As one travels about 20 kilometers west from Attariya Chowk of Kanchanpur via East-West Highway, it leads to a small Bani Bazaar. The freed Kamaiya settlement lies in the northern part of Attariya. Those displaced from Shuklaphanta National Park are also resettled towards the northern side of the highway.
About 500 small houses of freed Kamaiyas are in the northern part of the highway. In the middle of settlement, Bansantidevi Rana Tharu has a small house. The wall of a room is filled with felicitation certificates. These certificates are awarded to local conservation hero Basanti despite lacking formal education, has brought the wider endorsement to her conservation success.
“I haven’t counted how many felicitations certificates I have. Certificates that hung here on the wall are just a few. Most were swept away when flood entered into my house a few years ago,” Basanti Devi Rana Tharu, who worked for three decades as a freed laborer, proudly said in an interview, “Of course, honesty pays off. My children would be happier to see all these certificates even if I’m dead. I’m happy just thinking about that moment.”
Her success wasn’t a shortcut. It all started with the struggle from the very beginning of her birth. Born in 1967 in Kailali, her parents settled life in the middle of the forest where father had built a house, destroying the forest. Due to fear of malaria, only Tharu people were living in her areas. Her father argued with people while building a house there. As debate turned worse, a local man was killed and her father was sent to jail for murder. Basanti was just four years old when father was sent to jail. Failed to feed her mother sent her to work as a bonder laborer.
Basanti spent 29 years as a bonded laborer. She worked for 16 years for Bir Bahadur Bam, a local of Banka in Kailali. Then, she was married and the couple worked together at Chamu Rana’s house as bonder laborers for 13 years. Her slavery ended in 2002, the year when the government emancipated all bounded laborers.
She devoted her life to conservation only after the freedom. Basanti is a founding chairperson of Bijayasal Homestay. Before assuming the existing position, she had worked as the chairperson of Jayalaxmi Women Community Forest for six years. Also, she worked as office bearer of Janahit Mahakali Community Forest.
Basanti is a single mother with two sons, a daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. She divorced her husband and is now living separately. She took care of father until he died after being released from prison. Entire funeral ceremony of father was done by her. She stays in a home that was built in the land registered in her father’s name. The same house is also used for homestay. Immediately after emancipating from slavery in 2000, her family lived in Ghodadanga, eastern part of Bani, where altogether 569 freed Kamaiya households are staying.
Under her leadership, a community homestay has been established in Bani. Six households including Basanti are involved in running homestays. Her savings was spent to cure sick son. Basanti later joined homestay as she struggled to settle loans incurred for treatment expenses.
Currently, her eldest son Padam Singh Rana works as a tractor driver whereas youngest son, Krishna, works as menial laborer. Krishna had got an opportunity to attend a carpenter training organized by the community forest users’ group and homestay after she took charge of the group. Likewise, her daughter-in-law attended vegetable farming training.
Due to the lack of job opportunities, they haven’t been able to apply skills in practice. The family is economically poor so they cannot even use land in lease and begin commercial vegetable farming.
Basanti feels her present-day lifestyle is far better and dignified as compared to the past. She feels bothered when she recalls her three decades long slave life.
“At that time, there was no respect. We didn’t even get a chance to go to school and enjoy freedom. We had to work round the clock like we were machines,” she recalled her slave life adding, “We and our then master’s children were of same age. Like them, we also wanted to go to school. However, we never got an opportunity to read. That strikes my mind the most.”
Having missed everything, she has no big regret at all for not getting an education. Irrespective of her age, Basanti still keeps trying to learn new skills and knowledge. She thinks learning every new issue should be a priority of life. “What I feel is that we always try to learn new issues and new skills and should always work honestly. That keeps inspiring in your life,” said Basanti.
She feels the younger generation from the Tharu community should also learn skills. The skill, according to her, will help the younger generation to live a dignified life. “Our children won’t suffer like us if they learn skills. But my own children didn’t learn anything. Children and youths from our community should learn skills,” she said adding, “Learning skills is becoming self-reliant. I wish my son and daughter-in-law could run this homestay.”
Bonded labor system, a modern-day slavery, was a structural discrimination imposed on ethnic Tharu. Basanti, who spent half of her life in exploration that Tharu faced for centuries, now feels her community’s self-reliance and dignity is connected with the forest conservation, where she is associated for long. “Forests should be conserved. Our future depends on nature. Life of every human is reliant on forest and we people from Tharu community are even more connected with forest. For us, forest conservation is the only way of self-dignity and self-reliance,” she said.
Jaya Laxmi Community Forest
Deforestation was rampant in Kailali. Floods displaced hundreds of families from Dekhatbhuli in 2008. 69 households were temporarily settled in the middle of the jungle. Despite several efforts, the district forest office couldn’t relocate them. Failed to remove them from the forest area, the concept of community forest was introduced. Basanti was named as chairperson of Jaya Laxmi Community Forest. The District Forest Office helped to prepare the statute and action plan of the forest users’ group. In 2009, the community forest was handed over to locals. Basanti, who was named chairperson of the community forest before official handover, led the group for four years. The forest users’ group successfully settled flood affected people. Except for four landless households, all disaster affected people were sent to their previous settlement. They are still taking shelter under makeshift tents.
Forest land spanning more than 199 hectares covers 279 households. They all are freed Kamaiyas. Further, all office bearers to members of this community forest are female. After Basanti’s retirement, Ram Kumari is leading this community forest. Gadbijala, another community forest, is next to this community forest.
Former freed Kamaiyas excluded from Jayalaxmi community forests are included in yet another community forest called Janahit. Locals have stopped the entry of cattle into the forest. Initially, Jayalaxmi Forest land was 68.62 hectares of land. The forest users’ group later expanded it to 199 hectares. Shortly after official handover, community forest users focused on forest conservation. They found some saplings of Bijayasal while cleaning the forest. “We formulated a plan to protect those saplings and conserved them,” she said.
The Hariyo Ban Program was launched when Basanti was taking charge of the forest users’ group. The program initiated to mitigate impacts of climate change in freed Kamaiya settlements helped to build embankments. This helped locals to feel that better forest management ultimately benefits the community. As part of the Hariyo Ban Program, a seminar was organized in Chitwan where representatives of selected forest users’ groups were told to come up with innovative ideas to fight against poverty. Basant proposed to run a homestay.
“After realizing that forest conservation benefits the community in many ways, we are more committed to forest management,” she said.
The news about Jayalaxmi Women Community Forest’s initiative to conserve Bijayasal spread like wildfire. Shortly after initiatives began, Laxmi Saud, head of the then FECOFUN Kanchanpur chapter, reached Bani and discussed on how to make the Bijayasal conservation campaign a success. FECOFUN provided 4,500 saplings of Bijayasal.
“We planted all those saplings. Saving them from street cattle has become a major problem,” she said, “Now, we have grown about 1000 saplings in one hectare area. Of them about 250 are in the national forest.”
Janahit Mahakali Community Forest is also growing Bijayasal saplings in two hectares of forest land. As many as 35 mother trees are persevered there. Before starting her own community forest, Basanti was working as a committee member of Janahit forest. Now, she is only a member. According to her community, people are getting benefits as the forests are managed in a better way. “Forest users can collect timber in winter as much as they carry. Also, they can collect grass and dry leaves for cattle,” said Basanti.
Bijayasal was disappearing. People had no idea that Bijayasal could be in this area but the forest users found it in the course of conserving. Community forest’s success in Bijayasal promoted the spread of the endangered plant in the district. Representatives of various organizations involved in Bijayasal conservation keep visiting to get updates. The homestay was operated in view of accommodating visitors during their stay in the village and making money out of it. Locals indirectly benefited from Bijayasal conservation. This has supported the livelihood of former freed laborers. “Bijayasal is growing fast. It is said that Sal and Bijayasal are two sisters. Previously, this was a barren place. This greenery now makes me happy,” said Basanti adding, “I had loved this forest more than my children. Other community people also showed similar kind of affection that’s why we succeeded in growing this forest.”
Ethic Tharu uses Bijayasal wood to make madal, the musical instrument. Its grass is used as fodder for cattle. Farmers say cows or buffalos give more milk when Bijayasal grass is fed. “We have used Bijayasal wood in our well because it purifies water. It is believed Bijayasal is good for health,” said Basanti, “Bijayasal conservation has helped locals in many ways.”
After working for six years, Basanti had handed over forest leadership to other women in hope of transforming opportunities to the younger generation. She, however, keeps advising the new leadership for better conservation.
She was just freed from slavery before taking the leadership of the conservation campaign. The sky was open for her but her wings were struggling to fly mainly because of the extreme economic crisis in her family. Asked why she was motivated to work for conservation instead of focusing on her own income generation she said, “No Forest No Life. Does money matter when there’s no life?”