By Manipadma Jena
RANAPUR, India, Oct 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For the tribal women of Gunduribadi village, in India's eastern Odisha state, an early morning patrol is essential to conserve their forest, but what they are protecting goes far beyond food security or even their livelihoods.
Four decades ago, logging and theft of commercial timber and bamboo had denuded hills, depleted groundwaters and dried up streams around Nayagarh district, forcing people to migrate in droves, said Arjun Pradhan, 70, headman of Gunduribadi village.
The crisis prompted the community to embark on a campaign to nurture their forest and restore the ecosystem, he said.
"What you see today as Nayagarh's democratic movement to sustain community forests resources and become self-reliant was born of necessity 40 years ago after six droughts in 10 years shattered its farm and forest-based livelihoods," Pradhan said.
Today, the revitalised ecosystem provides water all year round, with a stream irrigating small farms even in mid-summer, when pond floors dry and crack in many parts of India.
The conservation plan is so successful it has become a template for forestry across Odisha, Arjun Pradhan said.
Now the tribal women who conserve the forest are fighting for legal ownership under India's 2006 Forest Rights Act (FRA) law, which recognises forest-dwellers' rights over their traditional lands and resources.
Government data shows that between early 2008 and July 2016, out of a total 4.2 million claims for titles filed under the FRA, only 1.6 million, or a third, were awarded.
Out of this figure, just 44,500 titles were given to communities or villages, out of a potential 170,000 villages.
Progress in implementing the law has been slow as India, one of the world's fastest-growing economies, seeks land for industrial use and development projects, land experts said.
Across Nayagarh, a total of 850 villages protect around 100,000 hectares (247,105 acres) of forestland.
In 2015 Nayagarh's forest cover was 53 percent of its total geographical area, more than twice that of India's 21.3 percent.
In India, almost 150 million people in 170,000 villages live inside or on the fringes of forests, which they rely on for subsistence and income.
There are just 27 households in Gunduribadi, owning barely a hectare (2.4 acres) of land each.
But as rain falls on farms in the foothills of the village, it carries nutrient-rich humus from the forest, enriching the soil and adding to the bounty of crops and wild food.
The soil is so packed with nutrients that each hectare provides around 6,500 kg (14,330 lb) of rice each harvest, three times more than on farms near unprotected forests, locals say.
The forest also provides a range of seasonal food for local families, as well as extra income from medicinal plants that can be sold at market.
"This forest is like an old friend that never fails to help us cope during droughts and bad crop years, saving us from starvation and [the need for] migration," Dami Nayak, a local woman aged 80, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Another woman living in Gunduribadi, Janha Pradhan holds out a small harvest of sweet tuber, known locally as "pichuli", which she collected on her morning patrol.
For the 44-year-old widow on a meagre income, these wild yams are more nutritious than potatoes - and cost nothing.
Such food is harvested carefully to nurture the forest.
"We never pull out the entire root but carefully cut out a portion and leave the remaining root beneath the soil to regrow," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The wild food includes bamboo shoots rich in protein, wild mushrooms, spine gourds and bean vines that proliferate on sturdy trees, as well as iron-rich spinach that wards off anaemia, a major health concern for rural women and children.
While the women also obtain wood for fuel from the forest, they never chop the trees for firewood.
"On our morning patrol we break off dry branches and carry them home," said Kama Pradhan, 35. "But we are selective, we know which species of wood does not give out harmful smoke."
Conservation is based on simple yet binding rules set by the village council, which permits villagers to collect dry shrub fuelwood, fodder and edible products sustainably, based on need.
Felling trees - usually for rebuilding houses, or for weddings or funeral pyres - needs permission, and taking axes into the forests is banned.
Over the years, the plan has entailed sacrifices: as forests regenerated, goats were sold and banned for 10 years to stop them nibbling green shoots. The twice-daily meals of rice were cooked once to reduce fuelwood and let forests grow.
A community policing system was introduced. Known as "thengapali", it entails members of four families passing on the duty of forest patrol to four other families by placing sticks outside their homes at night.
Gunduribadi's patrols say they are protecting benefits that are key to the future survival and wellbeing of the community.
Despite protecting the forest with their lives - sometimes literally, when confrontations with gangs plundering timber or babmboo risk turning violent - most forest-dwelling communities lack legal recognition of land ownership.
Activists say collective rights have been sidelined and that millions of forest-dwellers are still struggling with the complicated process of registering claims.
They say that a 2015 law that outlines a framework for the use of compensatory afforestation funds shuts village councils out of the planning and implementation of afforestation.
This will not only encourage the exploitation of community land, they say, but destroy the bio-diverse and climate-resilient forests that communities like Gunduribadi survive on.