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Alternative Livelihoods Programme

Weaving threads of change through community-engagement and biodiversity conservation.

The Malai Mahadeshwara (MM Hills) Wildlife Sanctuary region is a unique combination of several habitat types. Dry deciduous forests with seasonal canopies harbour large mammals at their highest densities. The communities living near and within the forests are heavily dependent on the forests for resources for everyday use and livelihoods. To harvest forest produce, women have to venture into the forests several times a week, exposing them to chance encounters with wild animals that also occupy that space, resulting in human-wildlife conflict. Harvesting these resources also strips the forests of the resources wildlife depends on.

Through baseline surveys, we found that communities here, especially the women, either opportunistically work for daily wages in larger agricultural fields, or more commonly collect dwarf date palm fronds (Phoenix humilis) from the forests to make brooms to sell. Incidentally, this species of palm is also consumed by wild herbivores such as elephants, gaur, sloth bear, sambar and others. Similarly, we found that a few other communities depend on the income from the collection and sale of the bark of the white dammar tree (Vateria indica). The bark of this tree is fragrant and used as incense or 'dhoop', which is sold to pilgrims visiting the temples in MM Hills Wildlife Sanctuary. Incidentally, the tree is threatened by habitat loss and is listed as 'vulnerable' by the IUCN.

As with any community-based initiative, this project had to be well thought out to be sustainable for the communities, and had to have tangible long-term benefits. We devised a situation-specific solution for this issue, and came up with a collaborative, community-based initiative aimed at providing alternative livelihood options to women who depend on non-timbre forest produce for income. Under the programme, the women are regularly trained in skills like embroidery, hand- stitching, machine sewing, screen printing and other similar handicraft styles to equip them with a wider range of skills.

Our alternative livelihoods programme, launched in a remote village of the MM Hills Wildlife Sanctuary now has around 15-20 individuals making and selling beautiful products. They are provided training, raw materials and infrastructural support to encourage them to reduce their dependence on forest resources, and improve their living standards.

Under the initiative, our team of women stitched hundreds of camouflage drawstring backpacks for the Karnataka Forest Department. As their skills improve, the women are diversifying the products they can produce, opening up avenues for long-term bulk orders that will assure a sustained income.

This multifaceted solution focuses on reducing human-wildlife conflict, conserving wild spaces and species, and providing the women better livelihood options. It has long term benefits for the communities, wildlife, and the forests as well. An added benefit is an improved understanding of wildlife, and improved perceptions of animals and towards conservation. The women now have the opportunity to earn a risk-free, better and more stable income, without the need to spend hours in the forest in harsh weather. The long-term goal is to equip the women with the necessary skills and tools, and encourage them to establish a local, cooperative enterprise that is of, by, and for the women.

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