A Forest of Our Own : Ecological forestry practices of the Kondhs

Forests are an integral part of Adivasi life and the Kondhs are known among other Adivasi groups of southern Odisha as the greatest connoisseurs of forests. Here is a conversation with Kondh elders about their past, present and future relationship with forests.

“On the first Friday after the Hindu Bahuda Jatra (held generally around mid-July), we decorate and paint our houses and prepare for the Tanku Chapa Parba which is the festival that initiates the sowing season. The Jani performs this worship at the Jhankeri. During the Tanku Chapa Parab the Disari and Jani get a long bamboo pole and put two eggs into it and sacrifice a rooster. Then some of us who help in the rituals make 7 pieces of the rooster and put it into the bamboo pole and cook it on wooden fire. We also cook rice and eat it together after the rituals. The Jani, Nayak, Badarayata, Disari and some of us village elders eat this rice and bamboo chicken curry with egg at the place of Jhankeri. After this ritual all villagers can freely eat anything from the fields and forests. Before we do this Tanku Chapa Parba we cannot eat anything from the farm or the forests as it has not been offered to the village deity Jhankeri. After this ritual the villagers start sowing in all the different types of land. And this is the first festival related to forest.   

In Panchubadi we have two hamlets but we use different patches of the same forest. In our village each of our forests has a separate name. Our forests are mainly on the hills and lands under these hills are used as gudia or uplands for millet based mixed cropping. One of our hill forests is called Bada Dangar and have got a Community Forest Rights (CFR) title for it. All the villagers cultivate around and on this mountain forest and not on different hills and after we cut the trees to make the shifting cultivation plots we sacrifice some animal like a goat, sheep or pig to appease the deities of the hills and forests. Of the three hill forests in our village boundary, we cultivate around one hill and do not touch the other two hill forests. We keep those two forests intact because we need wood, forest foods, etc that grow in the forests. But as we also need vegetables and grains, we cultivate these on one of the three mountain forests we have.

Of the two other mountain forests, Jargi Horu is the name of one of our forests and the other is a religious or sacred grove called Satarkoti and if anyone cuts any tree in this forest then they die from some illness or the other and misfortune befalls her or his family. Bees protect this forest. Only those who speak Kui can enter that forest to collect twigs, leaves, roots or tubers. Anyone who speaks Odia or is not a Kondh Adivasi will be attacked by thousands of bees. Even if we speak in Odia inside the forest the bees will attack us also. This has been happening since even before our grandparents. Don’t know since when this has been happening. We cannot explain it.

What do we get from the forests ? The best thing we get from the forest are siadi seeds, siadi eaves for making leaf plates and bowls, siadi ropes for making our charpoy beds, many different kinds of tubers, fruits, bamboo, wooden logs, mushrooms, etc. We get these throughout the year except for the monsoon seasons. We get the best tubers during the winter and summer seasons and we get leafy greens in the monsoons. We also get many wild edible berries as well as many medicinal berries one of which is kotoki koli seeds which we sell for INR 100 per kilo.

Again during the summer we get bamboo from the forests which we use for our roofing as well as making bamboo walls or partitions housing, boundary, baskets, mats, etc. In monsoons we go less to the forests as the forests are teeming with insects, mosquitoes and snakes so we have a greater chance of being bitten or stung by these and also of getting malaria. So we go only if we have to graze our cattle or want bamboo shoots, mushrooms and some leafy greens for cooking.

Forest festivals are manly related to nehela thasa or poddu chaas or shifting cultivation. Those who have poddu chaas lands they perform worships and rituals on the hills and near the forests. We also perform some rituals and worships before going to the forests for fruits and berries. Every ritual is an act of thanksgiving to the deities for providing us with food and for protecting our forests and lands. Without worshipping our forest deities we do not go into the forest for plucking any fruits or digging any roots and tubers, even for medicines.

During our grandparents’ time there was a lot of fear of wild animals, especially tigers. Tigers had mauled to death many of our people so we used to fear the spirits of these persons killed by the tigers. And the forest rituals are done to worship these spirits and keep them happy and pray to them for protecting other living persons from the tigers. If we do not worship these spirits then they will destroy our crops by sending the animals into our fields. Taku Godika of Tala Sahi was the last man eaten by tigers about 50-60 years back and the first man to be killed by a tiger was Kamlu Mulika, one of our village elders. We have only heard about him being mauled and eaten by a tiger. But these days we don’t see tigers anymore and even few bears are there in our forests. We know of this because we don’t see bears in our fields during the mahual and tola seasons or the season of the mahua flowers and fruits. Bears love tola and mahul flowers and come into the village to eat these. They used to come earlier but we have not seen a bear in last 10 years.

These days we only see jackals, jungle fowls, sambar and sometimes elephants who cross over to the Gudari forests from Dahikhal side. The main reason why our forests don’t have many kinds of animals anymore is hunting. In our times or during our grandparents we hunted with bow and arrow and then with some desi guns. But these days, since 2010, the younger boys use poison to kills the animals, fish and even the birds. This poison came when many people in our area began to use it for killing insects on their crops especially in the cotton and nilgiri (eucalyptus) plantations. This poison also killed most of the birds in our forests like the gundri (bush quail). Now, even if we have money we cannot get the delicious meat of so many animals which were eaten during festivals. What is the use of money when everything to buy it with is already lost ?

Poison is used mainly by the younger generation and they do not listen to us. The young people do not ask us anything and just go to the river or the jungles and use poison to kill fish, birds, animals, etc. We elders have paid fine to other villagers because our children have used poison to kills fish, birds, animals in other people’s rivers, villages and forests. We used guns very sparingly and never used poison because we had the skills of hunting and knew the tricks of hunting. Even now our villagers do not keep guns. But these young boys don’t have the skills or don’t know the tricks. And they do not also own up if they have used any poison to kill animals, fish or birds and so we know that they also lie to us elders and we feel sad.

What happens if animals are not there in the forest ? First thing is that our hunting culture is totally wasted. During Chait Benta (hunting festival in mid April) we roam around the forests in our area and even far away but we do not get any animals to hunt and celebrate the Chait Parab. We only get some bariha or wild boars and every year we have to celebrate our Chait Parab by offering the bariha meat to our Jhankeri and other deities. They also have lost the taste for other meat ! Second thing is that when the animals were there in the forest they used to sing and call out so we got to hear many sounds. Now it is all silent. Our sense of sounds has been lost as we knew about what is happening inside the forests by hearing sounds of the animals in the wild. For example, the peacocks singing would signal that morning is breaking. Or monkeys cackling in a large group would mean that some big animal is around in the forest and we used to avoid going to the forest on hearing the monkeys.

Only one good thing has happened after monkeys have reduced as this has helped save many of our crops which we grow in the poddu chaas lands or the gudia lands. The monkeys used to destroy all our standing crops. Another advantage of not having animals in the forests is that our fear of the forests has gone away. Even women are able to enter the forests without fear if being attacked and hence they go more often to collect forest foods now.

But this is not good at all. We have seen animals in the wild but our children don’t know how many of the animals look like ! We show our children wild animals only on TV but not in real. And we don’t have the money to take our children to the zoo for showing animals. We too never saw a tiger in the wild. The only time we saw a tiger was in the zoo at Bhubaneswar where some NGO had taken us for a meeting and then we went to the zoo. You see, we hardly see anyone walking anymore as they are lazy and go around in bikes or cars so do you think we will see any animals walking around in our forests …. lazy people have used poison to put animals to sleep !  

What other things do you get from the forests ? The forests give us food but besides that they also give us many products through which we run our households and meet our basic needs. We go to the forests to get ropes of siadi and pita which we use to weave our charpoy beds called khatia. If we lose the siadi and pita creepers then we will have to purchase nylon ropes for weaving our charpoy beds and that will cost us money. Similarly we collect kendu, siadi and other broad leaves to make leaf plates and bowls which we use for feasts and ritual offerings. We also get several medicinal herbs and plants and jhuna which we do not sell. But we also get lakha or milk of some trees which is used as paste by us and the surplus is sold in the weekly market. Again if we lose the forest, then we will have to buy hundreds of disposable plates for feasts and rituals. Thus if we take care of the forests then the forests will take care of us …. that is how it is !  

Of late we have heard that many Kondh families are going to the forests to dig for diamonds. But Kumutis or tradesmen of Gudari town are taking lease of these adivasi people’s lands at throwaway prices and taking away the diamonds that they are paying the adivasis to dig out. And this is possible because most Kondh people in our area do not really understand the actual value of the diamond stones they are digging out. However this has not yet happened in our village as we do not allow any traders to take land on lease here nor do we go digging for diamonds.  

However we make some money from our forests by selling bamboo and stones to people and keep the money in a kutumb panthi or clan fund where we had about INR 1 lakh. No one in the village sells anything from the forest individually. We negotiate with the parties, cut the bamboo or dig out the stones and after loading it onto the tractors of the parties we take the money from them and keep it in the kutumb panthi. We have some rules about which bamboo can be sold. We do not sell old trees and only allow fuelwood collection first for our villagers and then allow outsiders. We have put up bards on all the boundaries of our forest area warning against illegal entry and logging in our forest. Even forest officers cannot enter our forest without permission. And we sell to people only if they are using it for their own use like building a house or repairing a house and not for any kind of commercial business. While outsiders pay for bamboo and stones as well as fuelwood, our village people need not pay but have to inform the village elders if they are taking bamboo or stones or any timber logs and take their permission.

We realise that if the forest gets destroyed not only will we lose our food but also our sources of cash income. Therefore we have formed a Forest Rights Committee of 25 members who ensure that everyone follows forest protection rules set up by the villagers. We have begun to slap fines on people who break any rules, our villagers or outsiders. We sell the timber and stones as said earlier but only after ensuring there is enough for the villagers and for regeneration of the forest. And if there is news of any illegal loggers or stone cutters then one person from every family in the village forms a search party and we go and catch the culprits and bring them to the Jhankeri for decision on how they should be punished.

We do not allow the police or forest guards to enter our village. We are our own forest ranger, our own guard and our own police ! The forest guards fear us a lot and know that they cannot bribe anyone in our village for anything so they do not bother us and allow us to govern our forests in our own ways. We do not also fall prey to their ‘funny’ forest regeneration policies of mono culture plantations. We have not allowed the Forest department to make any plantations in any of our three forests. We have planted out own cashew, jackfruit, mango, tamarind, etc trees on our poddu chaas plots in order to ensure better density and diversity of poddu forests.   

We have also formed a forest fires committee and ensure during the poddu chaas season that no one puts fire inside the forests that they cannot control. We do know traditional techniques of controlling forest fires and ensure that everyone learns these techniques. There are women in our committee as well as they are skilled in controlling fires. We also do not put fire under mohul trees and ask everyone to sweep clean the area under the mohul tree so that next morning it is easy to spot the mohul flowers and pick them faster.

What has changed in these last ten years ? The most important change is that we elders used to worship our forest and mountain deities with a lot of honesty and sincerity. We had 13 forest related festivals. However the younger generation is not sincere in honouring the mountain and forest deities. Now we perform only three forest festivals. We were stricter in following customs but these young people do not bother to follow the customs and are always in a hurry to finish performing the rituals. In Kartik month we used to sacrifice a sheep and two roosters and never fed our children below 12 years the rice and meat from these sacrifices because we wanted them to first learn about the deities and then eat the food that is offered to them. But this is not valued anymore and even small children are being fed offerings from deities whom they do not know !

And this lack of sincerity has also affected the farm production. Farming produce from the poddu chaas lands and gudia lands has decreased a lot. We believe that the forest provides fertility to the farm lands too and if the forest reduces, then the farming also reduces. It is linked.

But the best thing that has not changed in our village in the last ten years is that religion has not divided the Kondhs. While13 families in our village have converted to Christianity and 8 are still following the traditional animist religious practices, t has not created any conflict in the village over uses and control of the forests. They do not participate in our rituals but follow all the rules and norms of the village around forest protection and usage as laid down by the adivasi leaders.   

But there is a fear lurking at the back of the minds of all village elders. We realise that in this generation the collective spirit of community living and collective values has got eroded. These days everyone thinks only about themselves and that is why in our minds we are battling the constant fear that this next generation will not safeguard the forest as much as we did.” The village elders concluded that the fear of the forest is the only weapon Mother Nature has to protect Her forests from being gobbled up by greedy humans. With wild animals getting extinct so fast, the fear of the forest has also died away and put not only the forests, but the Kondhs and Mother Earth in danger of extinction as well. It is time we fought back ….. do you agree ?

Profile of Village : 25 households, All Kondhs, Tala Sahi has 28 households, All Kondhs
Village : Panchubadi, Turiguda Panchayat, Chandrapur Block, Rayagada District


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