One lone woman ensures that a forest is safe from poachers and the timber mafia

This lone woman in arms protects her forests.

Sinapalli may be a small block in the Nuapada district of Odisha, but its thick forest cover attracts many a nature lover to this otherwise nondescript part of the eastern state

 Kapsi Dongar Vana Surakshya Samittee headed by Hara Dei Majhi ensures her forest and trees are living and thriving
This is Hara Dei Majhi, 55, the protector of this ‘dongar’ (hillock). It was Majhi’s husband, Anang, who had initiated the process of planting trees on what was once a barren patch of land at the foothills of Kapsi Dongar. A dedicated conservationist, he understood the vital role forests played in maintaining a balance in the local eco-system and so he nurtured the trees like his own children.

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Recalls Majhi, “In the beginning, I was not involved in his work. However, due to gradual deforestation our livelihood was affected and we had to become daily wage labourers to feed ourselves. “But Anang would hardly ever have the time to go for wage work because he felt that the task of protecting the forest from timber smugglers was more important.”

Majhi may have once even resented her husband’s attitude because this preoccupation with the forest meant that he could not provide adequately for their family of five. Looking back, however, she says, “He made me understand the need for forest conservation. Gradually, I started taking an interest in his work and even helped him out in guarding the trees.”Anang spent his entire life taking care of the forest and it was amidst its green cover that he passed away in 1995. Once back home, she would complete her household chores, feed the children and then head out to work in other people’s homes.

Back at four she once again went to the forest. But she was convinced that the forest needed her as well, “The state's forests are on the verge of extinction because of timber smuggling, extensive mining, and unplanned industrialisation. “The forest is the lifeline of us tribal people. So they either survive on minor forest produce or clear out a small area in the forest and cultivate pulses, ragi and millet. So, for us, it is important to save this habitat.”

Trees are the lifeline of forest dwellers

According to local activist Bijay Kumar Sahish, there are two major threats to the forests, “Firstly, forest fires are very common, particularly during the hot and dry months of March and April.  “While some are accidental, quite a few are started deliberately. Har Dei has been fiercely guarding the Kapsi Dongar forest from these dangers.” Incidentally, the Kapsi Dongar forest has more varieties of trees than adjoining forest tracts, and they include teak, sal, tendu and mahua, among others.

In a bid to involve the local community in her effort, in 2001 Majhi formed a committee, the Kapsi Dongar Vana Surakshya Samittee, with support from the district forest department. Over the years, as the leader of this group she has been successful in ensuring that the forest remains encroachment free and, in fact, flourishes. In addition, she has been felicitated by the district administration.

Sarat Chandra Panda, District Forest Officer, Khariar Forest Division, is all praise for her, “I have seen many groups protecting the forest in Odisha during my career but Hara Dei is unique. Although she does receive a little monetary help from the government off and on – the forest department gave her Rs 2,000 as incentive in 2010-11, Rs 2,500 in 2011-12 and Rs 1,000 this year – she has to work hard on her own to survive. Both her daughters are married and her son has grown up as well. Panda has accepted her request.

At a time when forests are fast disappearing everywhere, Majhi’s unique crusade to treat every tree in her forest as a dearly loved child will continue to inspire – and hopefully encourage others to follow in her wake.

Why should we fight deforestation? How does planting trees help?

Deforestation is one of the biggest man-made contributors to global warming. Planting  and nurturing a tree is one the easiest and most accepted way to combat carbon dioxide emissions and thus global warming and climate change. Trees breathe in Carbon Di Oxide and through the process of photo-synthesis create food for themselves and breathe out Oxygen.

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