Hills that were denuded by logging have come back to life in the past 20 years in the Indian state of West Bengal, driven by villagers who have recognized the power of trees to mitigate climate change. The once bare and stony hills are now covered with native trees that provide fruit, mitigate heat waves and contribute to water retention and cleaner air.
Today’s restored forests on the hills near Jharbagda hold nearly half a million trees, and the neighboring 125 villages have been covered with an additional seven million trees. At 91, Jamini Mohan Mahanty thinks it has added extra years to his life.
“I could have died long ago but the green mountain has given me a fresh lease of life. It has made the environment clean and pollution free. It really energizes my soul to see birds chirping and rabbits hiding in the bushes. I come inside the forest everyday to have a brief rendezvous with nature.”
It began in the early 1990s when a group of villagers approached the Tagore Society For Rural Development (TSRD), wanting to work on livelihood-based community programs and solutions to the water crisis. When Nandalal Baksi, TSRD’s director of planning and operation, proposed foresting the bare landscape around their villages, they didn’t see the connections. But a few villagers agreed to start planting trees.
Then in 1998 and 1999, the community leaders of three villages signed an agreement with TSRD to participate in the reforesting effort, and the Japanese government funded the plantations that began in 1999 and continued until 2002.
The villagers opted to plant native trees with commercial value such as sal, mahogany, mango, jackfruit and custard apple. During three years, over 326,000 trees of 72 varieties including fruits, medical herbs and timber wood were planted.
Within a few years, the landscape started changing. “The first visible sign was the easy availability of firewood for fuel,” said Kalyani Mahanty, 40, a homemaker in Jharbagda. “The dried leaves that fell from the trees were collected by us and used as fuel. It not only saved us from the ordeal of walking for several kilometres, but also reduced our expenditure on buying wood for fuel. It encouraged us to protect the forest and shoo out anyone trying to destroy it.” The easy availability of water also stopped quarrels among villagers and brought peace to the village, she added.
When the forests returned, so did the elephants. “We first noticed the movement of elephants in 2005. There was a sense of jubilation among villagers. There were also constant sighting of snakes and other animals. Birds are now regular here,” said Bikash Mahanty, 40.
To help make sure the forests remain protected for the future, the villagers celebrate a unique festival of tying “cords of love” around trees.
Since the West Bengal state government scaled up the program in 2017, more than $7 million in projects are being implemented across 450 villages to re-green fallow lands, conserve water and promote job creation in local communities. Government officials from the neighboring states of Jharkhand and Chattisgarh visited the sites in 2022 to learn how to replicate the practices.
In a West Bengal village, locals have revived a barren hillock through reforestation Scroll, May 20, 2022
In West Bengal, restoration of a forest gave a village a new lease of life Scroll, Feb. 1, 2020
The Reappearing Forests of West Bengal Reasons to be Cheerful, Nov. 10, 2023