A space of her own inside Manas National Park
Four years back, when Sabita Basumatary, (30) was married to a villager of Majrabari, a village in the fringe of Manas National Park, she had no previous exposure to a dense forest and its surroundings. Stepping in to the village, Sabita, however, could realize immediately that she was going to experience something unusual, as the villagers were dependent entirely on the forest for their livelihood.
Her first exposure to the forest still mesmerises her. She went into the forest to collect fuel-wood and vegetables and was astonished to witness wild-animals like elephants, deer etc, and coming down to the river. For the first time, she was also amazed to see forest guards in uniform moving around with arms in hand. They were, however, harmless.
Since that day it has become a regular part of Sabita’s life of entering into the forest with village women to collect thatches, fuel-wood, vegetables and other necessary things from the forest.
“The forest is kind of a blessing for all of us. It gives us everything to support our livelihood. Our life is entirely dependent on forest” - says Sabita during a short-term study as part of winter internship conducted in December, 2015. Majrabari, a revenue village of Jalah Development Bock in Baksa District of lower Assam is one of the 156 villages situated in the fringe of Manas National Park, The village, parroted with green blanket of Manas National Park, located in 3 kilometres from the park’s boundary. Women of the village, have unique experience altogether with the forest.
The objective of the study was to understand the values and perception that women of fringe villages carry towards the National Park and how their life is influenced by the Park. In a traditional patriarchal society, women stand in the position where their ascribed roles, duties of nurturing or serving the family bring them close to nature. Thus, women perform the role of collecting vegetables, herbs, water etc. from nature. This relation actually create unique dependency of the womenfolk and ultimately of the whole human being on the nature or the forest. However, the intensity of the dependency varies from area to area. Interestingly, this dependency is more intrinsic in the fringe villages of the forests.
The study was conducted on the basis of primary data collected through household survey. Information was collected from women and their male counterpart through face to face interview with the help of predesigned questionnaire. Here, the village was selected based on the information and discussion with Aaranyak, a leading non-governmental organization working for Biodiversity Conservation since last 26 years. While conducting the study, nearness to Manas National Park and people’s association with the forest from historical period was considered. The categorisation of respondent’s house hold (HH) has been done on the basis of the economic background determined by landholding.
During the study, which was channelized by various conversation approach with the villagers in general, and female folk in particular - a sketch of their day to day life had come out that shows how they are connected with the National Park emotionally, socially and economically.
85 per cent of the respondents revealed that they visited the park for the first time about ten years ago, and continue to visit the park till date. They visit the park almost regularly - usually for 5 months in a year, mainly in the dry and winter season. It is difficult to visit the park during the rainy season, they say. Respondents’ dependency on forest indicates that in all the material collected by the people, women play a significant role.
Respondents of the study say that every visit gives them new experiences and make them more knowledgeable about the forest. It reflects in their responses about the changes they observe in the forest.
Rijuti Kherkatari,(31) – an unmarried woman of Shantipur habitation (Chuba) visited forest for the first time when she was studying in class ten. Rijuti observed many changes towards positive direction. “Now the greenery has become more prominent and the forest looks more beautiful than earlier”- she says.
Elderly women in the village say there has been a positive change. Like, the forest has become greener and beautiful with the less number of incidents of poaching or tree falling then it was in eighties.
The observation of this short term study reflects that out of traditional cultural practices people has a close association with forest, but they are not well informed, sensitised or trained how to adopt with new circumstances of living near to protected area. In relation to their traditional way of living majority of the villagers still depends on National Park for their day to day requirements. So they visit to the park and collect different material. Even though many of them are aware about legal aspects of regulation in national park but they are not hesitating to break such laws, due to ignorance of consequences of such activities. Interestingly, in the neighbourhood of the protected area, people are still not aware about programme like “Eco-development” which is designed for such areas.
Such ignorance also leads to conflict situations at times. Recalling such incidents Bwshaishri Basumatary, ( 32) says that she encountered firing of forest guard on December 9, 2015, while she entered into the forest for fishing. Similar incident was faced by Romote Basumatary, (42) of No.2 Majrabari habitation (chuba) twice in the year 2014 while she entered into the forest for fishing.
These women have also allegations that although proximity to the Park has helped them in getting water for agriculture, they frequently face threat of wildlife. Particularly herds of elephants often damage their crops and houses some time, they say.
The agony is such that women like Mombi Basumotary of No 2 Majrabari habitation (Chuba) and Sewali Goyari of Santipur habitation, do not want to arrange marriages of their siblings with a person living nearer to forest.
Despite these difficulties, for the female respondents the National Park is the only source of getting materials for their family – right from collecting building materials to fuel wood, vegetables to materials needed for ritual works. The women folk also express that entering into the forest as group provide them the opportunity to share lot of things, distracting themselves from daily chores of monotonous life and they freely enjoy the nature in wilderness. Forest also has been providing them a space to share their experiences, suffering and finding solutions to their problems. Thus, for these rural women living in a fringe village, forest is also a space for sharing and gossiping coming out from the patriarchal hegemony.
The study shows that the firsthand knowledge of these women about forest and their perception about the symbiotic relation between human and nature can be tapped to create awareness on forest and wild life conservation in the fringe of protected area like Manas National Park. Environment and Forest department and NGOs engaged in such conservation efforts can also take a cue from the experiences of these women that to make the people in the fringe of a protected area stakeholders in the conservation and protection of nature and wildlife it is also essential to factor in the dependency of the people in those areas on forest and finding alternatives to make conservation efforts successful.
(Trishita Shandilya is doing her graduation at Janki Devi Memorial College, University of Delhi. She can be reached at: email@example.com )