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Watching the forests grow

23 Aug 2020/Masthan Vali

The 18 years that Potanna Dacharampalli spent as a Watcher in the Kalpavalli forests has given him a keen insight into the relationship between people and the forests. He was elected a Watcher by the Forest Protection Committee in the first meeting of 70 people in 1995 when the Collective began its work on protection of common lands in the area.

Like the people, he too has much depended on the fruits of the forests. Over the years, he has earned enough for him to start a sericulture initiative plus set up a shop in his village. His 4 acres of dry land was enough to grow and meet his family’s food requirements. He has grown uluva, kandi, pesalu, jowar, alasanda, ragi, korra, and a variety of other crops.

“The forest is like a mother”, he says, “she gives us water, food, clean air and everything we need to live comfortably. I have seen how much we, the people depend on these forests, especially in the drought years. Those years were bad. There was no rain for years. Nothing would grow in our fields. People migrated in droves. During this time, I have seen, people from far and near villages come to these forests for grass, date fruits and leaves, neredu fruits, etc. In those 4 years 4800 cartloads of grass was cut from these forests. I know this because I was responsible for documenting and keeping track of how these forests are being utilized. You see, people from around 7-8 villages, who have no land or other means of support depend on these forests for their sustenance. People earn easily upto Rs. 7,000 to Rs. 8,000 per person per season. People take the grass for roofing, to make brooms, for fodder. They take fruits and lop the branches for their agricultural implements. If they did this in the reserve forests which is adjacent to Kalpavalli, they would be caught, beaten and have to pay a fine of Rs.1,000 as a bribe!”

His task though seemed simple – to protect and keep a watch on it – was actually not easy. He walked 15-20 kms. a day, patrolling the hills and preventing anyone from cutting the trees, looked after newly planted saplings, kept a keen eye out for fires, documented the usage of the resources, collected seeds, and took care of the nurseries.

“The fires were always a problem. Shepherds from far and wide brought their flocks, sometimes as big as 10,000 animals, for grazing here. Often they would carelessly toss out their lit beedis and unwittingly start fires. Once a fire starts, it moves very fast, feeding on the dry, thick layer of grass. It can lay waste acres and acres of land. If I saw a fire, I would run to the village to raise an alarm. All would then rush back and work together, and beat the fires out with eeta leaves. It was very hard work. The flames often burnt our hands and the smoke would choke us, making our eyes burn and water. But what to do..? It was either that or see all our work turn to ashes”, he recollects.

When he started out as a Watcher he was a young man 27 years old. “That time these lands were barren, he recalls. All this miles of greenery you now see…? These are trees planted by us”, he declares proudly, his sense of ownership shining through in his voice. “Every year people from the surrounding villages, often children from schools, Timbaktu Collective’s staff, visitors came for seed dibbling camps. It is a big activity here, and fun too. We gather, bring our food and water, and work throughout the day, dibbling seeds. We eat together, sometimes have impromptu games. In the evenings you will see the whole group jump into the streams and tanks for a happy swim”, he continues. “We also collected seeds from the area. This way we were sure the trees we planted were local trees, useful to us for fruit, fodder, and fuelwood. We collected, separated and labeled them. We stocked these in the Centre in the village. Come monsoon, and the seed dibbling camps would start. We also have nurseries, you know. Each year

we plant 10 acres. This ensures that, over the years, a new generation of forest comes up. We also planted tamarind trees. Each watcher was given 1,200 plants… to plant and look after. By and by we now have a whole lot of tamarind groves”.

“The Kalpavalli Cooperative is run entirely by the people. There is a small membership fees. The resources from the forests are freely used by villagers. What remains is sold to outside villagers. The money goes into the fund which is used for common works like making firebreaks, desilting waterbodies, soil and water conservation structures, etc.”, he explains.

“The work done by us has had tremendous impact not only for the people but also for the birds and animals in the area. Many animals have returned to the area – wild boars, jackals, foxes, bears, wolves, deer, leopards and many, many varieties of birds”, he says.

Yes, as a Watcher, as a resident of the area, Potanna feels he has had a fruitful and fulfilling life. His two sons are educated, one of them runs the shop in his village. His daughter too is educated and now married. “Life hasn’t been too bad after all”, he concludes in satisfaction.

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About the story teller

The Timbaktu Collective

The Timbaktu Collective is working for sustainable development in the drought prone Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh (A.P.), since 1990s. The Collective works with rural communities most affected by chronic drought, unproductive land , unemployment and poor infrastructural facilities in the region, among them the landless, small and marginal farmers with special emphasis on women, children, youth and dalits.