Introducing firewood alternatives for forest-fringe communities to reduce the strain on scarce natural resources.
Fuelling Change: Firewood alternatives for conservation -
The Malai Mahadeshwara (MM Hills) and Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuaries are home to a diverse range of wildlife species and habitats, and also support thousands of people living within or along the periphery. Forest-fringe communities in this landscape are heavily dependent on forests for firewood for a variety of needs including cooking, heating water, and to sell for income.
Women mostly handle the kitchen duties and the responsibility to go to the forests to collect firewood. Harvesting firewood requires them to venture into the forests several times a week, and walk for hours on uneven terrain in harsh weather conditions with heavy loads. In our surveys, we found that women spend an estimated 800 hours annually collecting firewood. Going into the forests also exposes them to chance encounters with wild animals that occupy the same space, resulting in human-wildlife conflict.
Firewood also costs women their respiratory health. Firewood burning releases copious amounts of carbon dioxide, soot and suspended particulate matter (SPM) which are potentially carcinogenic substances. We found that women who had been exposed to firewood smoke for a decade or more had deteriorated lung conditions.
Some of the trees most commonly harvested by the forest-fringe communities are also important fodder resources for wildlife like elephants, while others offer nesting space for endemic birds like the white-naped tit. We found that nearly 61.3% of the survey respondents harvested Albizia amara (bitter albizia) which is an extremely important food source for elephants, especially during dry seasons. Furthermore, the repeated chopping of these trees contributes towards deforestation and reduced carbons stocks, while harvesting from the same area over time can cause fragmentation. This can be detrimental for large mammals that need wild, contiguous spaces to survive and thrive.
The idea was to design a holistic initiative that benefits wildlife and local communities, as well as the wild spaces they share, and introducing alternatives was the most viable option. The preferences of the local communities were taken into account through extensive surveys and communication before suggesting a suitable alternative.
After gathering baseline data about tree species being harvested, firewood usage patterns and socio-economic indicators through assessment surveys, we started distributing LPG connections in these forest-fringe villages. We also assist the villagers in the formation of local committees to guide the villagers, conduct several meetings to introduce the initiative, debunk myths, identify beneficiaries, and then distribute the LPG kits to the identified beneficiaries. To formalise our association, the beneficiaries and committees sign conservation agreements with us to pledge their support for conservation, and agree to cease support for any poaching, wildmeat consumption or related activities.
Outcomes, benefits and successes:
Since 2016, we have provided LPG cook stove connections to over 2,200 families, positively impacting the lives of over 7,000 people in the landscape. 85% of these beneficiaries are women, contributing significantly towards their upliftment. Switching to alternatives like LPG can save women around 800+ hours annually - time that they can invest in other positive livelihood sources to supplement their income. An assessment after a year of LPG installations also showed stable lung function for women affected by the smoke inhalation.
With fewer trips into the forests, there are reduced chances of human-wildlife conflict. This has, and will, continue to foster positive attitudes towards conflict-prone wildlife species and wildlife in general, promoting the understanding of more peaceful co-existence.
Based on the success of the LPG project, we have undertaken the initiative to provide fuel-efficient boilers to solve the issue for heating water for other domestic purposes.
As a long-term project, the impacts will be far reaching and continuous. Only the sustained support for the beneficiaries and their continued promise for change can perpetuate this, and the benefits are already showing.