The forested hill slopes of Lahaul belie its arid weather. The valley receives up to 300mm of rain a year, even less than Rajasthan. Inhabitants divert streams through channels to irrigate crops during the short summer months. During the long cold winter months, families cook, eat and sleep around the metal fireplace, the tandoor, introduced nearly a century ago by the Moravian mission, a Protestant organization established in Keylong in 1853.

According to one study, each person requires up to 3kg of wood a day to keep the fires burning. Despite their families’ needs, women ensure no one cuts down trees in the forest. How do they manage? And why do they do it?

At Stingri, about 10km east of Keylong, women clad in their brown or blue calf-length pleated dugpas, with matching waistcoats and bright scarves, led the way through their forest. Whether they were walking or pausing to answer a question, their hands seemed to have a mind of their own, knitting colourful socks with triangular-shaped toes and heels. Handbags hanging from their shoulders hid the balls of yarn. They rattled off the names of trees, the most common ones being beli (willow) and safeda (poplar). Distracted by their knitting, I wondered if they would drop stitches if I said anything. But they didn’t seem to fumble or pause as we climbed uphill.

I focused on their forestry work. “How do you know if anyone has cut a tree? Do you go on patrols?" I asked.

The communities here are small and tightly knit. Everyone knows what others are up to, replied the voluble president of the Stingri women’s group (mahila mandal), Rigzin Angmo. Should anyone cut a tree and haul it home, someone is bound to see. Shepherds take their flocks through these forests to reach pastures high up in the mountains. They report illegal activities too.

Saraladevi Ramchand, a cheerful young woman, is the area’s forest guard. Although she has an easy smile, earnest demeanour and soft voice, she’s no pushover. Though I didn’t know the language, I realized the Stingri ladies were amiably bullying her. She replied with patience and tact.

One of only four women forest guards in that division, Ramchand explained how the women began protecting forests.

In the 1990s, the Himachal government started a mahila mandal in every village across Lahaul. One woman from each household is a member. Today, 109 women’s groups execute government programmes, supporting protective measures under a forest department programme called Sanjavan.

The fine for chopping timber illegally can range from 1,000-5,000. Each group decides the penalty but usually, the public shame is enough to dissuade timber thievery. If the fine isn’t paid or the person refuses to heed warnings, the women’s group may boycott the family or complain to state forest officials, who can take action under forest protection laws. Normally, cases don’t escalate that much. The thief’s wife, mother, sister or daughter is likely to be a member of the group. She would badger the person to stop, said Angmo triumphantly.

“We do such a good job of protecting the forests," said Angmo half-jokingly, “the (forest) department should reward us." Everyone looked at Ramchand. She replied, defensively, “I have recommended you for the best mahila mandal award."

No research has been done on the impact of the work done by mahila mandals. How many times in the past has the group penalized someone, I wanted to know.

Not in many years, replied Angmo.

The original members of the women’s group are not active any more. They grew old and deputed their daughters. The young among them got married and moved to other villages. The current members largely comprise women who came in as daughters-in-law, and they seemed to have little sense of the group’s history.

Saplings had been planted freshly along the forest path. “In Lahaul, people have the right to plant trees on forest land and enjoy their benefits," said Ramchand. “Once these grow, the person who planted them can lop their branches. But the land belongs to the department."

One of the women distributed handfuls of apricots. As I gnawed at the flesh around the pit, I wondered if the women’s efforts to protect the forest were paying dividends.

I found the answer one sunny afternoon, in the nearby village of Billing. As we were talking, one gentleman excitedly pointed to the steep hillside on the other side of the busy highway that skirted the village. A herd of about seven nimble-footed, goat-like animals were perched precariously on the cliffside, nibbling on grass—the Himalayan Ibex.

Dawa Varma, a wizened farmer, said: “You can see big herds of Ibex now. They come close to villages, and nobody kills them. Since we started protecting the forest, there are more Ibex. Earlier, we used to see one or two a year, and we used to hunt them. Now we have a rule that no one will hunt nor will harass the Ibex."

If I wanted evidence of how much things had changed, I need look no further, said Varma.

That evening, I met Hira Lal Rana, the district forest officer, at his office in Keylong. Officials were pessimistic when the department first recruited women to protect forests, he said. “The thinking then was, ‘The forest is ours, the land is ours.’ But the government of India said people’s participation was important. Without people’s participation, we cannot save forests and wildlife."

“Why did the department decide to empower women’s groups to protect forests?" I asked.

“Lahaul district is a tribal area, and the women are dominating," he replied. “The women act as heads of households. Whether it is land, relationship with society, finance—the responsibility belongs to the ladies."

Do you do a wildlife census to see if numbers have improved?

“There have been random censuses but not systematically," he replied. “But the thinking is—the numbers of wildlife have increased manifold. There is no wildlife poaching. The Dalai Lama had made a plea to leave wild animals alone. Most of the Lahaulas are Buddhists, and they respect his wishes. In lower elevations, there are some Hindus, and they too revere the Dalai Lama."

If the women take care of the forests, and nobody poaches wild animals, what is the department’s biggest challenge?

“Our biggest challenge is growing trees," he told me. “Here, the annual growth is only 10cm. It takes 10 years for a sapling to reach the same height as a one-year-old plant does in lower elevations."

From Stingri, we drove on rough roads to the holy town of Trilokinath. Cardboard boxes packed with apples, marked “red delicious", “gala" and “golden", lay stacked on the roadside. In fields circled by trees, men were harvesting cauliflowers, cabbages and potatoes. They make more money on these crops than on traditional ones like buckwheat, barley and mustard.

Getting women to protect forests strengthens the department’s hands. As we walked among fields of rajma and mustard, deputy ranger Sukhdev Singh explained: “We are short-staffed. A forest guard can sometimes patrol up to three beats (each beat covers a 25-30km radius). Poor chap. What will he do?"

Lahaul is the least populated district in the country, with an estimated two people per square kilometre, against the national average of 382 per square kilometre. But it is the largest district in Himachal, covering a quarter of the state.

I asked Singh about wildlife in his division. “In some villages, brown bears are becoming a problem," he replied. “We have to figure out how to deal with that. We haven’t had bears coming into villages and taking livestock until now."

Singh had alerted the mahila mandal about our visit and we found a group of women waiting for us. We sat in the warm sun on the terrace of the group’s administrative building.

Throughout Lahaul, people harvest forest produce for their own use. Each women’s group decides what can be harvested and when. In Trilokinath, the women collect dhoop (juniper) and medicinal herbs. They also gather leaf litter to line the floors of barns to keep livestock warm in winter. The dry leaves are also mulched for fertilizer.

The department allows a forest to be exploited commercially for any non-timber produce every four years. In Trilokinath, Singh said: “Private contractors get permission to collect medicinal plants. But they have to use the women’s group members for collection." Royalties from commercial harvesting are shared with the women’s group.

What do Lahaulas do if they don’t get firewood from the forest, as they used to?

In 1987, the Forest Survey of India had said the annual per capita fuelwood consumption in the district was 1,260kg, of which about 960kg was harvested from forests. Almost 90% of this came from government forests.

As an alternative to wood from the forest, communities planted willows around their villages for fodder and firewood. The severely pruned trees around their homes and along streets are evidence of their active use. Some have LPG bottled gas connections. People buy the rest of the fuelwood at subsidized rates from the forest department’s timber depot.

The department supplies 1,800 tons of fuelwood at 340-360 for 100kg to Lahaulas. The state tribal affairs ministry underwrites most of the cost, the forest department pays a fraction. The wood comes from Kullu, where the state’s forest corporation cultivates timber plantations.

In the past couple of decades, many of the willow trees in the area died, victims of fungal infection and aphid infestation. Villagers worried about how they would meet their firewood needs if the willows died en masse. The issue was serious enough to be raised in the state assembly in 2011.

So, how good have the women been in protecting the forest?

A 2010 study by the Uttarakhand-based GB Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development found Lahaula forests were being overused. The Jahlmanal watershed of the Chandra-Baga river, a tributary of the Chenab, had just a few patches of juniper left, according to the study. A century ago, the area was a dense juniper forest.

The fragrant wood and scale-like leaves of the evergreen species are burnt as offerings to gods. And the arid weather didn’t encourage regeneration. So the forests were losing juniper faster than they grow.

Villagers also cut other timber trees. “Not all have sufficient willow trees to lop and not all the people buy firewood from timber depots," said Yashwant Singh Rawat, who did research on this area while he was working at the institute. “People still do collect firewood from nearby forests. If you look at the prolonged extreme cold winters of the valley, they need huge amounts of wood during winters for heating and cooking."

He said nomadic herders from the foothills and migrant labourers from Nepal depend on the forests for firewood. But, he added, “The current model of forest protection using women’s groups is working very nicely in places where they are proactive, fully autonomous, and aware of their duties and responsibilities."

“Why do you protect forests? What do you get in return?" I asked the women in every village.

One said, “For greenery." Another added, “Oxygen. We live at high altitudes where there isn’t enough oxygen. Protecting trees will add more oxygen."

Could growing more trees add more oxygen? The thin mountain air is a result of low atmospheric pressure. When another woman concurred, I wondered if someone had misled them.

I struggled to comprehend the physics of it. Another woman interjected, “For soil conservation." Yet another piped up: “We protect forests for our children. If we don’t protect, there won’t be anything left for them. If there are no trees, rains won’t come. Also, trees break the speed of glaciers."

The other women nodded their heads emphatically, murmuring in English, “Glaciers." From their descriptions, it became clear that they were talking about avalanches.

Every winter, villagers nervously eye the snowy peaks surrounding their villages. They receive more snowfall than rains during the six long months of winter.

Last year, a forest guard died in an avalanche. One event, going back further, is seared in their memories.

After five days of snowstorm, an avalanche came crashing down on 6 March 1979, burying the entire valley in 6m of snow. It destroyed villages and killed 237 people. The Scientific American magazine ranks it as one of the world’s top 10 snow-related disasters.

Women born after the event speak of it with vivid clarity, almost as if they have seen it.

At Trilokinath, the women recounted the events of that day as if they had occurred last year. They pointed to a dilapidated house, across from the terrace where we were seated. On that tragic day, that house was packed with guests celebrating a wedding. By some quirk of nature, the avalanche spared that house, merely breaking the front door. Others were not as lucky. Everyone mentioned the name of a family or village that had been wiped out by that cataclysmic event. The shaken inhabitants of the house that was spared left the village and settled elsewhere.

“If there were no forests, the avalanches would come down with greater force," said one of the women.

Forests protect communities living on mountains against landslides, rockfalls and avalanches. But forests have their limitations against the monstrous force of an avalanche.

In April, an earthquake triggered an avalanche at 7,000m elevation above Langtang, 70km north of Kathmandu, Nepal. The area at the epicentre of the earthquake had received the biggest snowfall in villagers’ memory. The mass of rock, ice and snow gained momentum, hit the edge of a rocky cliff, and became airborne. It flew for about 1,000m before pulverizing the village with half the force of an atomic bomb. Wind speeds reaching tornado velocity flattened a forest on the opposite side of the valley. At least 350 people are dead or missing.

While Lahaul’s forests may not be able to stop a catastrophic avalanche such as the one at Langtang, standing and fallen trees stabilize snow packs and halt small avalanches.

Clearly, the women have their eyes firmly on the future—these forests will see them through many a winter.

Janaki Lenin is the author of My Husband And Other Animals, and is fascinated by people’s relationship with animals and forests. She tweets at @JanakiLenin.

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