Tamil Nadu a model for afforestation: Japanese agency

MADURAI, MARCH 3. Thanks to the Tamil Nadu Afforestation Project (TAP), the State has emerged a model for the rest of the country in rejuvenation of natural vegetation, revival of the wildlife and conservation of forest wealth.

The Japan-aided TAP, which began in 1997, is expected to end this month. As many as 1,258 villages abutting forests were taken up, including 141 in the Madurai circle comprising Madurai and Theni districts. The TAP took shape as a joint forest management programme with the involvement of villagers and non-governmental organisations.

Impressed with the phenomenal growth of forest wealth over the years, the Japanese Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC), funding agency, has advised other States proposing similar afforestation schemes to visit Tamil Nadu to gain firsthand knowledge of the project and its implementation. "Forest officials from different parts of the country visited TAP villages this year," a top Forest department official said.

A high-level team of the `Somneed India', a Japan-based NGO appointed by the JBIC to study the TAP's progress, which held a three-day assessment and self-introspection workshop here last week, is said to have expressed "satisfaction" over the implementation of the Rs. 500-crore project. The team made a spot assessment in 16 villages selected randomly in the 11 forest circles and is expected to submit a report to the JBIC.

"The seven-year project has paved the way for revolutionary changes in the development and management of forests. With the active involvement of villagers, NGOs and Forest department staff, we could bring about perceptible changes in reserve forests in the Madurai circle," said V.K. Melkani, Conservator of Forests.

Many reserve forest areas, which were excessively exploited over decades, were now presenting a lush green look with rejuvenation of thick vegetation. "There was tremendous cooperation from the villagers who responded to sustained awareness campaigns for conserving forest wealth and agreed to take up alternative employment offers made under the TAP."

Dr. Melkani said if the same pace of forest preservation and development activity continued for 10 more years, the Megamalai, Vagathumalai and other reserve forests near Kottampatti and Ezhumalai would turn into high-density forests with abundant growth of teak and sandalwood, besides wildlife. "We have already sighted tigers, leopards, elephants and bison in many reserve forests in the circle and the number is growing."

Even as the Forest department sent proposals for allocation of funds for TAP phase-II, the Government has sanctioned Rs. 10 crores to maintain the activities under the project. "This is going to be a continuing activity since the TAP has established a system, involving the locals and the NGOs. Thousands of villagers, who were making a living, exploiting the forest produce, have been provided employment in cottage industry and milk dairies. A revolving fund of Rs. 6 lakhs, allotted to each village forest committee (VFC), is also growing," said another forest official.

After the VFCs were vested with powers to take cognisance of forest offences and impose penalty, the crime rate declined sharply in recent years.

No water scarcity here

When the State was reeling under drought conditions, the TAP villages never complained of water scarcity as extensive water harvesting programmes were taken up earlier.

The forest officials said many TAP villages were now taking up paddy cultivation. Though prolonged drought had its impact on the vegetation, the groundwater table was protected.