Community brings river back to life

September 2nd, 2008 - 11:45 am ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, Sep 2 (IANS) This is an inspiring story of how a group of villagers in the heart of India brought a dead river back to life.Mendha-Lekha is a village of Dhivar and Gond tribals near the point where the borders of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh meet. Once upon a time, the villagers used a 10-km stretch of the Kathani river, a tributary of the Godavari, for fishing, recreation and irrigation.

Then came the years when people cut down forests and overdrew water from the Kathani. Soon there was no water left in the rainfed river.

The residents then evolved their own rules to resurrect the river, their lifeline - save the forest in the river’s catchment area, and don’t allow any poison to get into the water.

The result is there for all to see - the river is back and running pure.

Noted ecologist and Padma Bhushan award winner Madhav Gadgil used the example of Mendha-Lekha to illustrate the power of local action. “There’s a sign at the village entrance - ‘We have our government in Mumbai-Delhi, We ARE the Government at Mendha-Lekha’,” he told his audience at a lecture called ‘Of river, fishes, and poison’ here last week.

“Where the community is given the responsibility of managing resources and biodiversity, it does so,” Gadgil said. “The ilakha (area) council of tribals that governs the 32 villages possesses unique local wisdom on fish populations. So they prescribe the different fishing methods by which both the fish and the people depending on them can be supported.”

Gadgil is advising the central government on the forthcoming Biodiversity Act. He was very clear on the need to involve local communities and give them the primary responsibility to conserve biodiversity, a point he repeatedly stressed through the Mendha-Lekha example.

The villagers came up with detailed rules to protect their forests - no encroachment, initiation and implementation of joint forest management practices, the forests to be guarded daily by locals, anyone found cutting trees to be brought to the village and fined, outsiders including the paper industry stopped from commercial extraction in forests, responsibility for the bamboo harvest taken over by locals, a ban on cutting fruit trees and burning wood to prepare fields for cultivation.

The council also banned for three years use of herbal and fish poisons in all 32 villages.

“This exemplifies local level biodiversity management committees under the Biodiversity Act,” said Gadgil. The 2002 act proposed a three-tier management structure for biodiversity and natural resources - national, state and local biodiversity management committees (BMC).

According to the act, BMCs are to include all interested stakeholders, local students and teachers and NGO representatives. The group develops a People’s Biodiversity Register (PBR) to monitor current trends and the history of the biodiversity in the area. An action plan to conserve biodiversity is prepared on the basis of this.

Gadgil feels that an amalgamation of traditional practices, and modern scientific monitoring, can help people to take care of nature. “The result in Mendha-Lekha was that the community succeeded in reviving the Kathani river, improving the quality of water and accounting for many new fish species. Today 59 of the original 64 fish species are back in the river.”

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