No more pining for fodder: Oak rescues Paini women from hardshipWritten By News Root | Published on Updated: Sep 16, 2022, 14:42 IST | 1663319536561The Mahila Mangal Dal comprising 70 women nurtures an oak forest in Uttarakhand, to relieve themselves of the task of bringing cattle fodder after walking 10 km.Women of Paini village, Chamoli, Uttarakhand walking back home after collecting grass to be able to feed their cattle (Photo Dheeraj Parihar)
Chamoli & Gopeshwar, Uttarakhand: “Winters were hard on us. We had to walk 5 km each, up and down, to bring oak leaves for our animals. Every blade of grass wilts due to chilly weather, and we have to struggle to find cattle fodder,” Hema Rautela, the president of the Mahila Mangal Dal in Uttarakhand’s Paini village, tells 101Reporters.
But that was four years ago. Things have changed a lot since then, with an oak forest catering to their needs. “We planted this forest,” says Rautela, beaming with pride. “It is just 500m from our village.”
Farming is the main source of livelihood on the hills of Uttarakhand. In Paini village of Joshimath block in Chamoli district, the farmers mainly cultivate vegetables and pulses. To ensure a good yield, they use animal dung for manure, and hence require a lot of fodder to feed them.
But the limited fodder options led the women of Paini to plant oak saplings on two hectares of forest panchayat land in 2006. Today, the land is a flourishing oak forest that provides the much-needed fodder to farmers.
“The land was lying vacant and was in constant danger of encroachment. So, we women got together and decided to plant around 2,000 oak saplings on two hectares,” explains Rautela, who owns three cows that require two to three bundles of grass daily.
The fruits of teamwork
The beautiful oak forest is an inspiring example of community involvement and team effort, especially by the women who shoulder the responsibility of fetching fodder for animals in these parts of the country. First, the 70-odd women of the Mahila Mangal Dal brought cow dung manure and water from their homes to plant the saplings. They received help from both the Nanda Devi National Park and the Van Panchayat authorities.
Then began their biggest challenge — of nurturing the saplings and preventing them from wilting. There was also an added danger of the saplings being destroyed by wild animals.
The woman tackled the challenges head-on by dividing themselves and the land into four groups. Each group was responsible for watering the saplings on their patch of land, until they grew into small trees. The national park offered financial assistance for the initiative. To protect the saplings from wild animals, the locals fenced it with metal wires.
Their lovingly tended oak forest was gradually taking root, when another challenge knocked at their doors. In May, all of a sudden, a fire began to rage in a pine forest located near the village. As the fire spread rapidly towards the oak forest, the villagers, including those from the Dal, and the forest department staff rushed in to put it out.
“Soon, we gathered ourselves together and carried water in buckets and containers from our homes. Some people suffered burns, but thankfully no one was seriously injured. The fire could be brought under control only after four to five hours,” narrates Paini resident Manmohan Singh.
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“Whenever there is a fire around our village, it will be in the pine forest as its leaves are highly flammable. The fallen leaves are like a sheet on the ground, and the fire spreads quickly,” Singh claims.
According to the information available on the Uttarakhand Forest Department website, this year, a total of 6,601 pine trees were damaged in forest fires, and two lives lost. At least seven persons received injuries while extinguishing it. The monetary loss suffered by the department stands at Rs 89,25,638.
Oak vs pine
Besides fodder, the villagers value the oak forest for its myriad uses. According to SP Sati, an Associate Professor of Environmental Science at the College of Forestry, Ranichauri, the oak trees help balance carbon dioxide levels in the forest and maintain low soil temperature. “The oak roots are very deep. So, they bind the soil and recharge ground water.”
Kamla Devi, a Paini resident, points out that the soil around oak trees contains moisture that helps grass grow well in the forest. “We feed oak leaves to livestock, while its wood is used to make agricultural tools. For cooking too, oak wood is better than that of pine, as the latter emits a lot of smoke,” she tells 101Reporters.
“Pine wood can only be used for construction, but lisa (resin) extracted from it can be sold. But a methodology set by the forest department should be followed during the process. Hence, locals are not keen on it. In other words, oak is more useful to us than pine,” explains Devi.
“While there can be many reasons for fires, their rapid spread in the mountains is due to pine leaves, which act as petrol,” Singh insists.
On the other hand, Hem Gairola, founding member of the Himalayan Centre for Community Forestry, Uttarakhand, tells 101Reporters, “The reason for the fires is poor management, not the pine tree. Earlier, there would be a fire line in the pine forests and for this line to work properly, dry leaves were removed from time to time so as to stop the fire from spreading. However, these days, this fire line is not given much attention.”
Gairola adds that people used pine wood to build their houses earlier, but today they use cement and bricks. Just because humans have reduced their use of pine wood, it cannot be said that pine has no use. “Even today, pine trees have tied down the mountains to prevent landslides. It is fine to plant oak trees, but it should not be done by cutting down pine trees.”
(The author is a freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)