BALI, Indonesia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - With her long black hair, dimples and slight frame swathed in a colourful sari, Suryamani Bhagat’s graceful appearance belies the nerves of steel required to become an environmental heroine in a deeply patriarchal society.
The 34-year-old from Chhota Nagpur Plateau in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand works with other women to safeguard the state’s precious forests and to preserve her community’s tribal culture.
An activist with the indigenous group Jharkhand Save the Forest Movement since the age of 20, Bhagat has helped wrestle management of forests from the government back into local hands and mobilised villagers to protect forest resources.
She is also assisting communities to apply for land titles, taking advantage of the 2006 Forest Rights Act of India. It provides a legal basis for indigenous people to own lands that have been in their possession for generations but without formal recognition.
None of the 40 claims she helped submit have yet been approved, but local people have demarcated the areas and started to plant fruit trees and other biodiverse vegetation. Previously, the government focused only on commercial timber and other cash crops, Bhagat said.
She also founded Torang, a tribal rights and cultural centre in her village of Kotari.
“I grew up in the forest and we used to go to there to gather resources such as wood. But the government forest guards would not let us go in, and chased us with sticks,” she told Thomson Reuters Foundation on the sidelines of the first Summit on Women and Climate held in Bali, Indonesia, earlier this month.
“When they spoke to us, it was in a very derogatory manner and using very patriarchal language. I wondered why we are being treated like this when we look after and conserve the forest,” she said.
When she saw the guards taking large chunks of timber out of the forest and selling them, she organised a group of women to start protesting about the removal of the wood. Eventually, they forced the authorities to put a stop to it, and retreat from the forest.
With a degree in Sanskrit, Bhagat could have become a teacher. The job would have been less strenuous and better paid. So there were misgivings among her friends and family when she took up environmental activism - but they were only too aware of her determination to intervene.
She would often walk alone to neighbouring villages to raise awareness about the importance of community forestry and how to do it. With a strong presence of Maoist rebels in the area, she was often questioned by armed men in her early days as an activist.
She told them what she was doing was for the public good.
“Very often, these villages are in remote areas not accessible by road or even motorcycles. Some are two to three hours away, some half a day. Sometimes it takes me a whole day to walk,” she said.
“It can be very rough. You have to stay where you can. You don’t know when the food is coming,” she said, shrugging her shoulders.
Harassment - from the authorities and the male population in general - is also common.
Once, the police wanted to arrest female leaders in the community including Bhagat. The women retorted that if they were going to be incarcerated, their children and livestock would have to come too, since there would be no one to take care of them. The police left.
Sometimes drunk men would try and disrupt the meetings she held in the villages she travelled to. But Bhagat says she rarely feels intimidated.
“I just tell them, ‘You go and sit and we’ll give you something to drink later’,” she said with an uproarious laugh, her red and gold plastic bangles jingling.
With Bhagat at the helm, her village now has a committee of 15 women who patrol the forests. They keep a register to record what resources are needed, and to ensure no one cuts more wood than is necessary.
Bhagat is also looking for ways to reduce the impacts of climate change. Replanting trees that provide food or medicine and have a high biodiversity value is a start, she said.
“We have been able to completely ban the planting of eucalyptus and acacia trees, for example, because they ruin the soil, draw a lot of excess water and have negative effects on the rest of the forest ecosystem,” she said.
To Bhagat, gender, forest conservation and the impacts of climate change are intimately linked.
Certain plants indigenous people rely on for medicinal properties or food security are now flowering at the wrong time, flowering less or not flowering at all because of climate shifts, according to Bhagat.
“There are many single women households. If the forests are not providing the resources at the right time then how will they look after their families?” she asked.
“For six months (of the year), we have the crops to sustain us but for the next six months, we rely on the forest resources. So for women, to look after the forest and have ownership of it is a very important part of our everyday lives,” she said.