Damodar Kashyap – promoting local harmony and a thriving forest for every village
Damodar Kashyap is about 67 years old and belongs to the Bhatra community of Sandh Karmari, a village of 1500 people composed of several hamlets in the eastern border of Bastar, Chhattisgarh (India). For 35 years he has been the Sarpanch (head) of the Panchayat (village council), and his tenure focused on conservation of the forests in the region. The village boasts of several large stands of sal forests and sacred groves, nurtured by the village community through the old tradition of thengapalli, which distributes the responsibility of forest protection among all members of the village. Patrolling of the village forests is undertaken voluntarily, by each family, in turn. This practice, promoted and supported by Damodar, has nourished solidarity within the village. In this, Damodar has been a leader in the fuller sense of the world, maintaining good relations among the people, saving the integrity of the forest and sacred groves, and providing to everyone a chance to be the best they can be…
Of late, the message from Sandh Karmari has spread to the 10-15 neighbouring villages that have lost their forests and depend on the forests of Karmari. Damodar has initiated meetings with them, proposing that they too protect what remains of their forests and restore the degraded areas. Such revival of traditional systems of forest management is so crucial… yet often not even attempted. Considering the immense pressure borne by Asian forests, Damodar’s initiatives are even more impressive. He demonstrates an uncommon capacity to deal with the enormous tensions and pressures on the forests created by neighbouring villages, timber smugglers and the scarcity of natural resources borne by a large local population.
Damodar and two friends were also instrumental in establishing the Legal and Environmental Action Forum (LEAF), an adivasi group that deals with community concerns. Through LEAF, many villages came together and restored several sacred groves; rejuvenated the system of community justice through village-level councils; established native species nurseries for the enrichment of degraded forest areas; dealt with court cases involving adivasi people with minimum costs; and took care of the medical problems of the adivasi in several villages. Most of these activities are ongoing with the participation of an increasing number of youth. Damodar is actually one of the few tribal people who went out of the village for an education and returned home… Village out-migration is very severe today, as the youth move to urban areas to seek employment and “a better life”. On a reverse journey, Damodar came back to his land and his people and worked for conservation and sustainable livelihoods—an example of personal and community intelligence and wisdom.
We expect the PKF 2014 Award to motivate the tribal communities that Damodar lives and works with, and in particular the younger generations affected by the many forces of modernity, those who tend to look outside their communities and neglect the traditional knowledge and capacities in their midst. We hope that the Award will help to restore the respect and worthiness of traditional knowledge and community conservation initiatives. The Award ceremony is expected to engage the local youth to celebrate their own traditional values and the chance they were given to learn from a true wise leader in their midst.