March 21st, 2017
This World Forest Day, Goa shows India how communities can protect our precious forests.
The Goan Forest Department received government funds to the tune of INR 54 Lakhs (USD 80,000) in 2010. What they decided to do then defies logic. After systematically cutting down more than a million native, indigenous trees and plants in South Goa’s Cancona forest reserve, they bought and planted ornamental saplings in the cleared space to “increase forest cover”.
The so-called ‘afforestation’ project saw 1.1 million local trees being cut down and replaced by expensive plants of no practical value. “Our forests were being replaced with unknown trees which were useless as fodder for cattle or for making traditional, medicinal cures,” says Sanjay Gaonkar, a resident of Canacona district. Sanjay also points out that this created a monoculture environment in the reserve, completely destroying the biodiversity of the forest, and making it impossible for residents to gather forest produce, an activity which until then had contributed to their livelihoods. The situation seemed hopeless.
“We screened the video for the residents of 13 villages around Canacona, night after night, and informed the residents about the forest department’s activities and its environmental repercussions.”
This was when Video Volunteers Community Correspondent Devidas Gaonkar decided to capture the anguish of the people on video, who roundly criticised the Forest Department for its decision. Devidas and Sanjay then went on to form an association called Jungle Bachao Samiti (Save the Jungle Association), organising residents to participate in a community movement to save the Canacona forests. “We screened the video for the residents of 13 villages around Canacona, night after night, and informed the residents about the forest department’s activities and its environmental repercussions,” says Devidas.
The committee also used Devidas’ video to explain the problem at hand in local colleges, to gain the support of Goa’s youth and screened it for prominent local politicians and the district’s elected representatives. This was a prelude to filing a Right to Information (RTI) application to know why and how much the government was spending to destroy Canacona’s forests. The community united, under the banner of the association, in 2013 in the fight to save the forests, their home.
”It took another 1.5 years of constant advocacy, knowledge-sharing and the courage to ask for administrative accountability, before the battle was won.”
But victory did not come easy. It took another 1.5 years of constant advocacy, knowledge-sharing and the courage to ask for administrative accountability, before the battle was won. The forest department finally agreed not to sow foreign plants in the reserve and stick to indigenous trees in any further afforestation programs. As of 2015, the Canacona reserve is safe.
There’s a lesson here — on how a few determined local residents can demand accountability and challenge decisions taken by a government department. When threatened by the lumbering bureaucratic attitude of Goa’s forest officials, local residents took steps such as filing the RTI and mobilising a public call-to-action based on video proof with scientifically-backed research. With the support of the scientific community, community-backed protests and demonstrations took off and attracted media coverage. For now, this seems the best playbook to ensure that communities have a say in what happens to their forests.