Vanguards of Odisha forests

The alarming rate at which our forest reserves are being rapidly depleted can’t be sidelined. The constant debate on deforestation and its direct effect on climate change is heard every now and then. Amid this chaotic din, comes a refreshingly positive take on “community partnership” where villagers got together and took ownership of the forest land. Documenting how natives of Angul village in Odisha decided to conserve forest land, without government intervention, is the theme of documentary “The Vanguards of Angul” that was screened at the recently concluded CMS Vatavaran Environment and Wildlife Film Festival.

A few years back, filmmaker Ahona Datta Gupta was associated with The Energy and Resource Institute (TERI) and the organisation was closely following United Nations collaborative initiative on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD) in developing countries. For the REDD + programme, five places in India were chosen, one of them being Renukoot in Uttar Pradesh.

“A survey was done by taking satellite imagery to study forest area and see how deforestation could be reduced. The conclusion of the study was that it can only be possible if the people living in fringe areas of the forest stop exploiting the forest and start preserving it,” Gupta tells Metrolife.

“Since their livelihood depended on forests, one had to find a way out. So according to this initiative, people in Renukoot were trained to look after forests as their own,”
she says. While TERI was working on this project, they got to know about villagers in Angul who had taken upon themselves to preserve the forest area. The way they reciprocated to nurturing forests was a stark contrast to what was happening in other forest zones. So, TERI gave Gupta the task to document this positive feature.

“It was an informal and community-based set up and highlighted how these villagers had come up with innovative ways of conservation and preservation. Initially they had no government backing, but they represented a successful model of conservation and slowly they started getting funding from the government,” says Gupta, who took around three months to document their lives.

“It is extremely rare to see how villagers are pro about forest conservation,” she says.
These days Gupta works as a freelancer and admits “independent filmmaking can’t be one’s sole breadwinning option”.

“I took a break because I wanted to focus on my research paper. I am committed to work in development sector and hence want to study in India because it will give me access to reality.

My biggest angst with people is that they are suggesting me to go abroad for studies, but I want to work at grass root level, something I can’t do if I head abroad,” she says.

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