Rukmini Majhi (60) of Y-Kebidi village in Chandragiri gram panchayat of Odisha's Kashipur block is seeing a ray of hope and an end to her long struggle with poverty, an unfeasible and unreliable agriculture and life in a condition where economic opportunities were too meagre to fulfil the personal and social needs.

“Five years ago, we lived a miserable life as farm labourers because there was not much of work opportunities. And, as agriculture didn't remain feasible or a reliable profession, we had to borrow money from the Sahukar (local people engaged in the business of money lending) more often and all our efforts were to repay the money with interest. Life was really difficult then,”
Rukmini said.

It was because of the financial difficulties that Rukmini couldn't even make proper medical treatment available to her husband who died of lingering fever. “There was absolutely no hope but just to struggle to make a living,” says Rukmini recalling the past.

“Since last two years, as we have been practicing multi-crop farming in our family land and the community land on the hill slopes, life seems to be changing for better now,” said Rukmini adding, “I have grown maize, brinjal, kandul or arhar (yellow pigeon peas) and beans in my family farm land. Apart from vegetables and cash crops, I have also planted Mango, Banana, Neem and Papaya in the farm that has a vegetative fence,” Rukmini said while showing her farm with great pleasure.

The change that has come in the lives of Rukmini and hundreds of women has been the result of an IPAF (Indigenous People's Assistance Facility) supported project jointly managed and implemented by Amasangathan and Agragamee, two non-government organisations working for socio-economic empowerment and holistic development of women and tribal communities in the Kashipur Block.

The abundant and diverse production systems of tribal communities have been greatly affected by loss of forests, and changing climatic conditions. Forests supplemented the food and livelihoods of the tribal communities, as also played a crucial role in checking erosion, and sustaining agricultural production in the swidden systems of the tribal communities. With the forests destroyed due to commercial felling, big dam projects, and population pressure, the tribal production systems have also been affected. Land and soil degradation have increased manifold, with high levels of erosions leading to land slides, inundating low lying cropping lands.

Land rejuvenation which would take 3 to 4 years in the ideal swidden systems of the past, now necessitates fallow cycles of 5 to 7 years or even more. The fallow cycles have increased alongside loss in productivity. The latter necessitates bringing increasing acreage of land under shifting cultivation, setting into motion a downward spiral of land degradation, and ecological imbalances. All this has caused multiple levels of impoverishment amongst the tribal communities, leading to distress migration, increasing malnutrition at all ages, higher susceptibility to diseases and infections (which again lowers earning capacities), land alienation and increasing indebtedness.

The Eco-village Project seeks to address this multiple and complex set of problems, in close consultation with village communities. The project combines indigenous people's resources with development of agro-ecological models, based on perma-culture principles, and optimization of local genetic resources. Traditional practices for management and governance of commons will be further strengthened through the use of enabling legislations including the Tribal Forest Rights Act, as well as the Provisions of the Panchayats, Extension to the Scheduled Areas Act to ensure institutional and legal sanction to the lands brought under ecological use and management under the programme.

This landscape approach is backed by training and advocacy efforts for upscaling, and replication.

The project has had a large scale impact, and laid the ground for further support for upscaling the eco-village model.
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