Assam, a State in North-Eastern India, has an invaluable biodiversity heritage. With 35% of the land covered with forest, five national parks and 18 wildlife sanctuaries, it’s a haven for a unique variety of flora and fauna. From the ancient times, many tribes and communities were a part of the forest ecosystems.
Over the years, however, the relationship between the forest and the human beings started to change. Forest lands began to shrink under demographic pressure, development projects and overexploitation and it gradually started to affect the overall ecology of the region.
As a mitigation measure, the Assam state government, with the support of AFD, launched the Assam Forest and Biodiversity Conservation Project in 2012 to restore forest ecosystems, protect wildlife and enhance the livelihood of the forest-dependent communities. Active participation of all stakeholders is the key element of the project.
Results are there to see. The project has contributed to the creation of more than 21,000 hectares of plantations in different forest areas with the help of local committees. New nurseries have been developed and depleted wetlands and grasslands have been restored. The population of rhinos in Kaziranga Park has reached an impressive number of 2,400. The acquiring of new skills opens the option of a different livelihood has given many forest dwellers a hope for a better future.
“When the opportunity was offered to us to learn mushroom cultivation, we were very enthusiastic, and the results are for everyone to see,” said Riazuddin Talukdar, a young man who lives on the fringes of the Daboka Forest Range.
“The raw mushroom is priced at Rs 100 (INR) a kilo, the dried ones at Rs 160 (INR) a kilo. It is a great opportunity for our community members to earn a decent livelihood and live a better life,” the youngster says (to the right of the picture).
Products made by local communities are now marketed under the brand name, Banasrishti, which literally translates to, ‘creation of the forest’. Products will be available to buyers in Vanbazar outlets across Assam, as well as in a store in the five-star property by the Taj group in Guwahati.
An exclusive outlet for Banasrishti products will soon be rolled out in the Assam State Zoo. Further, an MoU has also been signed with the retail-chain TRIFED (Tribal Cooperative Marketing Development Federation of India Ltd), which would make Banasrishti products available in all their 42 retail outlets across India.
Participatory forest management which involves forest dwellers is an important aspect of the project. Massive reforestation efforts have been undertaken. Firewood is one of the main sources of energy which is used by the people for cooking as well as to keep themselves warm. But with the increasing population, the demand for firewood went far beyond the sustainable levels. To mitigate this problem, the forest department started a program for the plantation of firewood in collaboration with the villagers.
“The forest department helped us identify a 25-hectare piece of land within the Lumding Forest Reserve that was degraded because of excessive felling of trees by encroachers and others. We then planted saplings of trees that can be used for firewood in seven-eight years time in this area. This has also kept the encroachers away. It’s been a year and the saplings have taken root,” Potuli Mazumdar of the Hatikuli village says with a smile.
The project also supports raising of nurseries—including a high-tech nursery— with a large variety of indigenous and other rare plants as well as fruit-yielding trees that can finally be re-planted to increase the green cover of the state. These nurseries will be immensely helpful in enriching wildlife habitat, particularly that of wild elephants, and in restoring biodiversity in the forests, which in turn will improve resilience of those forests against climate change.
The project has helped in capacity building of forest guards in Assam’s Kaziranga National Park in multiple ways, thereby aiding in biodiversity conservation. Seminars, exposure visits and exchange programs with the French Department of Forest (ONF) have been organized for the officials which have helped them widen their horizon and effectively carry out their duties.
Thanks to the project, the guards are now better equipped. The project has also enabled restoration of the aging infrastructure.
Procurement of vehicles and the renovation of several hundred kilometers of roads under the project would now allow the Rangers and Forest Guards to move quickly within the park to better protect wildlife.