- Community Forest Management of Protected Areas – RLEK is convinced that conservation strategies which are community based and involve local people in management of natural resources within and around protected areas, will serve the cause of environment protection and conservation much better than present systems. It is RLEK’s contention that all indigenous peoples like Van Gujjars, with their vast traditional knowledge have the competence for sustainable management of forests. The Community Forest Management plan is a viable alternative to “fence and protect policies” eliminating people vs. park The plan proposes that the Van Gujjars become lead managers for the resources that they use. It carefully analyses six major ecological problems of this area including forest deterioration, depletion of ground cover, weed infestation, wildlife problems, soil erosion and forest fires. It presents several studies and data to challenge the official view that blames local people and their animals for most of these problems. It documents destructive forest management practices, poaching and tree felling, and an extensive system of bribes and illicit fees inducing over exploitation of forest resources by local people, as the principal causes of ecological problems.
“The plan is the first of its kind for protected areas and its acceptance by government and its successful implementation would not only have a strong and lasting impact on the local tribal community but could also become a replicable model for the national and international tribal communities and the environment.”
RLEK has mobilized the community by the formation of a simple, audacious and effective participatory four–tier management structure with ‘khol’ (collective of deras which are usually dispersed) committee at the cutting edges, range Panchayats at the range level for mediation and conflict resolution, a sanctuary committee for coordination at the sanctuary level and a regional committee for policy making, monitoring and advocacy. Capacity building of the community is undertaken holistically through various programmes on a continuous basis. The concept has been appreciated worldwide and representatives of the Van Gujjar community have also been called to several countries to deliver lectures on forest management.
At the policy level, the advocacy work by RLEK and the Van Gujjars has demonstrated that community management of protected areas is a viable national option. There is a growing political realisation that the needs of people and wildlife must be reconciled if both are to survive. This struggle for the rights of the indigenous/forest dwelling communities is analogous to the struggle of countries for freedom, the only difference being, that during independence struggles nations fight against foreign colonial powers but RLEK is having to fight against an apathetic and inefficient bureaucratic machinery of its country.
- Human Health
The exigencies of the Van Gujjar life-style (forest dwelling semi-nomads) have proved insurmountable for government agencies to implement any health programmes for the community. RLEK initiated programmes with a small group (4000-5000) of migrating Van Gujjars starting in 1995. This has created general awareness about health, sanitation and hygiene amongst the beneficiaries. Para-medics for injury prevention and first aid treatment as well as birth attendants have been trained from the community. They have helped reduce the IMR, MMR and the total fertility rate. Immunisation and birth control methods are gaining acceptance amongst both males and females. RLEK now arranges to link Van Gujjars to government health services. As a result, they are no longer apprehensive about availing medical facilities. During an emergency, they can contact RLEK directly through the wireless, the para-medics or the voluntary teachers. Traditional use of medicinal plants and herbs is encouraged.
- Veterinary Health
RLEK provides veterinary health care to the livestock of the Van Gujjars. A number of Van Gujjar men and women have been trained as para-vets through the programme which delivers both curative and prophylactic treatment to the animals. The service is extended to them even during transhumance. An annual immunisation programme is carried out in the entire area in which the dispersed population dwell, usually before they migrate to the hills to prevent cross transfer of infections with the wildlife. A number of diseases have been controlled because of these initiatives including ‘Foot and Mouth Disease’, ‘Black Quarter’, ‘Rabies’ and ‘Haemorrhagic Septicaemia’. The Gujjars are now both aware of, and confident about, availing medical services for immunisation activities and control of diseases and prevention.