Forests are key to tackling the climate crisis in India. Here’s how local communities regrow them.
In Jawhar in the Palghar district of Maharashtra, the summers are hot, dry and brown. For the unwary, the midday sun carries the sure promise of heatstroke. But under the Mahua tree, the wind is cool and the ground is perfect for an afternoon siesta. It is here that Nausu Dhawalu Morgha tells me about his village with perceptible pride: “The name of my village is Dabosa, but we affectionately call it Dhab-Dhabaa. That’s how it sounds when the big raindrops fall from the sky. Tourists come from all over to see the giant waterfalls and verdant beauty of Jawhar during the monsoons.
I find it hard to imagine Jawhar as Morgha describes him. Could this dry, cracked, dusty semi-desert also be a place of gushing waterfalls and overflowing lakes?
Jawhar is just a little brown speck in the middle 97 million hectares equally barren land. Nearly 30% of Indian lands are undergoing a process of desertification. The soil of this barren land is steadily degenerating into a major source of carbon emissions. Any effective solution to mitigate climate change and the agricultural crisis must seriously address the issue of all these degraded lands.
I spoke to local communities in three regions where land is degrading – Palghar, Satara and Ahmednagar – whose efforts to transform their land can show us the way out of this crisis. Where traditional land use practices have failed, these communities are turning to the abundance and stability of forests. Their models of forest revitalization demonstrate the effectiveness of holistic interventions that rebuild a mutually beneficial relationship between small landowners and their land.
Palghar: the rain falls but the water disappears
From June to September, Jawhar receives 3000 mm of rainfall. Yet by October most of that water disappears, leaving the people of Jawhar desperately parched.
Jawhar’s acute water shortage can be largely blamed on the region’s hydroecology. Most of the 3000mm of “dhab-dhabaa” rain cannot penetrate the compact basalt below. Water that manages to penetrate is likely to strike one of the many underground fractures and flow instantly. It doesn’t help at all that over the past two decades, the forests in this region have disappeared to fuel the timber trade.
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The population of Jawhar includes people from various Adivasi groups who grow rice and some vegetables during the monsoons. But in October, there is no more water, agriculture is impossible and they spend most of their time raising cattle and looking for water.
A 2018 report published by Niti Aayog revealed that almost 600 million people (nearly half of India’s population) are facing extreme water scarcity with more than 70% of the water being contaminated. The country is currently facing, without exaggeration, the worst water crisis in its history.
In Jawhar, much of the government’s efforts to conserve water have been woefully ineffective. Without regard to the hydroecology of the region, the government has built wells on “discharge areas”, where no water accumulates. Moreover, ignoring the annual water needs of each village, the authorities built check dams too low to retain water during the summer months.
In the absence of competent community government interventions, NGOs and non-profit organizations play a critical role in ensuring the survival of vulnerable communities. In Jawhar, for example, the Raah Foundation has been studying the ecology of the area closely over the past decade to improve existing government infrastructure and build new dams and monitoring wells. Raah’s field team includes more than 30 residents whose efforts conserve more than 640 million liters of water annually.
On Morgha’s 10-acre plot, Raah has built a 26-foot well that can hold water for most of the dry season. The soil of the Morgha lands is slowly coming back to life and is currently home to a massive plantation of fruit trees, timber trees, bamboos, medicinal plants, wild endemics and various herbs. These cash will soon provide Morgha and her family with a stable income throughout the year.
Once established, a forest requires negligible irrigation and minimal tending to maintain. Mature forests are also the smartest water and weather management systems. In deforested and water-scarce areas, the rebirth of forests is vital for the survival of its human communities.
Satara: The gaur ate my farm work
“Do you think it’s fair that we, [the Malki (private forest land) owners], face all the pressure of climate change and yet must take responsibility for restoring the ecosystem? asks Ravi Nare Lad, a resident of Bopoli village in the Satara district of Maharashtra.
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The last decades have seen the constant degradation of Malki lands accompanied by the increasing distress of landowners. Since the 1960s, forest owners in Malki had practiced a form of shifting cultivation involving the cyclical felling of trees for timber. Cleared land was either reforested with timber trees or used for rice cultivation, naachniand other cereals.
This practice of shifting cultivation came to an abrupt end in 2008 with the declaration of the Sahyadri Tiger Reserve. The reserve comprises over 2,000 acres of Malki land and strictly prohibits the felling of trees. As a result, landowners in Malki had to abandon timber harvesting and rely solely on agricultural income to survive.
The creation of the tiger reserve led to a significant increase in gaur and wild boar populations, as they now had a larger habitat and a reduced threat from hunters. Soon these wild animals started feeding in the lands of Malki much to the despair of the local farmers. Crop losses due to wild animals have become so widespread that many have given up farming. Around the same time, farmers in the region migrated to Mumbai or Pune in search of better jobs. Labor in the villages has dwindled and as a result most of Malki’s 2,000 acres of private land is barren and unused.
In 2012, Lad became one of the first landowners to work with the Wildlife Research and Conservation Society (WRCS) to restore his 6-acre forest lot. Its lands now support a healthy population of fruit, medicinal and commercial trees whose precious produce hangs above the reach of hungry animals. Once established, the lower layers of the forest will provide plenty of food for hungry animals.
News of Lad’s transformation quickly spread throughout the city. Today, WRCS has reforested over 400 acres of Malki land in 16 different villages and hopes to bring another 1,500 acres into their care. Their model of reforestation around wildlife reserves brings together the objectives of economic development, conservation and restoration of ecosystems.
“I am ready to be patient. I may not reap the benefits of this forest in my lifetime. But I know we’re leaving something worthwhile for our children and their children…I just hope the rest of the country realizes that we’re leaving something worthwhile for them too. Lad said with a delicate mixture of hope and austerity.
Ahmednagar: crushing chaos
The past decade has been one of the most turbulent for Indian farmers. More than half Indian farmland is not irrigated and depends entirely on the whim of the monsoons. Since 2016, more than 36 million hectares have been affected by water-related disasters, costing farmers over 29,000 crores. According to a investigation conducted by the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in 2014, 76% of farmers preferred other work and 61% wanted jobs in cities for better education, health and employment.
Crouching in her field, picking up plump pink onions, Nanda Suresh Dhawale in Dhavalgaon, Ahmednagar, tells us about the uncertainty plaguing her family. “We can never know how much we will be able to harvest. We are lucky if we reap even half of what we sow. Over the past five years, the rains have become very unpredictable. The water from the borehole lasted us until the monsoons. But now there are so many boreholes that sometimes we don’t have water to last until March.
However, Dhawale’s family has not yet given up hope. With the help of the NGO Farmers for Forests (F4F), they are reforesting 2.5 acres of their 5.5 acre land.
F4F strives to protect and increase forest cover in India using the Payments for Ecosystems (PES) model. Under this model, farmers and rural landowners receive semi-annual cash payments in exchange for implementing actions that maintain young forests or protect biodiversity in existing forests. In the free market, individuals who create and maintain ecosystem services (fresh water, biodiversity, clean air, fertile soil, etc.) receive nothing in return for the tangible benefits these services provide to society. PES intervenes to address this market failure, facilitating the transition to green livelihoods.
F4F’s reforestation model does two things at once: it creates and maintains forests while providing farmers with additional income, livelihood security and resilience.
Soon the land of Dhawale will be home to a variety of fruit, medicinal, commercial and native plants. jungle trees, providing year-round income and much-needed resilience in the face of increasingly unpredictable weather.
A human community is only as strong as the land on which it lives. The high cost of unhealthy land is borne disproportionately by those whose survival remains at the mercy of rain, soil and temperature.
Yet their misfortune is causing a significant shift in land use practices across the country. It is crucial that we take note. The people most vulnerable to climate change are set to become one of the most powerful forces for its mitigation.