Whispering Woods

[ Samhita Barooah ]
While trekking through the community forests of the Naga Hills, I heard the stories of forest fires, timber logging, hunting and habitat loss. People take pride in their community managed forest patches which have sustained them for centuries. When food runs short from the fields, people look up to the forests to bless them with fruits, roots, tubers, wild honey, insects, medicinal herbs and bio-diverse resources which can sustain them for a long time.
Women in particular have an inherent bonding with the woods as their saviour. During the war times and distress, women have always taken refuge in the forests and they have survived the miseries safely inside the thick forest grooves.
In recent years, forests have become identity struggle battlegrounds for various indigenous communities in North East India. Forest dwelling communities are consistently staged as criminals according to archaic legislations which demarcate forests from its people.
Forests do not sustain in isolation from people only through reserved areas. Human intervention and social communication is equally important for forests to survive. In India most of the sacred shrines within forests are sustained through both human and natural interventions.
I was fascinated by a conversation with a community leader in a remote village in Nagaland. He said, “I am growing a forest for my sons. That is the investment I am making for the future of my children. I am growing some fruit trees, shade trees and wide canopy trees as well. At the same time I am also growing pine trees for my children. At least when they grow up they can use the pine wood to build their house and furniture which I could never afford.”
Here, a father believes that a forest can ensure the future of his children with food, fodder and also utility products which he could not manage to buy.
Forests are the future investments of many families in North East India for their education, health, livelihood and sustenance needs. In olden days, people believed in replenishing forests through the fallow periods in the hill slopes so that there is re-growth and rejuvenation. But in today’s era of competition and commercial production, forests are grown to produce raw materials for the consumption industry. We cannot survive without the wilderness and bio-diversity as we have evolved from the same wild habitats.
In Northern Thailand, while staying with a forest dependent community, I understood the relevance of lazy man’s forest. One of the elderly persons with a lot of wisdom said, “I grow what I eat and I eat what I grow.”
He had all possible seed varieties, fruits, nuts, wild roots and shoots and herbs all grown in his home garden. He knew exactly what grew well in which soil conditions. He shared a story of his lifetime, “My wife used to call me a lazy man as I didn’t work in any office, school or hospital. I am a farmer and I love the forests around my farm. So I decided to grow a lazy man’s forest farm. I divided my land in three parts. One part will be for home use produce like firewood, leaves, fruits, fodder plants, medicinal herbs and flowers. The second part of the farm will be for my cattle to graze, water storage for the plants and animals and also some fodder plants. The third part of the farm will be left wild for the natural habitat and it will be the lazy man’s forest. This land use pattern has sustained our community for a very long time now more than 50 years now.”
Forests are indeed the treasures of the world where the natural and human world find their essence of being alive. Lazy man’s forest farm became an international ecological model of sustainable livelihood in rural Thailand which got the approval from many agro scientists and environmental institutions and students started learning from this example.
I could see the relevance of such a model in the community forests and Jhum lands of hill communities across North East India.
Our woods are whispering to us about their survival needs. Wish our policies, customs and legislations also heard those whispers and sustained them along with conscious development practices.
This International Forest Day, on 21 March, let us resolve to sustain at least some forest patches for our own future and save the species diversity from forest habitat loss. (The contributor is a researcher)