Vanmau Bhatmo, an unprotected forest located in the north Indian town of Dewa in the state of Uttar Pradesh, has been subjected to illegal logging for as long as the locals can remember. However, for the past decade, the impacts have become more evident.
"The density of the forest has been declining at an exponential rate, where previously there were ten to fifteen trees in a given area now only six or seven remain," said Sita Kumari, a community leader.
In 2019, locals concerned with the problem started coordinating actions in Dewa to protect the Vanmau Bhatmo forest. Over 50 volunteers patrolled the forest every night for the next few weeks. The community even managed to build a fence around the forest a year later.
Dewa residents have also been implementing traditional Indigenous-managed forest practices with local non-profits to combat illegal logging.
“Loggers entered the forest almost every night to gather firewood for the Dewa Fair, which attracts pilgrims and visitors from all parts of the country for several days of entertainment and celebrations. After a community meeting, we decided that we must take action to protect our forests,” explained Sufi Ali, a concerned member of the Dewa community and one of the founders of the Dewa’s informal civil society Forest Welfare group.
Since then, locals have seen a drastic reduction. “We now only have the occasional logger entering the forests as they are aware of our efforts and fearful that we will take legislative actions to find them,” said Ali. When loggers are spotted, they are stopped or asked for personal details so they can be flagged at city council meetings.
But they didn’t stop there. Residents have started to engage in various activities to rejuvenate the forest, including planting native trees and medicinal plants to help restore decreasing biodiversity. These activities are driven by traditional beliefs that integrate agroforestry systems with various farming and conservation techniques.
Forests play an intrinsic role in stabilizing our climate and ecosystems. They mediate the amount of oxygen in the air, protect soil, and act as underground water storage. Local agricultural systems also depend on the well-being of nearby forests.
As climate change impacts become more common, forests also act as safety nets for local communities. For example, unprecedented weather conditions cause crops to fail because of fluctuation in rainfall. Forests mitigate these effects by capturing water and cooling nearby areas.
In Dewa, education and awareness programs have attracted more locals to engage, as they get to know the pressures acting on local ecosystems. “Initially, there were only about 20 of us, but now we see a turnout of up to 150 people at some of our events,” said Ali.
Due to lack of follow-up and slowing moving bureaucratic process, government initiatives over the past decades have been futile. Currently, locals are independent in their actions and receive little external support. If the forest were left solely to ministerial acts, loggers would severely exploit it.
However, due to a lack of financial support, locals haven’t scaled up reforestation as needed to see tangible changes in forest health. Moreover, volunteers conduct most activities, making efforts to preserve the forest more unstable.
The efforts of the Dewa community highlight the importance of supporting and funding community-led conservation efforts. It is those on the ground and in the field who know best how to protect and conserve the lands they hold so dear.