Community conservation has become an important agenda of environment management and protection in contemporary times. Active community participation in forest and wildlife protection is necessary because residents have a better understanding of the flora and fauna of the region. This is best illustrated in the forest of Kakoijana, where community participation in conservation over the years has helped restore the ecosystem. The region, famous for the endangered species of Assam’s Golden Langur, is looked after by the villagers who reside in and around the forest.
Located in the western part of Assam, Kakoijana Reserved Forest is home to many other rare and endangered species like Barking Deer, Flying Squirrel, Civets, Hornbill, Pangolin, Lesser Adjutant Stork, Monitor Lizard and many more. Spread over 17.24 km sq, it is also home to rare species of plants and butterflies.
The transformation of the place from barren land to a forest has only been possible due to the villagers’ and the non-governmental organisations’ contribution. The forest area falls under the jurisdiction of the Aie Valley Division, Bongaigaon.
According to Abhinash Basumatary, Assistant Conservator of Forest, Aie Valley Division, “There are currently 28 villages which are involved in the process of community conservation. It includes communities like Rabha, Koch Rajbongshi, Bodo, Garo, Santhali and many other minority groups. They have helped us immensely in protecting the flora and fauna of the forest.”
The Kakoijana Reserved Forest was constituted in 1966, and the Golden Langur (Trachypithecusgeei) was first sighted in the region on November 5, 1995, by Nature’s Foster. At that time, there were less than 100 golden langurs as the canopy cover was only 5% which was a matter of concern.
According to Arnab Bose, Ex-Secretary, Nature’s Foster, “Another reason behind the deforestation and declination of the population at an alarming rate was mainly due to the Assam Agitation in the 1980s. In the name of the agitation, people exploited the flora and fauna of the area. They extracted timber and engaged in illegal logging. They even lured the locals with money and employed them to cut the trees. This complex political situation resulted in 95% of the deforestation of the reserved forest.”
Responding to the concerning situation of the area, The Golden Langur Conservation Project (GLCP) was launched in 1998 by NGOs like ‘Community Conservation’ and ‘Nature’s Foster’.
The project was launched in Kakoijana under the supervision of Dr Robert Horwich, an American primatologist and conservationist, to initiate community conservation, develop collective consciousness among the residents to bring the exploitation to a halt and promote conservation and sustainability for the forest and wildlife. Even the Environment and Forest Department of Assam took necessary steps to restore the ecosystem.
According to Arnab Bose, “At the initial stage, we, from Nature’s Foster, encouraged local communities to participate in the small community meetings where we made them understand about the importance and benefits of conserving wildlife and the forest. The villagers were unaware of their forest and land rights. So, over the years, the organisation worked with individual communities to educate them about their rights and forest laws by holding candid seminars and awareness programmes occasionally.”
“According to the census carried out in 2012, it was found that canopy cover increased from 5% to 80% which resulted in the increase of population of the Golden Langur from less than 100 to over 500. This was also followed by the increase of some avian and mammalian species. Without the participation of the community, this feat could never be achieved.” Bose further added.
The initiatives carried out by the local NGO and the Department of Forest, made the members of the community self-sufficient in restoring their forest. A stark change has been spotted in the attitude of the people as they have been voluntarily participating in activities related to restoration now.
According to Krishna Kanta Sarkar, a resident of Chitkagaon, Salbari village, “Previously, some 60 years back when we settled in the village, Kakoijana happened to be a primary forest with thick vegetation. But, later it became barren. There was no sign of life on the hills. We were completely dependent on the forest to get firewood and other natural resources as they were the only source of living then. But, now the times have changed and we try our best to protect the forest cover from every possible problem.”
Recently, a Forest Rights Committee has been constituted by the Gram Sabha under rule 3 of the Forest Rights Act 2006 to make conservation more effective and transparent. It is also concerned about the residents’ forest rights and is helping to spread awareness about their land rights, which were denied to them over the years.
According to Kartik Urao, Secretary, Forest Rights Committee, “The committee aims mainly towards the protection of the natural resources of the region and for that, we have introduced a Local Biodiversity Committee which collectively looks after the matter of conservation of the forest as well as Golden Langur and is currently working to plant more food plants for them. Besides this, we are also attending to the issues of the villagers related to their land rights.”
“Many believed that the reserved forest should be converted into a wildlife sanctuary, and a petition was also filed in the Gauhati High Court. But, the villagers were quite enraged about it, and we protested vehemently against the authorities for our forest rights,” Urao further asserted.
Over the years, community conservation has helped the Aie Valley Division immensely, and their consciousness has helped towards development in recent times. Indeed, the community’s participation in conserving the forest works as a catalyst to reinforce the residents to protect the natural resources and this is evident from the contribution of the villagers living near the forest of Kakoijana and how.