India : “religious fencing” to save the forest

Tribal men eating a jackfruit in the field where they are working. Orissa state, India.

It’s a strange sight so early in the misty morning. Draped in a tiger skin, a man walks ungainly along the hills. He is followed by a group of villagers who are beating drums, some of them are even chanting incomprehensible “shloka” (“shloka”are verses in sanskrit language that have a religious importance in hinduism). They go round a huge patch of “sal” forest before vanishing,… before the silence reigns again in this remote area of Orissa, an eastern indian state.

This is the land where human sacrifices where once practised to ensure crops. But ” This is not witchcraft” say the villagers, most of them belonging to the Kondh tribe. Though hard to believe, this is one of the most innovative efforts made in the tribal belt of Orissa to stop the fast dwindling forest cover. And it is led by the villagers themselves.

The man in the tiger skin is a leper picked for the job by the environment-conscious villagers and since the method has been adopted, the illegal felling of trees in the forests has been almost stopped, providing the much needed space for the tropical forest to regenerate. The effort has its roots in the people strong faith in traditions. The tribal villagers believe that the forest area the group encircled has become immune and no one should fell a tree there. “If anyone dare to do it, tribals believe he will be afflicted by leprosy or be attacked by a tiger” says a forest official. The leper also carries pieces of lemon, bundles of dry straw, “tulsi”( basil ) leaves and local liquor ( all products supposed to have the power to move away the evil spirits) as he goes round the forest erecting an imaginary fence, which the villagers consider impossible to penetrate. The whole ritual is known as “pramana”…and this “religious fencing” is highly effective.

“It’s a move to save forest with the people participation” says a forest officer. “You may dub it as blind faith but it is yielding results and forests adjoining these villages, which had been ravaged in the past by the same people when they practised “podu” ( shifting cultivation), have regenerated, attracting wildlife.”

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