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  • Odisha villages claim their rights to use forest products and earn revenue from cashew 05/29/2023

    May 29th, 2023

    The onset of summer months means a bumper harvest of cashews in the Nayagarh district of Odisha. A cash crop, cashew is highly profitable for farmers, but this was not the case in Kodalpalli and Sinduria villages in the district until 2021. The cashew cultivated in the forest area close to these villages were collected and sold by the forest department and the cashew corporation of the state until the villages acquired titles under The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. A long battle for title and livelihood The forest close to the village was once used for millet cultivation. But in the absence of legal rights over the forest, the soil conservation department under the forest department soon took over the patch to cultivate cashews, the residents of Kodalpalli and Sinduria say. This kind of cultivation was undertaken across the Odisha on government wastelands/revenue wastelands and some on degraded forest lands. By the 1990s, the plantations were taken up by the Odisha State Cashew Development Corporation Ltd., who leased out the land to private parties. Consequently, the people of Kodalapalli and Sinduria not only lost their right to cultivate their own food, but were also excluded from the cashew plantations and sale. To keep the local residents away, the cashew collectors were also hired from other areas and paid daily wages. Soon, the village men began to migrate out for work in the absence of a livelihood. “If we tried to venture into the forest, we were slapped with police cases and fines. We were specifically prohibited from entering the forest in the summer months. We don’t depend on the forest only for firewood and other minor forest produce which can be sold, the forest also provides food for us. But we could hardly collect anything back then,” said Kaushalaya Pradhan (42), President of the Village cashew committee. After the enactment of the Forest Rights legislation, both the villages applied for Community Forest Rights (CFR) titles in 2008. Odisha is considered to be the leading state in the implementation of the FRA. Odisha has so far distributed a total of 4,63,260 titles including 4,55,450 Individual Forest Right (IFR) titles and 7,810 CFR titles. “We were hopeful, but we knew that this was not going to be easy. We undertook multiple rallies, held protests, and demanded that the titles be conferred to establish our legal claim over the forest,” said another villager Sarojni Pradhan. Eventually in 2021, they received the titles over 282.67 hectares of forest land. In a first in the district, two villages received a joint title. “After we applied for the title, we claimed our rights to use the forest. But we still could not sell the produce,” Sarojni added. Contending that minor forest produce remained vaguely defined until the enactment of the Forest Rights Act, Y. Giri Rao, Executive Director of Vasundhara, an organisation working with communities on forest rights, said that the FRA enabled right holders or their federation to collect, store, process, transport and sell MFPs in the market. “In Odisha, more than 32,000 villages are located on the fringes of forest land. The people living here are critically dependent on forest products, which constitute half of their annual income. The Forest Rights Act created an opportunity for local communities to sell their products without hurdles like transit permits, payment of taxes, royalties and fees. In many places in Odisha, the right holders and Gram Sabhas are using their authorities enshrined under the Act and rules, and getting better prices than the local market,” said Rao. A systematic collection and sale plan After 2021, Kodalapalli and Sinduria have each constituted a cashew committee to oversee the collection and sale of the produce each year. Harvesting of cashews begins in April and lasts till mid-May. The day usually begins at six in the morning with the first batch of cashews collected till noon and then again from four to seven in the evening. The villagers have mandated one person from every household to participate in the collection process. It is mostly women who participate. “All the activities from collection to sale are carried out by each household as the proceeds are divided equally amongst the households,” Kaushalya said. After collection, the cashews are dried, packaged and sold. Local traders from the district bid on the cashew and the village cashew committee decides the best selling price. “We have never invited tenders, but we select the trader who offers the best price amongst all,” said Reena Pradhan. In 2022, when they rightfully sold the cashews for the very first time, the villagers earned a revenue of Rs 4.5 lakhs. The proceeds of the sale are first given to the Gram Sabha which uses the money for village development purposes. The remaining amount is shared amongst the families. The division of the money is decided upon by the village cashew committee. Last year each household earned Rs. 7,500 from the sale of cashew. A community protected forest In both the villages, while a forest protection mechanism (undertaken by the residents) was in place since the 1960s, towards the late 1990s, the community women started protecting their forest through Thengapalli, an activity in which they patrol the forest with sticks, on a rotational basis. The forest protection committee selected by the Gram Sabha meets at least once a month and is constituted by 50 percent women. The protection committee has laid down rules for collection of fuelwood, minor forest produce, medicinal plants and so on. They also have provisions for controlling and managing forest fires. “Most of the cashews fall on the ground, hidden under dried leaves. An easy way would be to burn the leaves and collect the cashews, but we have prohibited that practice. We brush aside the leaves and collect the cashews. No one is allowed to light any fire for any purpose,” Reena said.