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The French Development Agency (AFD) and the Government of Assam signed a 50 million euro project agreement (total budget of 62.5 million euro) towards supporting the State government’s initiative to restore Assam’s forest ecosystems and preserve their biodiversity.
The agreement was signed in presence of Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal and Ambassador of France to India Emmanuel Lenain. While Chief Minister Sonowal hoped that the agreement would lend positive impact on conservation of nature and bio-diversity in the State, Ambassador Lenain reiterated commitment towards conservation efforts.
Under Assam Project for Forest and Biodiversity Conservation (APFBC), a total of 33,500 hectares of land have been targeted for reforestation by 2024 and over 10,000 members of the community would be trained in local trades in order to revive the local economy, and protect forest resources.
This signing marks the launch of the second phase of APFBC, which aims to reforest an additional 12,000 hectares of land, scale up efforts in biodiversity conservation and skill the members of 135 additional communities in different trades. This second phase of financing will continue for five years with the aim of increasing the project’s coverage area and corresponding impacts.
Earlier, in between 2012 and 2019, APFBC was implemented with support from AFD in response to the threats posed by deforestation, poaching and overdependence of local communities on forest resources across the State to reforest 21,000 hectares of land, build 33 flood refuge sites for wildlife and train over 6,000 members of local communities in alternative livelihoods so as to reduce their dependence on forests. The project has also built up the capacities of Forest Department, particularly its frontline staff, to reinforce its key missions.
The signing of the project agreement assumes significance as with 35 percent of its landmass covered with forests, five national parks and 18 wildlife sanctuaries, Assam, in Northeast India, is a paradise for unique varieties of flora and fauna. But over the years, however, the forest lands have been facing depletion under demographic pressure, development projects, and overexploitation. Gradually, tell-tale signs of such negative impact on the overall ecology of the region have become prominent.
As a mitigation measure, APFBC was launched by Assam government in partnership with AFD to restore forest ecosystems, protect wildlife and enhance the livelihood of the forest-dependent communities. Active participation of all stakeholders is the key element of the project. A sustainable and participatory management of forest ecosystems in Assam has been supported by AFD, while developing the economic resources of the local populations.
AFD has also committed to assist the Assam government through financial and technical support. The project aims to build the capacity for the forest administration through overhaul of the existing infrastructure. Procurement of new equipment and vehicles, training and introduction of new work methods, exchange programmes with the French National Forest Office (ONF) and an expertise development partnership with the French Institute of Pondichérry have also been organised.
Development of concerted plans for forest management and protected areas with the local village committees have also been chalked up. Arrangements have been made for finding alternative livelihood means for forest-dependent communities through skill development programmes and lessons in marketing are also being provided.
There are 15 trades in which villagers get training (rearing, food processing, tailoring, etc.). Through regular consultations with the NGO Compello, the village communities decide which one would best suit their needs.
There have been major impacts of the first phase of APFBC which could be visible in Kaziranga National Park (KNP). Under the massive reforestation efforts, which were undertaken, more than 21,000 hectares of land have been reforested with help of village committees. The efforts in capacity building of forest guards have contributed towards increasing the KNP’s one-horned rhino population, usually targeted by poachers, to an impressive 2,400.
Apart from that, new nurseries have also been developed and wetlands and grasslands have been restored. Some 4,500 people have been trained in 15 different trades, helping to revive the local economy while protecting forest resources.
The State of Assam is a constituent unit of the Eastern Himalayan Biodiversity Region; one of the two biodiversity ‘Hot Spots’ in the country. The climatic condition and wide variety in physical features witnessed in Assam have resulted in a diversity of ecological habitats such as forests, grasslands and wetlands, which harbour and sustain wide ranging floral and faunal species placing.
The recorded forest area of Assam is 26,832 sq km accounting for 34.21% of its geographical area. According to their legal status, Reserved Forests constitute 66.58% and Unclassed Forests 33.42% of the total forest area.
Apart from rhino, some other species found here are Hoolock Gibbon, Stump Tailed Macaque, Capped Langur and Golden Langur, Pigmy Hog, Clouded Leopard, Golden Cat and White Winged Wood Duck. Elephants are found in all parts of Assam. Forests provide a variety of products such as wood, bamboo, thatch and thatching material, cane, traditional medicines, edible fruits, bark, gum and resin, fiber and floss etc.
Assam is one of the ‘endemic bird areas’ in the world. With 950 bird species, the State is home to 53.5% of the bird species found in the Indian sub-continent, 17 species of birds are endemic to Assam and include Manipur Bush Quail, Marsh Babbler, Snowy Throated Babbler, Tawny Breasted Wren Babbler, Blyth’s Tragopan, Beautiful Sibia, Grey Sibia, Black Breasted Parrotbill, Chestrunt Breasted Partridge, Rusty Breasted Shortwig etc.
However, this magnificent array of flora and fauna is facing high incidence of biotic and extractive pressure affecting their physical and ecological integrity, bringing serious repercussion to the State’s biodiversity, wildlife and overall ecology.
This is where the State government’s Assam Project for Forest and Biodiversity Conservation in partnership with the French Development Agency can play a vital role as the project aims to restore forest ecosystems, in collaboration with the forest dependent communities to enhance their livelihoods, ensuring conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.
It needs to be mentioned that this project works particularly closely with the women of local communities, empowering them through participatory planning and training them in new skills, thus enabling them to revive the local economy, protect forest resources and increase their financial independence. The project also reinforces its climate focus, with specific attention on supporting the Forest Department to monitor contributions of forests to climate change, and mitigate climate related vulnerabilities.
This fills the requirement of a special project for enabling sustainable forest management in Assam through multi-scale integrative planning involving participation of local population. Management of human resources is a key issue for the Assam Forest Department.
Forestry in the State faces a number of technical challenges as well challenges associated with implementing newer proactive policies. Financial resources alone are unlikely to ensure that the Project meets its goals. Hand-holding by international experts such as the French Development Agency would go a long way in bringing latest technological know-how for sustainable management of Assam’s biodiversity.