A group of members (6) from Keystone and community members (8) from the areas we work in, visited Gramin Samassya Mukti Trust (GSMT), Yavatmal from 14th – 16th September. The three-day visit helped community members deepen their knowledge of the Forest Rights Act and made them understand the need for collective actions.

GSMT is an organisation that capacitates Panchayat Raj Institutions (PRIs) and Community Based Organisations (CBOs). The members who traveled on the exposure visit were fascinated to understand how GSMT incorporated bureaucrats into its action chain.

Throughout the visit, a retired forest ranger spent time with the group to explain the various programmes and activities that GSMT have carried out. He was also a participant who took part in the preparation of Forest Management plan along with the community members, which is successfully implemented in 46 villages of Maharashtra. Forest officers and NGO personnel of GSMT has been effectively working together to complete the Forest Management plan.

On the first day, Govind Narayan PC, the retired Forest Ranger, spoke about the historical struggles the tribes went through, which has resulted in the passing of the Forest Rights Act (2006), as the group were travelling to visit a village called Aaval, where in 2013- after a four-year-long fight, the community got their Community Forest Rights (CFR) over 576 hectares of land.

A village meeting took place, where the villagers narrated the story of receiving CFR and how they are exercising their rights, to our visiting community members. They narrated the story of how – through awareness programmes, peaceful rallies and street plays & workshops, etc. they had too demonstrate their right to the concerned officials of the administration, in order to obtain rights over the forests.

After attaining their CFR, GSMT worked along with the community members and Forest Department to make a conservation and management plan. They explained how they had conducted a social survey and stock mapping prior to making the plan and also different map topographies for a better understanding of resources. The communities they work with collect NTFPs such as Tendupatha, Mauva flower, Honey and Gum etc.

On the second day, the group visited a village called Siradtokki – were an all Women Self Help Groups was formed after attaining CFR. The SHGs have jointly opened Mauva bank and Honey bank besides having leased out a pond from Gram Panchayat (comes under PESA Act) to start a fishery, as an alternate source of livelihood. Within two years, they were able to make a profit of Rs 2 lakhs.

During the conversation, the members of the SHG elucidated on how – by linking livelihoods and forests they were able to get the young people from the community on board to carry out conservation activities. And overtime, through continuous conservation activities they were able to gain the forest officials’ trust who later gave their expertise while framing their village management plan.

On the last day, the group visited Khekadwai village of Yavatmal district. This village had submitted their CFR claims over 117 hectares of land in 2010 and received it in 2012. The group met with the Gram Sabha members of the village who spoke about their struggles, stories, and collaborations with the Forest Department and NGOs. The village also has a SHG that collects Mauva flower and Tendupatha.

Such inspiring stories from the people of Yavatmal installed a sense of positivism among the group of community members from Nilgiris. All the stories of struggle showcased the importance of persistence and unity as essential factors. We envisage that such visits will not only inspire the people but at the same time, it could give them clarity over the process of claiming their ancestral rights.

By Keerthana – Community Wellbeing