In Koraput’s Villages, Women Are Charting A Map For Sustainable Living

Forests, water-bodies, flowers, tubers and bears have disappeared from the biodiversity rich villages of Koraput because of climate change. The women are trying to draft a map to understand the loss and plan ahead for conservation

“Our forests are vanishing, and with them, our way of life,” says Moina Nayak, 30, a resident of Khudiguda village in Koraput’s Borigumma block in Odisha. The lush green forest that surrounds her home is vanishing fast and along with it, the unique flora and fauna that sustain livelihoods, traditions, and food security.

This, however, is not a story of resignation and despair. The women of Khudiguda and nine other villages in Koraput have banded together to respond to the crisis in an unusual way – they have become dedicated cartographers, meticulously mapping their commons using government records and historical data.

The maps are now physical documents of the changes caused over time by natural and man-made interventions. And they are signposts for how the women should devise their own mitigation plans by planting more trees and adopting more traditional practices of agriculture and conservation

Commons are resources shared by a community and in rural Odisha these are threatened by environmental degradation caused by deforestation, pollution, overexploitation and climate change. The hand-made maps could help the women protect village boundaries and common areas such as residential zones, ponds, canals, roads, and grazing lands. They also detail surviving species of fruit, vegetable, flora, and fauna. 

“The village boundaries are more or less the same, what has changed are the homestead lands, agricultural lands, water bodies and forest covers within the village. The old map showed there were four different ponds in the village, now we just have one. Water had dried out and eventually, a village resource centre was created. The village has developed too, but at the cost of our own natural resources,” said Chandrama Gadaba, 70, who came to the village more than 50 years ago when she got married.

“Much of the younger generation in the village hasn’t even seen the kind of edible forest produce that we consumed. So we all  sat together to enlist the kind of edible produce we ate, the wildlife we observed – animals and birds. For instance, we have seen bears around, but now we do not see them anymore,” she added. ,

The strengthening of commons becomes important, especially in the context of climate change because it allows women to continue their lives and livelihood, says Neha Saigal, director, gender and climate change at Asar Social Impact Advisors. The group along with the Society for Promoting Rural Education and Development (SPREAD), a Koraput based NGO, assisted the mapping process in these villages.

“It is not a part of the climate change discourse the way it should be,” says Neha.

Intertwined Lives

Women are considered sustainers of micro-economic rural activities because of their indigenous knowledge and management of natural resources. It is also a part of their traditional gender role. But several factors have strained this link. 

Koraput, popularly known as the land of indigenous tribes, is a biodiversity-rich region with at least seven indigenous groups residing in the hills and forests. However, over the years, the district, situated nearly 500 km from the state capital, has experienced a gradual decline in its biodiversity. 

According to Global Forest Watch, an online platform that provides data and tools for monitoring forests, between 2002 and 2023, Koraput lost 759 ha of humid primary forest which is 9.5% of its total tree cover loss in the same period. In the last two decades, the district has also witnessed a decrease of 7.6% in tree cover. 

The hilly district was swept by a heat wave in April this year, a very rare event for it. The temperatures exceeded 40 degree Celsius though the average temperature recorded here in April is 26 degrees Celsius. The normal maximum is usually 33 degrees Celsius in May.

Studies have shown how human activities, severe climatic events, fire, pests, diseases and other environmental disturbances may degrade forests and thereby reduce the provision of forest goods and services, biodiversity values, productivity and health. A study specific to Odisha also pointed out that forest cover loss in the state was concentrated in districts with larger areas under mining, mainly near the Koraput mine and Damanjodi refinery. 

Losing Autonomy

Moina and her fellow villagers feel the strain as these vital resources become harder to find, threatening their cultural well-being, livelihoods, and even food security. The last forces them to depend more on market purchases, straining their finances and further stressing their already precarious lives. 

Moina recalls the abundance of food the forest once provided. “We used to gather a lot of edible fruits, shoots, shrubs, vegetables and uncultivated foods from the forest, enough to feed our families and even sell in the market. Now, we barely find enough for ourselves. Our mothers hardly ever bought anything from the market to eat, but we are forced to do so now,” she says. 

A woman in Khudiguda village with her daily harvest from the forest/Aishwarya Mohanty

The frequency of visiting the forests has also reduced. “In summer months, we went to the forest around 4 in the morning and we would pluck all we could – for the day’s meal and something to sell too. We would return home around 10 am, cook and eat some mandia (ragi), prepare meals for the family, finish all the household chores and go back to the forest again if needed,” recalls Padmawati Halwa, 53, a resident of Biriphulguma village in the district’s Jeypore block. 

Now this is difficult, she says, because even deep inside the forest it is hot because the trees have mostly disappeared.  “Then there is not much that we find. Even in the most lean period, we used to visit the forest at least thrice a week, now it’s once in a week or two weeks,” she says.

But the impact extends beyond food security. Shifting rainfall patterns and shrinking forest lands have pushed men to migrate for work or engage in small-scale farming, often keeping the income for themselves. Women, who once earned money by selling forest produce, now find themselves economically sidelined. 

For most women, the forest produce that they collected was also bartered to buy other home essentials like salt, sugar, oil, etc in exchange from local grocery shops or other villagers. 

“The priorities are different for men and women when it comes to spending money,” says Lachama Penthia, 65. “Men divide the income between liquor and household responsibilities, while women prioritise household needs and saving for their children’s future.” 

Mapping Change

A study by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) highlights how women and other disadvantaged groups are susceptible to climate shocks due to the poor diversification of their assets, as well as low access to resources to cope with and recover from loss. 

Experts feel that strengthening commons would directly impact the lives and livelihoods of indigenous women. 

“Strengthening commons is a critical strategy that falls right between climate adaptation, climate mitigation, and resilience,” says Neha Saigal of ASAR. 

When quizzed, the women were quick to explain the changes they have observed. “The village pond has become smaller over the years.”. “The soil moisture has reduced, the land feels drier.” “We brought karadi (safflower) from the forest and prepared our own oil. Now there is none left and we buy it from the market.” Or, “With the onset of monsoon, the forest floor was full of tubers rooted deep inside the soil. But now we get the tuber almost a month after monsoon and it isn’t as deeply rooted, limiting the nutritional value it provides otherwise.” 

The concerns are similar across the villages that BehanBox visited to understand the exercise. 

The process has been rather elaborate. In 1963 Koraput had its first survey settlement – a revenue recording process when a village or any administrative unit is set up. The women first got hold of the Record of Rights for their village from the 1960s. Using the data, they figured out what had changed in their villages in terms of land, water bodies and wasteland. For instance in Khudiguda village, in 1963, the survey settlement map showed 129.14 acres of land in the village, which has reduced over the years. 

“We had no clue about such maps. We thought that only the government made maps which we all should follow. But when we realised its power we readily jumped in,” Penthia says. 

The mapping process reflects the nuanced understanding that community members have about their environment/ Aishwarya Mohanty

Over 20 days of exhaustive mapping, the women, some as old as 90, drew from their memories to document the changes, covering the length and breadth of their village boundaries. 

The exercise was a depiction of local knowledge, perspectives, and expertise, ensuring that the map reflects the nuanced understanding that community members have about their environment.

Apart from just mapping their commons, the women are also encouraging each other to think of ways to sustain the commons.

Sustaining Commons

“We knew about these changes but when we translated them on paper we could understand the magnitude of it all,” says Damyanti Gabada, 47. 

The term ‘tragedy of commons’ was first posited by American ecologist Garret Hardin in 1968, and it meant “a situation where shared environmental resources are overused and exploited and eventually depleted, posing risks to everyone involved”. Hardin argued that to prevent this, there should be restrictions on its usage. This is what the women of Koraput are doing.

“Over the years we have formed forest protection committees to ensure that forest produce, specifically wood, is not overused and overexploited. But there are multiple other factors that we need to take care of too,” says Kamli Muduli, 37. “Our ancestors had specific ways of plucking fruits or cutting trees and even harvesting tubers. For instance, one of the best ways to harvest tubers is to keep a part of them inside the soil. This way the tuber grows again. But now we tend to uproot the entire tuber in our ignorance. It is a simple practice.” The villages have a list of tubers that they used to harvest that are no longer available with local names such as pit, daur, saranda, and cherai.

But the women also need administrative support.

“The governance of the commons falls across several departments. So convergence becomes very important to support communities in strengthening their commons. These documents will undoubtedly start a dialogue between the community and the administration. They must be taken into consideration for the Gram Panchayat Development Plan, one way of mainstreaming these efforts,” says Saigal of ASAR. 

  • Aishwarya Mohanty is an independent journalist based in Bhubaneswar. She writes on gender, rural issues, social justice and environment. Previously, she worked with The Indian Express.

Malini Nair (Editor)

Malini Nair is a consulting editor with Behanbox. She is a culture writer with a keen interest in gender.

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