The photos above are from a village called Karech that I've been working in with the Foundation for Ecological Security (FES). The bottom photo shows the improvement of the forest after a forest management committee was formed in the village and decided to close off the portion of the forest on the right as a conservation effort.
A huge part of FES's work is forest and biodiversity conservation and my work to build their sustainable energy program is heavily tied to this. I've been working on funding proposals to bring more biogas digesters and efficient cookstoves to the villages so that the local populations' wood consumption decreases and takes some pressure off of the forests. There are also a plethora of human health benefits by switching to biogas cookstoves and efficient cookstoves. It reduces indoor air pollution (which impacts women and children, who spend the most time by the fire) and also reduces the amount of time women must spend collecting fuel wood. The results of the 80 household interviews that I completed in Oct-Dec show that women, on average, spend 44 hours per month collecting fuel wood. Typically 2-3 women (and sometimes children) from a household will walk an average of 3.1 km to the forest to cut and collect the wood. They carry 25-30kg back on their head--the whole trip taking, on average 3.5 hours. I went on a fuel wood collection trip to the forest with a group of women on Wednesday to better understand. Here are some shots from the trip. The one young girl carried the wood on her head with no hands almost the whole trek. All the women were only wearing flip-flops and navigated up and down the steep hills with such ease! Meanwhile, one of the students from the US who is currently visiting for the week had a major wipe-out in his nice American running shoes as we were going down a hill. The girls from the village could not stop laughing! Oh, and by the way, guess where they go to collect the wood: the wildlife sanctuary! When deforestation is an issue, the wildlife sanctuary is the best place to go for good wood of course! We walked right through the broken stone wall into the sanctuary. I should also mention that, besides one lizard, the only animals we saw in the wildlife sanctuary were cattle and goats grazing.
wall into the wildlife sanctuary
the women are so tiny but are so strong!
i was with women form the Gameti tribe, but we saw some girls from the Garasian tribe grazing their goats in the sanctuary
taking a break
the two village men work with FES and connected us with the women. the student who wiped-out on our trek is standing behind :P
FES works primarily with the tribal populations (Garasia and Gameti tribes) living in the rural areas of the Udaipur District. As I mentioned before, their biggest focus is conservation of forests and biodiversity as there has been a steady decline of both since, I'm told, the time of colonization. The tribal populations rely very heavily on the forest for fuel wood for cooking and building their homes and for their cattle and goats to graze. The shrinking forest is also a major reason for water scarcity issues in the region (based on my interviews with people in the villages, the availability of water seems to be the greatest concern). Less vegetation means the soil has poor water retention capabilities, which means more runoff and lower rates of groundwater replenishment.
As I was learning about all these environmental issues, I was wondering why they've only become issues in recent years. If these people have been living for hundreds of years, they must have understood how to live sustainably in order to survive for so long. Was it a questions of overpopulation? Climate change? Why has deforestation become an issues in recent years? I've been discussing this questions with colleagues and NGO partners a lot recently and what I have learned about two major causes:
Current deforestation issues are in large part an after effect of colonization. Villages were deemed as "revenue villages" by the British and their purpose was essentially to provide the British with raw materials (these villages are still called revenue villages by the locals, even though the title no longer has any significance). The effects of poor forest management from that time are now becoming more prominent. It wasn't until 60 years after independence, in 2006, that the tribals regained constitutional rights over the forests in the Forest Rights Act.
The second major issue is the number of cattle and goats grazing in the forests. Domestic demand for dairy products and global demand for mutton has increased and the tribals so tribals have begun raising more cattle and goats in order to get income (most of them are vegetarian so the goats are not used for subsistence purposes). The founder of Climate Healers is visiting FES with some students from the University of Iowa for a couple of weeks, working on a solar cooking project, and I've doing some field visits with them. The founder, Sailesh Rao, told me that paneer (cheese) in India was very uncommon when he was growing up. It's very energy intensive to make paneer-you need so many cattle and so much land for them to graze to get enough milk for just a small amount of cheese. The prices of paneer are pretty high in India, although it's considered a pretty common food now for the middle and upper classes. So the increase in grazing animals is also a major contributor. I've actually heard that Rajasthan is the largest exporter of mutton in India and that most of it goes to the middle east.
Despite the fact that it might seem obvious to us that a biogas stove is an improvement to the traditional wood fire, it's very difficult to get the tribals to adopt lifestyle changes in the long-term. It's always been their way of life and change can be difficult. As outsiders, we are asking the tribal population to change their ways, to stop collecting wood, to cook their food in a different way in order to save the forest, all because of OUR own demands for meat and dairy products. As one colleague said, as the outsiders we should be begging the tribals to stop cutting wood so that we can continue to eat our cheese and mutton and have nice wood furniture!