Back in the early 1980s, this 22.24 square kilometre Bhairabkunda Reserve Forest, which lies 100 km away from Guwahati in the Udalguri district, was barren due to illegal logging.
An unfortunate consequence of such rampant deforestation was rising man-animal conflicts, particularly elephants, who wander into nearby villages in search of food.
Today, however, this patch of land is marked by tall rubber trees, a plethora of other plant species and thriving fauna like elephants, leopards, mongoose, python, deer, wild boars, various species of snakes and migratory birds.
These heart-warming developments are thanks to former militants from the Bodo community, who gave up their armed struggle for secession from India and just over ten years ago, began this noble reforestation initiative.
This 35-member group of former armed militants have dedicated the past ten years into restoring the ecological balance of their homeland. Led by Ismail Daimari, this group first surrendered their arms and instead of living on the government’s dole in relief camps, approached the government for a portion of the uncultivated land on a 50-year lease.
The deal they worked out entailed an equal share of the profits from cultivation with the state government.
“In 2003, 35 villagers formed and registered Sonaigaon Multipurpose Farm for cultivation. These people then came into contact with Naba Kumar Bordoloi, the then Forest Range Officer serving at Bhairabkunda RF. Bordoloi convinced the members of the farm to proceed with (the) planting of trees under JFMC (Joint Forest Management) scheme. In 2005, the process of documentation, survey etc., had been conducted and a proposal was submitted to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. Plantation was carried out between 2007-2011,” reports Assam Tribune.
They haven’t looked back, and this process resulted in the regeneration of this once-barren land. Assistance from the central government was promised, but Ismail tells Sputnik News that this help hasn’t been forthcoming.
The group managed to convert this barren land into a forest with assistance from locals in the surrounding six villages (Sonaigaon, Bhairabpur, Goroimari, Sapangaon, Mazargaon-1, and Mazargaon-2), using traditional means.
“We started the plantations in 2007 with just 35 members who formed a joint forest management committee. We started work after seeking guidance from the forest department. We were supposed to share 50% of the income from the forest with the state. But we later decided not to bring down the trees. We are now focusing on developing cottage industries based on forest resources for income generation,” Ismail Daimari told Sputnik News last month.
Besides the plantation, this 35-member group and other villagers have constructed canals, sourcing water from nearby rivers to nourish this man-made forest.
However, beyond forest resources, the former militants are looking at developing the Bharaibkunda Reserve Forest into a hot spot for eco-tourism, which they hope will bring greater income for locals.
Thus far, students from Delhi University and tourists from 13 nations have visited the reserve forest. The potential for growth here is immense, say locals.
Having said that, it isn’t all peace and happiness in these parts. Man-animal conflicts, particularly with elephants, continue to take place. This year, 18 people have lost their lives to such conflicts.
Moreover, the Songbijit faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) continues to wage war against the Indian state in Assam, with the militant group first rejecting a ceasefire agreement, followed by the Central government, which no longer wants to deal with entities involved in killing innocent people.
Nonetheless, the story of how former militants gave up the gun and built a forest in their homeland offers hope that this land will see better days in future.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)