Rebirth of the forest

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The marriage of Joint Forest Management (JFM) with watershed treatment under one mission was the touchstone for recovery of Jhabua. Even before the guidelines for watershed management were issued by the ministry of rural development, Government of India, in late 1995, the mission had commenced with the formation of 20 village forest committees (VFCs) to protect and maintain forests with the help of the forest department, in 1994.

"First people used to eye us with suspicion. Support was not whole-hearted. But we told them that forests belonged to the tribals. Therefore help us in regenerating the forest and take it away and maintain it," says A B Gupta, the district forest officer (DFO) of Jhabua.

From 20 VFCs in 1994, the number became 344 in 1997. Sixty per cent (1,00,950 ha) of Jhabua's total forest area is now under JFM and the 344 VFCs cover 420 villages. Ironically, now more villagers are guarding the forest than forest guards. While there is one forest guard for every 10 sq km there are two villagers for the same area.

Tree felling has also come down drastically. In 1992-93, in all 1,412 tribals were arrested for this. In 1994-95 the number reduced to 676 and according to forest officials it is lower this year. The success of the mission was reaffirmed when 22 gram panchayats decided in a meeting that 4,000 ha of village land be declared forest and be brought under the mission.