Four years ago, the divisional forest officer (DFO) of Jharkhand's Lohardaga was taken aback when he saw hundreds of villagers carrying 'illegal' firewood from a nearby forest.
The officer, Vikas Kumar Ujjwal, took over as DFO in 2017 and stayed a few metres from the Kuru Forest guesthouse. While he was on his field visit, he happened to witness the villagers carrying the firewood. When he inquired, he learnt that the locals did not have anything else to do for their livelihood and hence, were going to sell the firewood they collected from the forest, at a local market.
After this incident, Ujjwal held a brief discussion with the other forest department officials. He realised that frequent forest fires, destruction of Salgi forest in the Kuru range of the Lohardaga forest division including violence between government forces and Maoists were some of the boiling issues in the region that needed immediate attention, reported The New Indian Express.
In the next three years, this young 2014-batch Indian Forest Officer (IFS) transformed this Maoist-infested jungle into a tourist destination that led to several economic activities.
Ujjwal first committed himself to bring order in the area after looking at the poor state of affairs in terms of forest management and the livelihood of villagers. However, he very well knew it was a difficult task, to begin with.
The Salgi protected forest was not in good shape and lacked a dense green patch. The range staffers also feared entering the forest citing Maoist threat. These problems, along with many others, had reduced the overall green cover of the protected forest spread over 5,000 hectares. This had even dried up the natural water streams in the forest.
He decided to take the help of the local community so that forest conservation and livelihood could go hand in hand. "I saw that the people in this region were primarily dependent on forest wood. We picked the Salgi forest first as it was crucial for the water security of Jharkhand, since three significant rivers- Damodar, Sankh and Auranga- originate from there," said Ujjwal.
After holding several meetings, Ujjwal received a lot of ideas from the villagers.
He said that the villagers were reluctant initially but after a few meetings, got convinced to join hands together to protect forest patches adjoining their villages. "In return, we promised them to create livelihood opportunities, and took up soil moisture conservation work in the catchment area of Manodag waterfall, and conducted beekeeping training and distributed kits to 150 villagers, and held bamboo craft training programmes," said Ujjwal.
"We also appointed a few villagers as fire watchers of forest and for construction of check-dams including other entry-point activities as per gram sabhas' recommendations," said the forest officer.
He said that these activities would have turned futile if a sustainable plan that had the potential to address both - forest management and bring a socio-economic impact of a bigger proportion - was not chalked out.
"Thus, the Namodag ecotourism was established under which joint forest management committee (JFMC) members started managing every activity- from entry to exit of tourists," he added.
A nominal fee was charged from all the tourists and in return, the members of 'van samiti' provide facilities such as parking, trekking, guide, etc. The engagement of local villagers and the support from the district administration ensured the direct livelihood to a minimum of over 40 people on regular basis.
There was also an increase in the patrolling activities by the forest department officials based on inputs from JFMC members to catch hold of offenders involved in the illegal timber trade.
After the inception in 2017, the registered count of tourists visiting the Namodag ecotourism soon crossed 2.5 lakhs. Ujjwal said that this generated enough revenue for the welfare of the local community.
"Later, for the purpose of conservation of forests, an awareness programme was launched by us. After this, people started connecting themselves to the direct benefit of forest conservation," said Ujjwal. Gradually, the illegal felling down of trees was reduced by 80 to 85 per cent due to rejuvenated JFMCs and the density of forest also started improving, he added.
In 2017, as many as three lakh saplings of local varieties were planted across the forest land. Also, nearly 20 check dams and man-made ponds were developed by the forest department. Recently, there have been some signs of the return of several animals including sloth bear, deer, porcupine, fox and other species.
The locals appreciate Ujjwal for his efforts to transform Namodag, known for having the highest railway bridge in Jharkhand, into a tourist hub. Finally, Namodag is now seen on the tourist map of Jharkhand.
Several check-dams have been constructed across the forest to provide drinking water to wild animals, said a villager named Satish Shahdeo.
This success at Namodag has inspired many other van samitis who are now planning to replicate potential eco-tourism sites at Lavapani, Dhardharia, Juriya, Chulhapani and other places.
During the process of planning and execution, Ujjwal was threatened many times by anti-social elements. But that did not deter him from doing his job.
For its incredible work, the Salgi joint forest management committee (JFMC) was awarded the best JFMC in the division in 2017-18. The once degraded area is now known for its greenery as visible in the satellite imagery.
The registered count of tourists visiting Namodag has been increasing with time. This has generated enough revenue which can be used for the local community to not only support remunerations to people engaged in tourism there but also to have a corpus fund for infrastructure enhancement.
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