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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Afforestation changes life and landscape: How a district in Assam lost a forest, gained a future

Floods, illegal felling reduced a reserve forest in northern Assam to wasteland, then a clutch of villages joined hands to script a remarkable resurrection.

Written by Samudra Gupta Kashyap | Guwahati |
Updated: December 25, 2017 6:50:40 am
Those who made it happen: (from left) Ismail Daimary, Bimal Daimary and a team member. (Express Photo: Samudra Gupta Kashyap)

WHEN HE was growing up, says Ismail Daimary, his parents would warn him from entering the Bhairabkunda reserve forest, in Udalguri district of northern Assam, as it was teeming with wildlife, from big cats, reptiles to elephants. Then in a mere 10-year period, between 1979 and 1989, the 22.24-sq km pristine forest, located at the tri-juncture of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Bhutan, was reduced to just sand, gravel and dead stumps of trees by a combination of illegal felling and a succession of floods.

“As young boys, we had seen a thick forest here. But over the years, we were also witness to how it disappeared. The felling and the floods decimated the forest,” says Daimary, 52, now secretary of the Getsemani Joint Forest Management Committee (JFMC), which was behind the massive afforestation project that has since rejuvenated the reserve.

The afforestation efforts began when Daimary and fellow villagers from the neighbouring areas — Elison Daimary, Atul Basumatary, Sunilal Boro, Helena Basumatary, Someswari Daimary and a few others — set up the Sonai Anchalik Multi-Purpose Farm in 2003. All of them were either school dropouts or unschooled. “We were then a group of 35 unemployed youth who began by rearing ducks, pigs, poultry and cattle on a plot of about 100 bighas on that very wasteland which was once the reserve. But our efforts failed. In 2007, a new Forest Range Officer, Naba Kumar Bordoloi, posted here gave us fresh ideas of setting up a Joint Forest Management Committee which would take up afforestation on a big scale under a central government scheme,” recalls Daimary, who has studied up to Class XII.

Bordoloi, who was posted at Udalguri from 2004 to 2012, organised the people of six villages into six JFMCs under the Darrang Forest Development Authority, got them registered, and put up a micro-plan that was approved by the National Afforestation Programme (NAP). “We set up six JFMCs, Sonaigaon, Goroimari, Sapangaon, Bhairabpur, No 1 Majargaon and No 2 Majargaon. As funds began flowing in, we organised basic training for the villagers on how and why to take part in the plantation programme,” says Bordoloi, now Assistant Conservator of Forest (ACF) in Mangaldoi.

A stretch of the Bhairabkunda reserve (Express Photo: Samudra Gupta Kashyap)

The NAP scheme provided the villagers basic livelihood with daily wages for taking part in the plantation, and even as Rs 80 lakh flowed in at regular intervals on the basis of progress of the work over five years.

By the end of 2012, the afforestation had covered 550 hectares of land. “We began with Rs 2 lakh for 200 hectares, and though there were initial problems of the saplings dying due to lack of ground water, the village youth dug three channels from the Dhansiri river that is now protected with an embankment, so that the entire 550 hectares received enough water especially during the dry season to keep the plants alive,” Bordoloi says.

With forest officials providing constant guidance, the villagers planted over 11 lakh saplings that included timber species like gamari, sishu, khoyar, simalu, titachapa, segun, khokon and koroi, apart from several bamboo species. “We also planted a large number of saplings of mango, amlokhi (amla), jamun, guava, elephant apple and various varieties of berries, which in turn started attracting wild animals, birds, reptiles and butterflies,” says Lenin Daimary, president of Getsemani.

Elephant herds that had been hit by shrinking of habitat in the adjoining areas of Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh, began making their way here. “Leopards, monkeys, wild boars and numerous species of snakes have already made this forest their home,” says Madhurjya Kumar Sarma, currently Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) of Udalguri. “A few peacocks too had come to stay here, but were killed by leopards. Once in a while we also see a few hornbills, while there are numerous birds, many of them definitely migratory,” says Bimal Daimary, another member of the group.

The afforestation, however, hit a roadblock. Even as the villagers had completed their task of recreating the 550-hectares, the central scheme came to an end, leading to dissolution of the six JFMCs. This also brought an end to the daily wages of the villagers. “We had already spent six valuable years of our lives creating this wonderful forest. How could we now suddenly abandon it just because the government scheme had ended?” Ismail Daimary says.

Within a few months, members of the six dissolved JFMCs got together and constituted the Getsemani JFMC, the name coming from Gethsemane, an urban forest at the foot of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem where Jesus had prayed and his disciples slept the night before his Crucifixion. “Bordoloi sir had also got us to dig a big 2.5-bigha pond in the middle of the forest, where we have started rearing fish. When Thaneswar Malakar was the Udalguri deputy commissioner, he gave us Rs 10 lakh to construct a guest house,” says Atul Basumatary, the only graduate in the group of 45 men and women who now constitute the Getsemani JFMC.

Today, the JFMC earns a few thousand rupees a month by selling fish, while it charges a nominal fee from villagers for extracting straw and other minor forest produce. They also have plans to host tourists in the existing guest house, along with a new chang-ghar — traditional house with a raised bamboo platform being constructed at a cost of Rs 15 lakh provided by the Bodoland Territorial Council — which will together have five rooms for tourists.

“We are looking at tourism and related activities for providing livelihood to the residents of the six villages. While Bhairabkunda has been a popular picnic spot for decades, we also have plans to provide tented accommodation to adventure-lovers, apart from setting up a showroom for sale of local handloom and handicraft products. Film shooting is another area the group is looking at,” says Bimal Daimary, a member of the organisation.

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