The ghost village that saved a lush oak forest

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The Times of India, Noona, India

In a sparsely green landscape, the hill adjoining Noona village stands out for its lush, dense canopy. It's a Himalayan oak forest grown and nurtured by villagers over several decades.

Noona is one of the district's few villages to have perennial streams. People from neighbouring villages trek up to Noona to collect water when their streams dry up in summer.

Photo credit: Jayashree Nandi 

Devi Dutt, 72, former sarpanch of Noona's van (forest) panchayat, says the village has battled smugglers, contractors and businessmen to keep them off the forest. Today, the elders are still guarding it. But Noona's bountiful forests haven't managed to retain youngsters--it's one of Uttarakhand's several bhootiya or ghost villages, with vacant, dilapidated houses abandoned by villagers who have moved to cities in search of livelihood and education.

Van panchayats are community managed forest institutions common in the upper reaches. Dutt says he quit the sarpanch post as he was ageing."Saving forests requires running around and being forever watchful. When I was sarpanch, contractors once offered Rs 10 lakh to cut a road through the forest. We made them change the route instead. Some people wanted land here for a biscuit factory, we kicked them out. " Now, says Dutt, smugglers come at night. "They use a saw to cut trees, not an axe that you could hear from a distance."

According to N H Ravindranath, forestry expert at Indian Institute of Science, the Himalayan oak is a native species. "It is adapted to the soil, insects and local climate. It retains moisture Almora and prevents immediate runoff of water." Pre-Independence, the British en couraged plantations of chir pine here as its resin added to the state revenue.


Devi Dutt (Photo credit: Jayashree Nandi)

"But locals prefer oak as it gives better firewood and fodder, forms good-quality humus (organic matter) and prevents erosion." says Joginder Bisht, chairperson of Lok Chetna Manch that works with forest communities. The Himalayan oak, locally known as Banj, was initially planted in a small area by Devi Dutt's father and his generation of villagers.

"We secured it and planted more trees on 60 hectares. Today, when you walk in the forest the air is cool and clean," says Devi Dutt. It is home to several medicinal plants such as shatavari (a fertility supplement), bhimal (nutritious fodder), burans or rhododendron (multiple uses), and kafal (a berry to treat diarrhoea and insomnia). "The Banj forest is important. It gives us so much," says septuagenarian Khyali ram Bhagat, who burnt his hands trying to douse a forest fire 17 years ago.

What worries villagers is rapid migration. "See this huge house? It's meant for six-seven families. But my husband's brothers and families all left the village. If there is no education, no jobs, how will people live here?" asks Geeta Devi Kargeti. She says people here farm a mix of millets, pulses, paddy and vegetables. Crop raids by monkeys and wild boars are also a major factor driving people away, she adds.
 
Despite being fiercely active in conserving biodiversity, Noona doesn't have a biodiversity management committee that ought to be formed under the Biological Diversity Act of 2002. They have no idea of the power communities have over forest resources under the Act and how they can monetise it to generate revenue, create livelihoods, and check migration. The conventional pattern of agriculture also needs to change. "Maybe we should be growing medicinal plants or aromatic plants that will not be raided," says Bhagat.
 
"Youth should be retained or who will take care of the forests?"