The story

Across India, more than 50 million people depend on forests for daily needs and cash income. Yet in recent times unsustainable harvesting, deforestation and growing markets threaten these primary income streams. Self-help groups (SHGs) can be a practical institutional framework for communities to collectively equip themselves with the know-how to restore their forest landscapes and deal with fast, modern markets.

For Baiga families living in villages within the Shambhupipar panchayat (a group of villages) part of the Central Highlands Restoration Project (CHiRP), forests are an essential part of their life and a vital source of sustenance and income. From trees dotted in cultivated areas and from within the forested hills surrounding the panchayat, families gather non-timber forest products (NTFPs), like honey, chirauta, bahera and mahua. The produce is eaten as food, used medicinally, placed at the shrines of forest spirits and sold to traders.

Cash needs leading to unsustainable harvest

However, the unsustainable harvest has put pressure on the forest and led to dwindling resources. Lured by quick cash incomes from traders, villagers harvest and gather fuelwood to be sold at local restaurants – further degrading the forest resources. Families supplement their forest activities by farming crops like rice or migrating to work as seasonal labourers.

The desperate need for cash means that villagers sell the harvest to meet their immediate needs when the forest does provide. They cannot afford to store the produce. However, as the forest is essential to their lifestyle, they often buy back products later at a much higher price. And in the case of mahua flowers, the difference is significant.

When Mahua flowers are in bloom – around March and April – a kilo of dried flowers costs 40 INR (€0.46). Villagers trade mahua flowers to pay for rice seed to sow their paddy fields. When festivals come around, villagers purchase mahua flowers at a much higher price, paying traders 80 INR/kilo (€0.92). In an area where the average daily wage is 200INR (€2.30), this extra cash burden is significant.

Dealing with fast and modern markets is difficult for families living in remote Shambhupipar. Many of the community still barter with rice as a currency, and they are not adequately equipped with the tools to face up to markets. They need to find a way to learn together how to store forest produce, have financial insurance, restore their forest landscape and create strong market linkages to get a fair price for their products.

Self-help group: collective learning

Self-help groups (SHG) are community collectives and can be an effective means of spreading knowledge through peer-to-peer networking. In India, SHGs are well established and have long been linked to micro-finance and community-owned seed-banks. Rural villagers do not have financial collateral and cannot simply open a bank account. SHGs became a way of organizing communities and connecting them with local banking officers. Members of an SHG learn how to save and manage their accounts, and techniques like rotational loans – where savings are rotated around a group – give members the chance to make investments.

More than 90% of SHGs in India consist exclusively of women. These groups are a useful platform for women to discuss anything on their mind and community matters. Such as their husbands’ drinking habits, where to buy chicken and health and hygiene practices, farming and finance.

Self-help group initiated in Shambhupipar

In October 2020, a women’s self-help group was started in Shambhupipar with the involvement of Shimla – one of Samarth‘s field staff.

Members of the SHGs in Shambhupipar meet to collectively learn about sustainable harvesting, the best ways of processing forest produce, and how to regenerate their forest landscapes. They work as a self-governed group to pool money and save and find ways of adapting their traditional knowledge with new information coming from outside their villages. Deepak, one of the Samerth staff who works with SHG members, says, “the SHG members are raring to take up more challenging work. They are highly inspired to succeed”.

Learning and doing as a group is empowering. By saving and making money together, the members can collectively think about the long-term – and can afford to store their forest produce or sell it at higher market prices. Building collective knowledge, women strengthen community ties while creating steady and sustainable income streams. They can also choose to develop their SHG as a cooperative when selling to traders to ensure that the community receives a fair price for their products. This impact can be scaled by connecting with self-help groups in other villagers. Thus, creating strong market linkages while restoring their forest landscape.

Thanks to Deepak Bagri, Mradul Choubey, Palash Agrawal, Shravan Verma, Shekhar Kolipaka, Harma Rademaker and others for providing the insights that made this story possible.

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A women's self-help group talk with Samerth field coordinators Deepak and Kishan (photo credit: Kishan)

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Women engaged in developing an area in preparation for a tree nursery (photo credit: Kishan)

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