In the early 1970s due to failure of the monsoons for three consecutive years this area faced a severe drought. Because of this the villagers started depending on the surrounding forests for their major source of income. They sustained themselves through this period by tapping gum from the Tapasi Gum Tree. The villagers began to protect the trees by sleeping under them, since the demand for gum was high and the trees were few and therefore under threat. This practice continued for three years until the monsoons regularized in the village, finally diverting the villager’s attention towards agriculture.
Neglect of the forest due to presence of the People’s War Group, unregulated resource use by the locals and neighbouring villages, presence of migratory graziers and increase in agriculture reduced people’s involvement in forest protection and resulted in its fast degradation.
In 1994, the people of Mantoor got together and decided to regenerate one of the adjoining revenue hillocks where vegetation had been reduced to a few shrubs. The event that triggered this initiative was when the villagers could not find enough wood to even erect stalls for the preparation of the annual festival of the local deity inhabiting the hillock. The temporary solution was to bring one pole from each household in the village to perform the ceremony. However, this experience shocked the villagers and in the very next village meeting they took stock of the rapidly degrading natural resources around them. A unanimous decision was taken to strictly protect the 60-acre hillock, which they also realized was once a sacred grove.
The villagers decided to impose a fine of Rs 500 on anyone who extracted resources from the prohibited area. A village committee was formed to monitor and control the issues of this sacred grove. Through this practice the hillock started steadily regenerating, giving the villagers tremendous encouragement.
In mid-1999, the Andhra Pradesh Forest Development (FD) allotted 60,000 acres of state-owned Reserved Forest to the Andhra Pradesh Forest Development Corporation (APFDC).1 Mantoor village was adjacent to part of these leased-out forests. The APFDC started commercial monocultures. Mechanized techniques were adopted to uproot existing root stock to be replaced with eucalyptus plants. The villagers opposed this action of APFDC, foreseeing the consequences, such as depletion of the groundwater table due to monoculture plantations and severe shortage of firewood and grass.
The villagers had not been informed about the lease given to the APFDC or the future activities planned. The villagers’ contention was that instead of leasing out the forest to the APFDC, the government should hand it over to the villagers for management. Encouraged by the impacts of their efforts at conservation on the hillock, they were confident that they could take on the responsibility of managing the Reserve Forest falling within their boundaries as well. They demanded that they should be included in the joint forest management (JFM) scheme of the government. A struggle that followed resulted in some villagers being kept in police custody, which invoked a debate in the meeting of the van suraksha samitis (VSS) of the neighboring area. The Andhra Pradesh NGOs network on JFM took up the issue and held a joint meeting with the villagers of Mantoor, the VSS members and the district NGO network. All the major newspapers and television channels covered the story of the village struggle. Subsequent to this publicity, the lease to APFDC was cancelled and the forests were decided to be jointly managed by the FD and the villagers under JFM.
A VSS was formed for the management of the forests and the meetings of the executive of the VSS are now held every month with minimal women’s participation. All the members of the executive and concerned officials are intimated about this meeting. The minutes of all the meetings are recorded by the villagers.
The general body of the VSS includes one male and one female member from each household, which means a total membership of 256. The general body meetings are held once in three months.
So far the VSS has not explored or received any external sources of funding for its operations. Most of their expenses are met from the compound fee collected from the offenders against the forest rules and contributions from all members of the VSS general body (Rs 10 per person as and when needed). They received a small financial grant from the FD in 2000-1 for the desilting of water conservation tanks in and around the forests, which they successfully completed.
The villagers feel that they do not need large sums of money for carrying on with the VSS work as they can generate funds from within the community through personal contributions, compound fee, etc. However, they stressed that at critical and crucial times, when the community is in an urgent need for funds and they are unable to generate them internally, there should be a provision for funds during such times. The chairperson is not paid any remuneration for his services nor provided any reimbursement for the expenses incurred by him. He invests his time and energy in the VSS work purely out of commitment.
The VSS has taken up a number of steps to control and regulate forest resource use. These include:
1. The VSS has appointed forest guards to patrol the forests regularly. The forest guards are paid Rs 500 per month. Apart from this the villagers keep a vigil on the forest as and when they are in the forest. Forest watchers are especially appointed in the period between July and October. According to the villagers, this is the timber-felling season, as it is believed that timber felled in this season is not affected by pests.
2. The villagers have installed 30 gobar gas plants in the village in last two years. Many villagers also have an LPG connection. Before the conservation efforts started in the village, headloads were extracted from the forest for sale. But as of now only poor families and those who do not have biogas are allowed to collect headloads from the forest for personal consumption only.
3. Villagers have also restricted the use of forests by outsiders. A few villagers were concerned about those poor people who were earlier dependent on these forests for biomass needs and said they were unaware of how they were meeting their needs currently, while others felt that protection activities have had little impact on the outside communities. A much more detailed study of the area and the initiative is needed to understand the social implications of the conservation efforts on the villagers.
4. For personal use, people are also allowed to extract certain species for fuelwood. While earlier there were about four villages dependent on the resources of Mantoor forests, now only the villagers of Mantoor extract resources from the forest.