A Walk through the Jungle

Satish Patnaik . May 18, 2020

Realizing the compelling need of understanding the relationship between the jungle and the people who live off it, Azim Premji University and PRADAN began a four-year course in Adaptive Skilling through Action Research—an attempt to understand these complex socio-ecological systems and arrive at development strategies, which encompassed an exploration of the jungle as a reservoir of ethno-medicines, as a school for the younger generation, and as a source of rejuvenation of bio-diversity

Realizing the compelling need of understanding the relationship between the jungle and the people who live off it, Azim Premji University and PRADAN began a four-year course in Adaptive Skilling through Action Research—an attempt to understand these complex socio-ecological systems and arrive at development strategies, which encompassed an exploration of the jungle as a reservoir of ethno-medicines, as a school for the younger generation, and as a source of rejuvenation of bio-diversity

I was sitting on my disturbances comfortably until the forest fires across the world. The brutal burning of the Amazon, the apathy of the ruling class to that particular ecosystem, the lackadaisical chopping off of trees in our own country for so-called development compelled me to pen this article. Because I found that trees harbor a complex web of relationships, which human beings and other species share and nurture. This relationship with the jungle changes with time and dominant discourses. Unless the inhabitants of this social ecological system do not reflect and make necessary course corrections, they may fall prey to either a development model that they never aspired for or to a romantic idea of jungle from which they are alienated. Both the models put least emphasis on the nature of the relationship people have with their jungle. My argument is more about a different discourse, in which people and their relationships with the natural fauna and flora are at the centre of all development interventions.

Trees harbor a complex web of relationships, which human beings and other species share and nurture. This relationship with the jungle changes with time and dominant discourses. Unless the inhabitants of this social ecological system do not reflect and make necessary course corrections, they may fall prey to either a development model that they never aspired for or to a romantic idea of jungle from which they are alienated.

I ndian jungles are not isolated havens of flora and fauna but an active interaction ground of fauna, flora and people. This feature makes jungles vibrant and the adjacent human settlements resilient. This organic relationship has deteriorated over the past two centuries or so, and people are bereft of their traditional knowledge of forest systems and skills of co-living. In the name of industrial growth, jungles are cut and livelihood patterns altered with chemical inputs, and the link of jungle with agriculture systems has deteriorated. Due to this deterioration, the adivasi villages of central Indian plateau particularly are rapidly losing their livelihood that is integrated in the forest systems. Additionally, with climatic vulnerabilities looming large, this zone urgently needs an alternative to revive their social ecological system and support them to arrive at sustainable models of development that may be distinctly different from the mainstream idea of development.

In the name of industrial growth, jungles are cut and livelihood patterns altered with chemical inputs, and the link of jungle with agriculture systems has deteriorated. Due to this deterioration, the adivasi villages of central Indian plateau particularly are rapidly losing their livelihood that is integrated in the forest systems.

A zim Premji University (APU) and PRADAN have joined hands for four years for Adaptive Skilling through Action Research (ASAR)—an attempt to understand these complex socio-ecological systems, to arrive at development strategies, based on sustainable intensification models. In the first year of research, in 2019, the areas of deskilling were explored. In order to delineate paths for adaptive skilling, the teams engaged in identifying where and how the adivasis are gradually losing, or have already lost, their traditional know-how. Three forest fringe research sites (Jana, a village in Gumla district, Jharkhand; Jharna Ghughri in Dindori district and Chattania in Singrauli district, Madhya Pradesh) were identified to re-look and re-establish their relationship with the village jungle. Interestingly, the villagers of the three research sites emphasized that their ago-ecosystem is at risk due to their changing relationship with the jungle that was deteriorating at a fast pace.

Initially,the exercise undertaken by the villagers seemed like a conventional exercise of forest conservation. Although the central focus, as narrated by the villagers, for ‘A walk through the jungle’ was to understand, assimilate and conserve the treasure of biodiversity, the lens used by each village differed with their socio-cultural milieu. Here, in this article, the focus is on three different aspects of the relationship of people with the jungle. These range from the jungle as a reservoir of ethno- medicines, the jungle as a school for younger generation, and the jungle as a source of rejuvenation of bio-diversity. A jungle can mean much more than these three experiences; however, in India, villages and panchayats do not possess any repository of these complex relationships leading to lack of necessary reflection. Hence, for us to travel this path was a unique experience and to arrive at action took time

The focus is on three different aspects of the relationship of people with the jungle. These range from the jungle as a reservoir of ethno-medicines, the jungle as a school for younger generation, and the jungle as a source of rejuvenation of bio-diversity.

B efore, I delve into the experiences, I would like to also share that the jungle sometimes also works as a place of taboo and superstitions. Many a time, they inhibit deeper exploration. As an example, women are not allowed in certain parts of the jungle; the belief in the presence of supernatural powers in certain sections of a jungle, etc. These require critical dialoguing with the villagers, to usher in change in the village society. These were also the limitations in my explorations in the initial phase.

The jungles of the central Indian plateau are deciduous and look more or less similar from a bird’s eye view; the specific species composition at the micro-level defines the nature of the relationship people have with their jungle and this shapes their agro-ecosystem. For an outsider like me, jungles are erstwhile abodes of tigers. That people are dependent on forest is easily said; the exact nature and significance of the jungles on their lives and livelihoods remain elusive. These complex relationships need to be understood subjectively, in order to re-work the social ecological systems. There lies the possibility of creating safe havens distinct from the effects of climate change and other impending calamities, due to the valorizing and over-homogenization of the industrial mode of development.

That people are dependent on forest is easily said; the exact nature and significance of the jungles on their lives and livelihoods remain elusive. These complex relationships need to be understood subjectively, in order to re-work the social ecological systems.

T he villagers of Jana, who are protecting their 78 ha of dense jungle for the past many decades, decided to record the ethno-medical remedies prepared out of available flora and fauna of the jungle in a register that future generations could refer to. It would regularly be updated in the village gram sabha. The village vaid (medicine man) and older people walked through the jungle and helped in collecting the samples from the jungle and pasted these in a book and made small notes about each on its use. Some plants that they used to for preparation of many remedies could not be found at all. They were shocked at such sudden loss of these plants. This initiative helped revive their knowledge of ethno-medicines. This was a work in progress for eight months and, by June 2019, they documented treatment for 20 ailments using 39 flora and 2 fauna. These have been documented in the book, with samples and the name of the material used. They are now planning to teach these to the younger generation so that this knowledge will not be lost and the new generation will harvest forest produce sustainably. Many of the preparations need to be looked at from a scientific lens; the documentation itself, however, has opened the doors for further exploration. These steps will facilitate villagers to think differently about the forest, in terms of access and control. The villagers decided to apply for community forest rights so that they can preserve the rich bio- diversity better, and the jungle will continue to contribute rich humus for their agriculture land without getting deteriorated. This may pave the way for understanding and reviving the life and livelihoods in the Chotanagpur plateau area. Although the relationship of the people with the jungle is very complex, the initiative of preparing the ethno-medicines register gave the villagers the necessary impetus to reflect on and re-work their relationship with the jungle.

The villagers of Jharna Ghughri, a tribal forest village, looked at the jungle as a new pedagogy. The sayan (older people) of the village along with the primary school teacher shared their concern about how the younger generations are unaware of the richness and utility of their forest. They were worried that their textbooks never talked about their village jungle and soon the young generation may exploit the jungle instead of becoming stewards of it. In the last decade itself, their jungle had degraded considerably. They attempted an innovative approach, whereby the older generation, along with the teacher, took the students of the primary school on a walk through the jungle on 30 January 2019. Although they could not cover the entire 800 ha of jungle, through this small but rich expedition, the younger generation learnt about different trees and animals of the forest and their uses. They collected samples from the trees and prepared a biodiversity register. The students were excited about this way of learning. They have kept the book in the school so that others can refer to it and plan for such walks every year. This was an interesting exercise and the students were very enthusiastic about it. Gangaram, one of the elders of the village, felt proud to be able to share his experience among the children. Many shared the concern that the diversity is depleting at an alarming rate and they must act to keep it intact. After the event, the villagers planned to protect their forest against illegal felling and poaching; they needed to travel a long way because the jungle is being shared by many adjacent villages, which depend on it for grazing, food, fuel wood and other use. Interestingly, children have taken up the baton and have conducted many meetings and skits on the topic of conservation. This is a new way of engaging with development and the children are showing the path to the elders.

Of the three research sites, Chattania has the most degraded jungle. Paucity of resources have made them extra vigilant about their bio-diversity and, at the same time, have also made them more vulnerable. Here, schoolchildren took the initiative to revive the village jungle by enhancing the bio-diversity. In the summer of 2019, along with few elders of the village, the school children took a walk through the jungle. They understood the importance of each plant and animal of the jungle; they were armed with cloth bags to collect the seeds of each plant. On their return, they made seed balls. And when the monsoon arrived, they planted the balls in barren patches of the jungle. Some of them even raised a nursery of plants such as mahua in their backyard. Women self-help group (SHG) members supported this endeavour zealously. The hope was that these tender hands would nurture the biodiversity of the jungle; however, owing to living in a mixed community and many other social obligations, the results are not as encouraging as the other sites. This initiative is worth mentioning, however, to understand that the diverse nature of our relationship with the jungle requires diverse engagement and no two sites can follow the same route to change.

In the summer of 2019, along with few elders of the village, the school children took a walk through the jungle. They understood the importance of each plant and animal of the jungle; they were armed with cloth bags to collect the seeds of each plant.

T he villagers’ zeal to preserve the bio-diversity and attempts at keeping the complex relationship alive inspired me to look at the forest systems in a different light. At least in these three research sites, the villagers are more proactive in keeping the bio-diversity intact. They have cut fewer trees, planted many trees, educated and negotiated with nearby villagers, to check illegal felling and hunting, and with government stakeholders for their rights on their jungle. These are positive signs of change.

Although this is the experience of just a year and many such experiences needed to be assimilated, to arrive at a comprehensive understanding, it can be said confidently that there is an the ardent need to engage with the villagers about their relationship with the jungle. Most of our engagement in the development sector is limited to promotion of agricultural and allied activities, and this myopic intervention in itself is facilitating the severance of ties with the jungle and the agro-ecosystem.

There is an the ardent need to engage with the villagers about their relationship with the jungle. Most of our engagement in the development sector is limited to promotion of agricultural and allied activities, and this myopic intervention in itself is facilitating the severance of ties with the jungle and the agro-ecosystem.

W ithout any systematic approach, village societies will soon get detached from their adjacent jungles and the rate of exploitation of jungle will accelerate. This will play havoc for the survival of these village societies as well as impact the climatic resilience of India adversely. The plantation drive of the forest department promotes mono-culture and may never replace the jungles of India. These central Indian green pockets are the source of many river systems and are the fertile grounds for many agro-ecological zones. A unique engagement, therefore, with emphasis on an empathetic relationship between the social and ecological systems in a village needs to be in place, to rejuvenate forest systems and reconnect the villagers—‘the stewards’—with their jungles spiritually.


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