The state of Assam in India is rich in nature, with a diverse landscape and fertile soil. Yet the state faces challenges in maintaining its biodiversity with increased infrastructure expansion and a growing population. Agence Française de Développement (AFD) is working together with the Forest Department of Assam to ensure the region retains its status as a fertile hotspot where man and nature can co-exist in harmony.
Assam, in the north-east of India, is a land of plains and river valleys. Rice paddies, green in summer and golden by autumn, surround most settlements in the state. And with the mighty Brahmaputra River in the north and the Barak River in the south, when it rains – it floods. “The Brahmaputra nourishes the soil and sustains us,” families living in the river valley, far away from the mainland, say. However, they also acknowledge its potential to displace millions in the coming decades in view of climate change.
The climatic condition and topography of Assam have helped it earn the ‘biodiversity hotspot’ tag. It boasts diverse forests, grasslands and wetlands that sustain a wide variety of floral and faunal species. With forest coverage of about 35.8%, the state now has seven national parks and 17 wildlife sanctuaries.
However, large-scale infrastructure expansion due to rising population puts pressure on the state’s natural resource base which, combined with high climate vulnerability, has been threatening the region’s ecological balance for decades. As the pressure on forest resources kept building, there was an urgent need to address the challenges lying at the interface of development and conservation.
In 2012, the Forest Department of Assam, in association with Agence Française de Développement (AFD), launched the Assam Project on Forest and Biodiversity Conservation (APFBC). The success of Phase I and the objective of further expanding its reach led AFD and the Government of Assam to renew their commitment in 2019 for another five years. The project’s overall vision is to make the forest-dependent communities – often among the most effective stewards of nature – happier and the ecosystem that surrounds them healthier.
APFBC promises to increase the state’s green cover, help wildlife and humans coexist, increase the resilience of forest landscapes and communities, and further strengthen the institutional capacity of the forest department. To achieve the impact of its interventions and contribute towards the Sustainable Development Goals, which are at the forefront of Agenda 2030, APFBC has taken an inclusive approach to conservation.
By 2024, the project plans to restore 33,500 hectares of land, of which 21,655 was afforested/reforested in Phase I. Interestingly, more than a third of those plantations were done by local communities. It helped reduce their ecological footprint while serving as an example of how the trust and involvement of local communities are essential to the movement towards a greener planet.
Strengthening the forest department
The APFBC began by building the capacity of the forest department through training and infrastructural improvements to support improved data collection and documentation. More than 350 officials, including 21 forest community members, participated in exchange programs with the French Department of Forest (ONFI) and exposure visits both within India and internationally.
“It is gratifying to be part of APFBC and work hand-in-hand with AFD to drive change for the benefit of the people of Assam. Building the capacity of the Forest Department’s staff and local communities is critical as they are tasked with safeguarding our forests and the biodiversity they harbor. They are at the frontline of conservation,” says Pavan Kumar, Additional PCCF (Biodiversity and Climate Change) at the Assam Forest Department.
“Actions have been taken through a combination of management, protection and restoration activities to manage climate change, increase the resilience of forests and reduce wildlife loss. Only when the communities are secured can we effectively steward nature and move towards a sustainable world,” adds Kumar, who is also the Project Director of APFBCS.
With support from AFD, nine of the fifteen forest wings at the Forest Headquarters were merged and brought under one roof at the Forest Headquarters in Guwahati, leading to faster and more efficient decision making. On the ground, frontline staff, field officers, rangers and forest guards now patrol more frequently and move faster in critical situations thanks to the added fleet of motor vehicles and bicycles and 475 km of freshly renovated roads.
The direct impact of this is visible at the famed Kaziranga National Park, where the population of the one-horned rhinoceros has grown to an impressive 2400, while annual poaching figures are down to single digits. It is an incredible story of conservation success. The forest department has also received help and information from local communities about rhino poaching and attacks on elephants at certain sites.
APFBC has introduced the Forest Management Information System (FMIS) to achieve the department’s goal to ‘Go Digital’ and reduce its carbon footprint.
Managing forests hand in hand with locals
Recognizing that Assam’s villagers and forest dwellers must be involved in its conservation efforts is at the core of the APFBC’s success. Embracing such an integrated approach has provided the required momentum to the department’s efforts. The forest department has been a key strategist here, collaborating with locals for programs like firewood plantation, large-scale reforestation and wildlife conservation.
Speaking of these efforts, Potuli Mazumdar, a resident of Hatikuli village, details how the department helped them identify a 25-hectare piece of land within the Lumding Forest Reserve, which had been degraded due to the excessive felling of trees by encroachers. Together, the department and locals planted saplings, which will grow into trees and provide firewood for people in her area after seven or eight years. Not only is this a great way of keeping encroachers at bay, but also a sustainable way of conserving essential resources which the villagers get from the forest.
The enthusiasm of local agents could be seen in the plantation and eco-restoration activities undertaken by the Joint Forest Management Committees (JFMCs) and Eco-Development Committees (EDCs). While the forest department has planted an estimated 26 million saplings over 13,182 hectares of land, the JFMCs and EDCs have been responsible for at least 17 million firewood saplings over 8,473 hectares.
The plantation activities have also generated significant employment, with gender equity as a positive outcome as 40%-60% of participants were women.
Upskilling forest communities
Forest conservation activities need to be conscious of their potential impact on local economies. Mindful of how reducing local communities’ dependence on forests could affect their livelihoods, APFBC made it a point to include trainings in alternative trades within the project.
With the support of COMPELO, a non-profit consortium that has been working with communities at the fringes of Assam’s forests, the project sought not only to organize skills training but also to build technical know-how, promote entrepreneurship and open up market linkages – all after regular consultations with the stakeholders in the area. Only after the locals decided on a trade that would best suit their needs – plans were drawn, trainers hired, and raw materials sourced.
The project helped in integrating 24 different sustainable forest and non-forest resource-based activities. These are helping the local economy flourish and enabling community members to have more fulfilling careers. More than 6,000 individuals are now into weaving, furniture-making, food processing, mushroom cultivation, ornamental fishing and beekeeping. The results of their hard work – available under the umbrella brand “Banasrishti” (“creation of the forest”) – are reaching tourists and residents across Assam via various strategically placed outlets, including at a five-star hotel and the Assam State Zoo Botanical Garden.
“Most communities now want to learn more about product, design and marketing,” Manoj, a COMPELO member, says, adding that “it is a testimony of the project’s success.”
A major thrust of the APFBC has been to empower local women. 73% of the trainees have been women, learning the nuts and bolts of weaving and tailoring, pickle-making, livestock rearing, water hyacinth processing, nursery management and a lot more.
“This training has empowered me to earn my livelihood and live with dignity. No more firewood collection in the rain,” says Monju, one of the 24 women from the Panbari Adarsh Mising village, near Kaziranga National Park, who were trained in weaving cloth. The rhinoceros and tiger motifs in her creations are an endearing illustration of how the forest is also a source of artistic inspiration for the locals.
According to an evaluation study by the OKD Institute of Social Change and Development, entrepreneurship is the most visible among women weavers, both in groups and as individuals. For women like Bulu Medhi Bora of Ouguri, the training she received let her think of newer designs, weave more and start a small-scale initiative within the confines of her home. Today, she earns Rs 2,000 per month ($27) and dreams of reaching markets beyond her district.
Most women beneficiaries of the APFBC have reported that the training and regular work has brought them much more than a means of earning money. It has let them step out of their domestic spaces, experience the pride of having a “workplace” to go to, be included in a collective, and build their sense of independence and self-worth.
Great strides taken
Thanks to the APFBC’s interventions, Assam’s local communities have reduced their dependence on forests and learnt more about protecting them – growing closer to them in the process. “APFBC Phase II focuses on effective mainstreaming of gender equality and social inclusion, which is essential for sound forest management, biodiversity conservation and climate adaptation. Through the project, we aim to empower women and the vulnerable, as agents of transformative change, to bring long-term shifts in social relations, and accelerate the transition towards a more gender-equal world,” Kumar says. “The project wants to ensure that the voices, knowledge and skills of women play a significant role in decision-making and discussions related to conservation within their families and communities at large,” he adds.
More communities are being involved under the project’s recently launched second phase, but it has already proven itself as a primary driver of change in recent years. It has shown – with highly encouraging results – that it is possible to conserve forests and boost institutional capacity, while empowering communities and strengthening the local economy.