The effort by this community to protect a largish patch of reserve forest around them is unique to the area. It all began around 1988-9 (villagers do not remember the exact year but say that Shri Bommai was then the Chief Minister of Karnataka). The forest department was carrying out massive afforestation of the area by planting Australian acacia all over. When they reached Doddabail, the villagers (then only eight families) strongly protested and voiced their opinion against the acacia plantations, their reason being that since no grass grew in these plantations, cattle could not graze there, and that acacia itself was inedible. Their effort was backed by a local farmer, K.M. Hegde, who was respected and had some clout with the higher-ups. ‘You grow your forests, we’ll grow ours,’ they told the forest department officials. Arvind Hegde, who was the Ranger at that time, was wise enough to be sympathetic to the villagers’ request. Hence the barbed wire around a bare slope was removed, and the villagers took over some 25 acres of land for protection. Interestingly neither is there a written agreement between the forest department and the villagers, nor have any boundaries been marked. Legally, this area is still a reserved forest under the jurisdiction of the department.
One strict rule for protection has been that the regenerating saplings should not be destroyed by anyone. Activities such as cattle grazing, firewood collection, etc. are allowed. The firewood requirements of the village are met from these forests. Cutting of trees or even branches is strictly prohibited. For the protection of the forest there has been no defined policing system; however efforts towards protection have worked effectively. Today, there are a number of forest tree species, such as sandalwood, jamun, jambe, etc. standing tall at over 15 feet in this area that was once a bare slope. One point of concern is that in this standing forest there is no understorey and the grass is grazed to the ground. This can have a serious impact on the quality of forests in the long run.
The land use here is similar to that of regular betta land. The entire protected area has been divided into eight parts. Each of the original families owning land has access to one part of this land for leaf litter collection for their areca orchards. Grazing is allowed all over the forests for all 15 families. The villagers are currently considering putting up a fence and having some regulated system of grass cutting, rather than allowing free-for-all grazing. They are also considering plantation of local species of trees, unlike the previous years when only natural regeneration was preferred.
One of the villagers, Negu Alu Marathe (in his 50s) categorically said that cutting trees was like cutting off the legs of his children. His father, Keriya Kesu Marathe, an old man, rather hard of hearing, and an original pioneer of the protection work, nodded in affirmation. The women of the family, Parvati and Kalavathi, also voiced their opinions on the importance of this community effort to protect their forests.
According to the villagers themselves and also people from outside, Doddabail villagers have a good understanding and cohesiveness with each other. This has probably been one of the crucial reasons in the success of the forest protection effort. This also gains importance considering that village power and party politics can often hijack any sort of simple community work in any village.
Doddabail is indeed a small but significant example of how community-based conservation can have its genesis from within, and sustain itself through time. This is also one effort where the people are motivated, and are looking ahead. The effort was started by the older generation but many in the present generation are also aware of the importance of this effort. Doddabail has received no outside attention so far.