Community Livelihood Action Against Climate Change

The livelihoods of the Bhil tribal people of Alirajpur district in Madhya Pradesh state of India were in a very precarious state by the early 1980s. However, this had not been always so. The average annual rainfall in this hilly area is 900 mm occurring in the monsoon period from mid June to mid October. Traditionally the Bhil tribals had adapted to this eco-system by doing some organic agriculture in the valleys and supplementing it with produce collected from the forests which were of a very rich dry deciduous kind and an abundance of grasses, shrubs, creepers and herbs. Despite the hard rock undeneath, the dense forests used to ensure that there was enough natural recharge of the rain through the fractures in the rock and so there used to be water in the streams throughout the year. After independence from British rule in 1947 the Forest Department was handed over the administration of the area which was converted into reserved forests and immediately the commercial exploitation for timber production began. This upset the fragile hilly eco-system of the region and soon with the forests gone the thin soils too were washed away and natural recharge of the rain was greatly reduced leading to the drying up of the streams. The Bhils’ livelihoods were the most affected as the fertility of their lands as well as the supply of forest produce went down. Simultaneously the provisions of the Indian Forest Act made them criminals in their own backyard and they were forced to pay bribes to the Forest Department staff for access to the forests. Then in 1983 the Bhil tribals of the area began organising to demand their rights and especially the right to protect the forests which were their main lifeline. They formed an organisation called Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath (KMCS) and began protecting the forests which had become denuded in about fifty villages in Sondwa Block. Later in 1993 I became associated with this organisation to help in this work. The uniqueness of this forest conservation effort is its reliance on the traditional labour pooling customs of the Bhils. These customs had begun to decay due to the inroads of the monetary economy and the destruction of the natural resource base of the Bhils. The women of KMCS formed groups of five or six and began patrolling the forests to ensure that they were not grazed and the root stock was allowed to regenerate. Thereafter they made sure that the new trees were not cut. The grass would be cut only after the monsoons and distributed equally among the protecting families to be used as fodder for cattle. The women, emboldened by their success, then began another conservation activity. The small teams that had been formed began working in groups on the farms of their members to plug the gullies in between their hilly farms with stones so as to catch the soil and some of the water that was being washed off their farms by rain. Over a period of a decade and a half since the mid nineteen nineties hundreds of such gully plugs have been constructed leading to the creation of many small plots of land with deep soil adding to the productivity of the area. The streams which had begun to go dry in summer due to the heavy deforestation have become perennial once again. Growing forests, greater availability of flowing water leading to reduced demand for artificial energy and greater agricultural productivity achieved through organic practices all contribute significantly to mitigation of climate change. When this is done through communitarian collective action and especially by women, then the gains in terms of social justice achieved are an added benefit. Thus the women of KMCS have been mitigating climate change from much before it became a current buzzword and have in the process improved their livelihood situation tremendously. In addition to this work I have also participated along with my colleagues in actions against liquor contractors and at present am also involved in reproductive health and rights work for women in the slums of Indore city.

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