This village shows there's money in saving forests

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The Times of India, Dudhai, India

Dudhai's villagers may be the first in India to have got financial benefits under the Biological Diversity Act, 2002.They have also used its provisions to end rampant illegal mining on the Swarna riverbed which had been destroying agricultural field and forests.

Fighting the mining mafia, engaged in large-scale extraction of stones and sand for construction works, seemed unthinkable until villagers and forest officers in Dudhai, near Dehradun, decided to use the biodiversity Act.

"All of us decided that the mining has to stop. The forests along the river were getting destroyed. Our agricultural land was eroding," says Rajesh Mall, chairman of the Dudhai Biodiversity Management Committee (BMC), which the villagers revived three years ago. "We started night patrols and warned the miners that we would invoke the provisions of the Act, and they could end up behind bars. The forest department also helped us."

The Act makes it clear that bio-resources cannot be extracted without the permission of BMC, which has proprietary rights. "It is punishable with imprisonment (upto three years). We called the miners to the BMC meeting where members of the gram panchayat were also present. Gradually, they understood that the threat was serious," says Isam Singh Pal, honorary BMC member and a forester. Eventually, they didn't have to arrest anyone. The night patrols bore fruit and after several months, illegal mining in the stretch of the Swarna river flowing through Dudhai stopped completely. Soil erosion has also ceased.

On the flip side, many villagers are upset that they cannot mine minerals from the river for construction. "It's good that illegal mining has stopped," says farmer Ratna Devi. "But villagers are also not allowed to extract because this is a revenue forest area."

While protecting forests and biodiversity imposes some limits on the villagers, the Act also brings financial gains. Dudhai is possibly the first BMC in the country to start claiming benefits under the Act's access and benefit-sharing (ABS) provisions, which allows both the provider of the resources and the users to share the profits.

The BMC recently issued notices asking Uttarakhand Forest Corporation to share the benefits of selling timber from trees felled for a road project. "As per the Act, we can claim 3% to 5% of the amount they earn from the timber," says Mall. "We are going to put the money in the local biodiversity fund and utilise it for conservation."

 

The BMC has also started collecting benefits -about 3% of sales -from an industrial ist who grows lemongrass on large tracts of land he owns in the village.

Uttarakhand Biodiversity Board officials say the Act is a powerful tool in the hands of communities but implementation of its ABS provisions is complex. The board's chair man Rakesh Shah points out that several government departments, like revenue, irrigation, forest, agriculture and horticulture, have ownership or responsibility for the land. "Environmental resources are governed by several statutes and laws so how are you going to bestow sovereign rights to the communities?" he says."However, the biological diversity Act is an umbrella law and its provisions will prevail if there's a conflict with other laws (such as forest and wildlife laws)."
 
The Uttarakhand Biodiversity Board has issued notices to 600 industries, and collected a little over Rs 1 crore so far. Of this, it has shared Rs 1 lakh with the Dudhai BMC which has started developing a medicinal garden. Board officials say the rest will be shared with other BMCs in the state. If they follow the Dudhai model, more money will flow in the coming years.
 
This story was produced with the support of Earth Journalism Network and Arcadia Fund