The Yawal Wildlife Sanctuary, in Jalgaon district of Maharashtra state in central India, was on the brink of an ecological and social collapse around the turn of the century. Extensive timber smuggling and encroachment of forest lands had severely degraded the habitat over the years. But, a collaborative initiative between a regional organization, Lok Sangharsh Morcha (LSM) , which was formed in 2000 and the local Forest Department, supported by other government bodies, led to an amazing revival in the sanctuary.
The sanctuary is home to 6 villages who reside inside, namely Langda Amba (a forest village), Usmali, Jamanya, Gadriya, Garbardi and Nimdya. The complex situation in the sanctuary has mostly arisen because the issues of land and resource rights and access to them have been systematically ignored in conservation planning for decades. More so, they were ignored since 1996 when the sanctuary was brought under the wildlife wing of the Forest Department .
Since the British time, these villages became employed in forestry activities without having access rights to the resources and depending entirely on daily wage labour. The same restrictions continued to be applied even after independence under the Forest Department. When the forest got declared as a sanctuary, forest extraction activities continued. Timber felling was later stopped in 1984 while Non Timber Forest Products (NTFP) extraction continued till 1991. Extractive activities were banned completely only in 1996 when the sanctuary was handed over to the wildlife wing of the Forest Department. However, this resulted in a systematic reduction of livelihood options for the community, with minimal agricultural land available and no access to forest resources [1,3]. Since then, the villages have been demanding their rights and have been actively participating in the shaping of the Forest Rights Act, to allow them to access the basic forest resources needed for their survival. However, just before the FRA was passed in the parliament, some people spread the rumours that forest land could be occupied thanks to this just-passed law. Several communities from the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh illegally occupied the land for agriculture purposes. This led to conflicts between the two communities, rising again the issues of timber smuggling, deforestation corruption etc., which had its deep root in the socio-political context that emerges from social inequity, centralized power and conservation policies, among others. Moreover, the sanctuary was often reported in the media as a space of huge encroachment .
After years of conflicts related to land issues, insecurity and rights, the local communities started to ask for the support of the Forest Department. Finally, in May 2013, the Forest Department Collector of Jalgaon decided to collaborate with the locals. He started the process of recognizing the rights to the residents under the Forest Rights Act (FRA). Since then, six villages started the process of rights reclamation, and they also began environmental restoration activities and wildlife management plans . This was particularly valuable in the area since it had gradually lost its ecological biodiversity, due to lots of forestry and encroachment activities. These restoration activities were considered vital both for the life of the wildlife and for the sustenance of the communities.
The process of claiming the rights and mapping the village limits area, has been carried on under the support of: a local NGO called Lok Sangharsh Morcha (LSM) or the People’s Struggle Front, which was formed in 2000; of the social and environmental organization Kalpavriksh; and with the respective state agencies including the Forest Department.
The collaborative process, which started in 2012 has led to important restoration activities of forest regeneration and wildlife populations, and with 1,208 hectares of illegal encroachment successfully removed by 2014. It was also reported that the first tiger was again spotted in the sanctuary after a long 15 years .
Despite all this valuable job, on July 1, 2016 the Satpura Bachao Samiti, Jalgaon, Maharashtra, issued a press release in local newspapers asking for five villages to be relocated from inside the Yawal Wildlife Sanctuary, and the sanctuary be declared a critical wildlife habitat. This was a shock for the local residents who have been playing a crucial role in its regeneration and transformation, and that since then have been continuously fighting for the legal recognition of their community forest rights (CFRs). However in a final success, before 2 and then the remaining 4 villages inside the core area received the legal recognition of their CFRs in May 2018 (statement based on local information gathered on fieldwork by the author).