December 2011: Sometimes a simple solution is all that is needed to impact an entire forest. Before 2003, every single day, the Bandipur National Park was buzzing with people collecting fuelwood and grazing cattle from the 200 or so villages surrounding the forest.
Home to around 200,000 people and an equal number of livestock, these villages exerted unbelievable pressure on the fragile ecosystem. Estimates suggest that roughly 35,000 families would each collect an average of 10 kg. of firewood a day, amounting to an astronomical 350,000 kg. per day. The presence of these many people in the forest also had a direct, adverse impact on the wildlife.
To help alleviate the situation a concerned group of people came together under the banner of Namma Sangha in 2003 to find a sustainable solution to the problem. Bureaucrats, lawyers, civil servants, wildlife lovers, this motley group was united by a love for the wild and a strong belief that protecting Bandipur would ultimately benefit local communities and the country at large. With fuelwood being at the centre of the problem, the group began by surveying the fuel needs of locals. The results were an eye-opener. Few, if any, had gas connections; virtually all kitchens ran on forest wood. Worse, when individuals entered the forest for wood, many ended up hunting small game, collected forest produce and disturbed waterholes thus impacting wildlife in different ways.
Namma Sangha therefore decided that the best way forward would be to help wean villagers off their primary fuel – forest wood. This one step alone would ease pressures and give the land a chance to regenerate.
A second survey was conducted to evaluate villagers’ receptiveness to LPG cylinders. The response was positive, but the area lacked an effective distribution system. Understandably, villagers were reluctant to buy into a system they could not be sure of. Nama Sangha therefore decided to set a system up that would reach the gas to every doorstep… at an affordable cost.
With the objective clear in their head, the organisers began the task of fund raising. They received an overwhelming response. The Indian Oil Corporation, Karnataka, itself stepped up and offered a system for quick procurement and supply of gas connections. It was not easy going because earlier attempts had failed and villagers were skeptical. Eventually, persistence and the offer of a free stove with every connection did the trick.
Seven years later, Namma Sangha confirms that around 29,700 families along the Bandipur forest boundary have opted for gas connections and this has dramatically reduced the illegal entry into the forest. To prevent a repeat of past experiences, a steady supply was ensured through two special gas agencies set up in Melkamanahally and B. Matkere (75 km. apart), with godowns to store cylinders and seven auto-rickshaws for door delivery. As many as 17 young people from the villages are employed to oversee the entire system, which is working quite efficiently right now.
Namma Sangha also maintains a working relationship with the Forest Department, serving as a sort of informal link between them and the villagers. By focusing on one key issue and solving it in a practical way to the total satisfaction of the villagers, Namma Sangha managed to eliminate one of the key factors in the degradation of Bandipur. The forest has responded along the periphery of the park by springing back to life, with wild animals returning to their lands and human-wildlife conflict dramatically lower.
To find out more about their work, or to support their efforts write to
NAMMA SANGHA, BANDIPUR
Hangala, Gundlupet Taluk,
Karnataka – 571126.
Published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXI No. 6, December 2011