The Goan Forest Department received government funds to the tune of ₹54 lakh (USD 80,000) in 2010. What they decided to do then, defies logic. After systematically cutting down more than a million indigenous trees and plants in a forest reserve in Canacona, South Goa, they bought and planted ornamental saplings in the cleared space to ‘increase forest cover’.
The so-called ‘afforestation’ project saw 1.1 million local trees being cut down and replaced by expensive plants of no practical value. “Our forests were being replaced with unknown trees which were useless as fodder for cattle or for making traditional, medicinal cures,” says Sanjay Gaonkar, a resident of Canacona district. Sanjay also points out that this created an environment of monoculture in the reserve, completely destroying the biodiversity of the forest, and making it impossible for residents to gather forest produce, an activity which until then had contributed to their livelihoods. The situation seemed hopeless.
We screened a video for the residents of 13 villages around Canacona, night after night, and informed the residents about the forest department’s activities and its environmental repercussions
This was when the Video Volunteers Community correspondent Devidas Gaonkar decided to capture the anguish of the people on video, who roundly criticised the forest department for its decision. Devidas and Sanjay then went on to form an association called Jungle Bachao Samiti (Save the Jungle Association), organising residents to participate in a community movement to save the Canacona forests. “We screened the video for the residents of 13 villages around Canacona, night after night, and informed the residents about the forest department’s activities and its environmental repercussions,” says Devidas.
The committee also used Devidas’ video to explain the problem at hand in local colleges, to gain the support of the Goa’s youth and screened it for prominent local politicians and the district’s elected representatives. This was a prelude to filing a Right to Information (RTI) application to know why and how much the government was spending to destroy Canacona’s forests. The community united, under the banner of the association, in 2013, in the fight to save the forests, their home.
But victory did not come easy. It took another one and a half years of constant advocacy, knowledge-sharing and the courage to ask for administrative accountability before the battle was won. The forest department finally agreed not to sow foreign plants in the reserve and decided to stick to indigenous trees for any further afforestation programme. As of 2015, the forest in Canacona is safe.
There’s a lesson here — on how a few determined local residents can demand accountability and challenge decisions taken by a government department. When threatened by the lumbering and bureaucratic attitude of Goa’s forest officials, local residents took steps such as filing the RTI and mobilising a public call-to-action based on video proof with scientifically-backed research. With the support of the scientific community, community-backed protests and demonstrations took off and attracted media coverage. For now, this seems the best playbook to ensure that communities have a say in what happens to their forests.