Every morning in the tribal village of Kodarapalli in Odisha marks a routine activity for the women — they head to the first with lathis in their hands.
They call this activity thengapalli — ‘thenga’ for sticks, and ‘palli’ for turn. This is their attempt to safeguard their forests.
It involves 4-6 women patrolling the forest’s boundaries in shifts. Once their turn ends, another team of women change the guard.
The patrolling is done in three shifts, starting at 6 am and lasting until the late hours.
And at least 62 villages see women taking complete charge of the forest protection. Their conservation efforts have helped rejuvenate over 500 acres of forest land under their protection.
Promila Pradhan, a president of the protection committee from the village, shares that they are protecting the forest from smugglers, timber thieves and people who rob the natural resources without permission.
“The forest gives us wood, tubers, roots, tobacco leaves, mohua flowers, medicines and all-natural resources needed in all aspects of our livelihood. If we let it go, there will be nothing left for us,” she says.
Promila explains the practice started in the 1970s from Nayagarh district and slowly spread across the villages in other parts of the state.
The villager says that the years of effort has brought a check to the overexploitation of forests and made them sustainable, allowing all of them to coexist with nature.
Y Giri Rao, executive director at an NGO, Vasundhara, has been documenting the tribal communities for years.
He says that as the threats of looting the forest resources began to rise, the villagers started facing the brunt.They realised the gravity of depleting resources, started patrolling the borders of the jungles and formed clusters of villagers to protect the resources around them.
“They identified the routes of timber mafia and smugglers and busted their activities through the village network,” he says, adding that this helped build a robust conservation system.
“The villagers decided which plants or trees to source as per the need or season. They could modify rules as they understood the biodiversity and its dynamics by living closely,” he says.
Regarding other conservation aspects, Giri adds that during summer months, the community adheres to strict rules of not carrying matchbox or beedis for smoking as they could cause forest fires.
He adds that none of the rules were imposed by the forest officials, but evolved within the community with time.
Giri says that according to the Forest Department estimates from 2005, about 1.17 million hectares of forest land are protected and maintained by 1.5 million families.
“These communities have led and paved the path of conservation. Their contribution in protecting biodiversity cannot go ignored,” he adds.