. Forest is where she reaches out for all kinds of support. She gets fuel, fodder for livestock, food security, nutritional supplies and employment opportunities by selling forest essentials. If they cut forest at this rate, women will suffer the most.”

This is her second coming as a leader with SOIR-IM’s partner Mount Valley Development Association (MVDA) roped her in their programme Van Priya (Forest Our Love). Bringing women closer to government schemes that can fetch them income and employment through forest conservation, Durga Devi believes that ‘Non-timber forest products’ is a sector that offers great promise for women, but to enhance the effectiveness of poverty reduction programmes, opportunities for the greater involvement of women are essential.

“In the programme, we link our woman Self Help Group member with forest department schemes and encourage her to start her own nursery land that guarantees purchase and sale of saplings by the government. In return she is achieving three goals: she is planting more trees, generating employment and replenishing non-timber products nearby her house for which she had to walk kilometres to fetch. We encourage women to specifically plant near water sources and springs to increase their role in water conservation and recharge of resources,” she says.