The Kanakapura region stretches over approximately 1590 sq km from suburban Bangalore at one end, to Bannerghatta National Park and the Kanakapura and Sathanur ranges bordering the northern bank of the Cauvery River at the other end. The land lies at an elevation of 800m to 900m, with temperatures between 20ºC to 27ºC and an annual rainfall of 805.2 mm. ATREE’s work is in and around the Bilikal Reserve Forest (BRF), which is the largest reserve forest among the 12 reserve forests in Kanakapura, with an area of 103 sq kms.

The Kanakapura forest is scrub and dry deciduous, with interspersed agricultural land. It serves as an important elephant corridor which is getting progressively squeezed due to land use patterns in the region. Major fauna in the range includes the common mongoose, leopard, wild pig, dhole, elephants, Indian hare, flying fox, black drongo, cattle egret, common myna, Indian roller, jungle owlet, small green barbet etc. The dominant tree species are Albizia lebbeck, Anogeissus latifolia, Chloroxylon swietenia, Dodonaea viscosa, Decalepis hamiltonii, Erythroxylon monogynum, Feronia elephantum, Holoptelea integrifolia, Phyllanthus emblica, Pongamia glabra, Premna tomentosa, Randia dumetorum, Shorea roxburghii, Tamarindus indica, Terminalia species, Wrightia tinctoria. Species that constitute the major market-driven nontimber forest products (NTFP) in the area are tamarind, Feronia elephantum, Emblica officinalis and Decalepis hamiltonii. In descending order of demand are the bark of Cassia fistula, Terminalia bellerica seeds, Bambusa arundinacea, Phoenix sylvestris and honey. Some of the NTFP’s like bidiru kalale (bamboo shoot), sige soppu are used for self consumption.

Kanakapura suffers some of the problems associated with being the backyard to a booming city—villages are slowly being depopulated, farming is down as people speculate on land values, there is much land alienation and resource depletion. Landholdings are skewed, marginal rainfed farmers face problems of land tenure, access to forest for grazing, fuelwood collection and NTFP tenders. Forest dependency is directly related to a community’s socio-economic conditions and takes the form of livestock grazing, fuelwood, fodder and collection of NTFPs.

Kanakapura is made up of 258 villages spread over six hoblies and is considered a backward taluk. The populace is heterogenous, consisting of different castes and communities. Vokkaliga are the predominant community in the taluk followed by Linghayath: they are mostly agriculturalists and traders. Adikarnataka, Lambani, Irula and Soliga are the other backward communities in the area.

The community is mostly agrarian, with per capita land holding ranging from one to five acres. Dependency on rain fed antiquated farming practices, and increased elephant raids on crops result in low agricultural productivity and marginal livelihoods. The communities are dependent on forest land for grazing, and for collection of fuelwood, fodder, and NTFPs. Some find work in the government and private sectors.

Though NTFPs are an important constituent of the local forest dwellers’ household income basket, distant forces benefit more from the extraction of NTFP than local forest dwellers. Clearly, there is a need to secure local rights over resources so that benefit sharing is balanced. There is also a need for communities to forge strategic partnerships between the constitutionally mandated bodies like Panchayats and local non-governmental organisations (NGOs)/community-based organisations (CBOs) for rights-based work.

There are a very few institutions in the area that work towards forest conservation and community livelihood. The local institutions in the area are Self Help Groups (SHGs), Village Forest Committees (VFCs) and Panchayats. SHGs and VFCs have not been very effective in addressing issues relating to resource use and governance since SHGs are membership-based and given over to the more tactical/ immediate issues of the group. VFCs, initiated by the Forest Department, has poor community representation and is largely dependent on availability of funds. This has resulted in lack of stakeholder ownership towards issues of governance and management of resources.

Given this background, from ATREE’s perspective, Panchayats are the only institutions with which effective action can be taken: they are constitutionally mandated institutions and capable of addressing the broader plethora of issues. There is also the possibility of nesting bodies like VFCs and within the Panchayats. Most of ATREE’s projects are implemented through Panchayats.

ATREE’s entry into Kanakapura was through children. ATREE started work in Kanakapura in July 2002 with a hands-on conservation education program among the schools of forest fringe villages. The aim of this programme was restore the vast denuded landscape, with the available school grounds, and later work with communities on improving the productive capacity of farms in the region by increasing biodiversity through multipurpose tree planting on bunds and fallow lands, which in turn would help increase marginal community resilience to the vagaries of climate and market.

Kanakapura developed as a community-conservation centre in 2008 as a by product of ATREE’s conservation and livelihood programme and its need to identify significant community-based institutions in the area to work towards possibilities of using forest resources in a sustainable manner, while simultaneously conserving biological diversity.

With the Schedule Tribe and Other Forest Dwellers Act (STOTFDA) there is now space for local communities to participate in conservation by way of legal access and livelihood rights to forests, and thereby stronger motivation to invest in sustainable forest resource use and conservation. This is an unprecedented opportunity for ATREE to assist local bodies to manage biodiversity areas while securing their rights through Panchayats.