Fuel Wood and Fodder – an Everyday Struggle of Hill Women in Himachal Pradesh

By Ravi Shankar Behera and Dr. Ranjit K. Sahu

Engagement in subsistence Agriculture, orchards and livestock rearing in the inaccessible hill terrains are the most important sources of livelihoods in the fragile Himalayan communities with a heavy reliance on the and forest local ecosystems. Wood, LPG and electricity remain the three important sources of fuel for domestic purposes, with fuel wood being the vital source of heating and energy for a majority of the rural households, especially during the winter months (About 80% ), though the  dependency on forests for firewood continues throughout the year. Gainful employment opportunities are virtually non-existent for such communities. Majority of the households have at least one family member employed outside the village. Remittances, working as labour under the MGNREGS and in apple orchards areas are the main sources of income for these laborers.

Hill communities are directly dependent on forests for their provisioning needs, such as food, fuel wood, fodder, timber, water and medicines. The most important species collected from the forest are Jurinea macrocephela (Dhoop), Aconitum spp. (Patish), Rheum emodi (Rewand Chini), Potentilla nepalensis (Dori grass), Orchis latifolia (Salampanja), Polygenatum vertiuilliem (Salam Mishri), Ainaliaea aptra (Sathjalori), Picorhiza kuroo (Karoo), Podophyllum emodi (Bankakri), Rhododendron compannlatum (Kashmiri patta), Saussurea lappa (Kuth), Artemesia sp. (Seski) and Polygenatum vertiuilliem (Thuth). Hill communities face dual challenges of food and energy shortages and have become more vulnerable to weather variabilities and susceptible to natural disasters, attributed to Climate Change. Fuel wood and fodder, which are two most important requirements of rural hill communities for their own sustenance and that of their livestock and small ruminants are becoming increasingly scarce.

Presently, there is an enormous pressure on the forests for fuel wood and fodder with the woodlots in the commons diminishing over the past two decades due to rapid deforestation and absence of plantation activities. Most forest stands in the hills have matured/aged and there is limited scope for their natural regeneration, due to non-formation of cones, attributed to Climate change and increased human and cattle interference. The small ruminants like Sheep and Goats are now being grazed in the upper reaches of the forests extending the zone of deforestation.

Procuring fuel wood round the year has become a challenge for most hill communities due to the rapid destruction of forests, degraded common property resources and increased restrictions from the forest department to collect fuel wood from the forests. Women from the local communities have to travel to faraway places (up to 10 Km to 15 km) to collect fuel wood on a weekly basis due to non-availability of fuel wood in their own villages. This is a painstaking work, which involves carrying head loads of up to 70- 80 Kg of firewood. Most often they confront the forest officials, who reprimand, fine and seize their small cutting equipment like axe, as a punishment for collection of such basic fuel wood material.

Hill communities do have individual and community rights for the collection of dry wood for fuel, grass and green foliage for fodder, timber extraction (for community functions like marriages/feasts) and collection of food products and non-timber forest produce. While there are no rights on grazing of cattle and livestock. A majority of the households have customary grass cutting rights in the forest area and common lands. As a common practice, the grasslands are kept closed during the monsoon months from June to mid-September to prevent open grazing by animals and to allow the grass to grow. The grass is cut during October for fodder requirements of their livestock during winter. The hill communities do have designated grass cutting patches for every family. Women are mostly engaged in the grass cutting during the whole month of October. Mechanized Grass cutting machines are owned by a few community members and men are mostly engaged in mechanized grass cutting. Communities do practice traditional systems of rotational grazing on agricultural lands and forests.

Most rural hill families rear cattle and small ruminants (Sheep and Goat). All locals rear cows – local and Jersey, ox, goats, sheep, mules and small poultry. Animal rearing is essential to generate manure for farming, meat and milk. Small ruminants are raised for meat (consumption and sale), milk and manure. During summer and monsoon months cattle, sheep and goat are taken out for grazing in the grazing lands and forest. Jersey cows are not left out to graze. Farmers who own 10-15 sheep or goat keep them at home, but farmers with larger size of small ruminants, follow a common practice of taking the animals to higher areas where they have grazing rights, during April. The graziers reside in these areas with their livestock till the time of snowfall in October-November, when the livestock is brought back to the village. Unfortunately there is little scope for vegetation to recover from the grazing during winter leading to cumulative loss of green cover over the years.

For the winter months, hill communities stock fuel wood and Grass (Silage), especially when the temperature falls below freezing and the land is blanketed in snow making it difficult to go out for collection of fodder to feed their livestock. Grass cut from designated areas and green leaves are procured from forests for fodder. 80% of the fodder needs are met from the forest and the rest 20% are from the private lands. Leaves of trees such as Aesculus indica (Khannaur- Horse Chestnut), Morus alba (Kimu), Robinia, Juglans regia (Jungli Akrot), Prunus spp. (Wild Apricot – Chooli), Prunus persica (Wild Peach – Bemi), Quercus semecarpifolia (Kharshu Oak) and Ban Oak are used as fodder. Fodder needs are also met from crop residues.

Hill communities also collect medicinal herbs from the forests for domestic use and for sale. NTFPs such as Jurinea macrocephala (Dhoop), Gentiana lutea (Kadu) and Trillium govanianum (Nag Chatri) in the higher reaches and sold to traders who come to the village to buy the mushrooms and medicinal plants. About 40% of the households engage in collection and sale of NTFPs. Usually those households engage in NTFP collection that have either have less land holdings, or have a large number of family members. Dhoop is sold for Rs.120/Kg and Kadu for Rs.240/Kg. About 50% of the households are engaged in collection of NTFP for sale and domestic use. Fewer households are engaged in NTFP collection for sale. The availability of NTFPs has reduced over the last 10 years, and villagers have to now travel to higher reaches in the forests to procure the NTFPs. Food products such Diplazium esculentum (Lingad), Mushrooms (Chatri) and Cheejay are also collected during the season time from forests.

Wood of Cedrus deodara (Deodar) and Pinus wallichiana (Kail/Blue Pine) trees are used for timber purposes. Timber Distribution (TD) rights haven not been issued in the last few years in the village. Due to ban on green felling in Himachal Pradesh, hill communities are facing difficulty in getting TD rights. The Forest Department allows communities to extract NTFPs once every three/five years, when the forest range is opened. There have been efforts by the Forest Department, Power Plant companies and local communities for forest conservation and sustainable management under the Catchment Treatment Plan. However, there have been no significant changes observed in the villages on local soil and water conservation and forest improvements from the Catchment Treatment Plan.

There are several formal and informal institutions existing in the form of committees such as Van Panchayats, Youth Clubs and Women groups/Collectives in the hill villages. These institutions undertake socio-cultural developmental and religious activities in the villages. However, discussions on community-managed natural resource management is limited or non-existent. They currently discuss on sports events in the village/Gram Panchayat meetings.  Effective coordination between and among the major stakeholders for community-based natural resource management remains a challenge for the hill communities.

Way forward:

  • Valuing local people’s indigenous knowledge systems and practices will be the first step to prepare local hill communities for collective actions to restore and manage the already degraded and fragile hill ecosystems.
  • Awareness on environmental degradation, effects of climate change and possible peoples’ collective actions to address these imminent challenges will be crucial, especially for the young generation in schools and colleges.
  • Massive plantation drives ensuring new plantations of grass, shrubs and trees species suitable to the local agroecology and funded by the Forest department, Power Companies and other development actors like NGOs/donor agencies.
  • Revival and strengthening of village institutions like Van Panchayats, Youth clubs, Women’s groups/Collectives, Farmers’ Collectives etc., will be important to ensure the decentralized conservation and management of common property resources and forest.
  • Conscious and Sustainable use and management of land, water and forest resources by local hill communities, ensuring natural regeneration processes, participatory planning, management and maintenance of natural resources will be crucial. Community level rules/bye-laws and enforcement mechanisms for sustainable management of natural resources will be useful in the long run.
  • More collaborations and partnerships will be required among local communities, local self-Governance bodies, Government, academicians, Universities, NGOs, CSR Foundations, Himalayan Mountain Forum, social movements and networks and the larger civil society are needed to ensure community-based natural resource management and better provisioning of ecological services for the hill communities.

About the Author:

Dr. Ranjit K. Sahu is a Research professional and freelance writer with over a decade of experience in biomedical research , currently located in Virginia, USA. His interests include education, environment, sustainability and health care in the underprivileged regions of the world.

Ravi Shankar Behera is a free lance consultant in the development sector and affiliated to several organizations, currently based in New Delhi.

2 Comments

  1. Very useful information, ensure livelihood is a challenging factor till now, the area and community needs more attention for sustainable development,

  2. Ravi Shankar Behera says:

    Thanks so much dear Raju Sharma ji,

    Kind regards,
    Ravi Behera

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