In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown of the nation, the safety and livelihood of forest communities has been shrouded in uncertainty.
At this juncture, inspiration can be taken from the Kerala Forest Department’s efforts to contain the spread of the virus within forest communities in the state. The Department has proactively put in place a series of measures to support them during the lockdown enforced by the Centre.
Kerala forest officials providing rations to forest communities. Photo Courtesy: Kerala Forest Department
Responses that seek to protect forest communities from the pandemic need to keep in mind critical factors such as sensitization and awareness about the infection, its spread and precautions, keeping the disease out of protected areas, and delivering essential services such as food and healthcare in the wake of the lockdown. This is especially necessary in the case of daily wage labourers and communities that rely on the sale of forest produce for survival. In response to Kerala Forest Minister K. Raju’s assurance of assistance to forest communities, the state Forest Department has taken forward a plan that accounts for many of these integral aspects.
Sensitization and awareness
In association with the Health Department, the Forest Department has conducted awareness campaigns in the local language, including training local communities on social distancing and personal hygiene across protected areas. Immunity boosting camps were held in 11 colonies of the Wayanad wildlife area. In areas under the Idukki Wildlife Centre, forest community houses with elderly people were visited by forest officials to spread awareness about COVID-19.
The “Break the chain” campaign launched by the state earlier this month has aimed to educate the public about the importance of public and personal hygiene by providing hand wash, sanitizers and continuous water supply in areas across the state.
Kerala Forest Minister K. Raju demonstrates the right way to wash hands. Photo courtesy: Kerala Forest Department
In multiple areas, low-cost masks are being made for use by forest communities. In Agasthyavanam Biological Park, self-help groups have begun making washable masks, whereas in the areas of Thenmala and Aaryankavu, Vana Samrakshana Samithi (VSS) workers have been tasked with making masks.
VSS workers making masks. Photo courtesy: Kerala Forest Department
Border security and surveillance
In order to prevent the spread of the disease, border security and surveillance has been heightened to ensure “errant travellers” are sent back. After a case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Kodagu, 18 tribes returning from Karnataka were isolated at Vettathur Anganavadi with the help of the Health Department. Since they are mostly daily wage labourers employed in the cultivation of ginger and plucking of coffee seeds in Kodagu District, they have been provided food and medicine by Kerala government officials.
On orders of the Forest Minister, border observation has been tightened and communities living deep inside the forest are being given special attention and care to prevent outsiders from entering protected areas. Inspection at checkpoints has also become stricter to monitor people who use state highways and forest roads. In addition to this, efforts are underway to identify and provide facilities to comfortably quarantine migrant workers who cross the borders at Wayanad and Palakkad districts.
A keen eye is being kept on illicit liquor production in the Silent Valley and Aralam areas by police and Excise.
Food security and healthcare
The Forest Department has amped up its efforts to deliver rations and other essentials like masks, sanitizers, soap, and medicines to remote areas using forest vehicles. The Civil Supplies Department is providing rations and other facilities in close collaboration with the Forest Department. Forest vehicles have been commissioned for this purpose after service jeeps which would go around the forest area were stopped, resulting in people living in the interiors finding it difficult to buy essential goods and visit hospitals. Supplies of ration to forest communities have also been ensured in coordination with the village panchayats. The Achenkovil Division has organized a community kitchen to provide food to those in need. The Department has also arranged for regular drinking water supply to families in areas where water sources have been depleted by the heat.
Rations being delivered to forest communities. Photo courtesy: Kerala Forest Department
Apart from ensuring food security, Forest Department officials have also arranged for procurement of forest produce to lend economic support to tribespeople under the Vanika program. On April 2, The Hindu reported that “the Forest Department has begun to procure forest produce collected by the tribespeople of the Agasthyavanam Biological Park (ABP) and the Neyyar and Peppara forest ranges to be sold to commercial establishments and various collectives.”
Surendrakumar, Chief Wildlife Warden, Kerala Forest Department explained the reason for initiating the program, “Forest communities residing inside the forest have become much more isolated after the lockdown. Our program Vanika was started because we thought that they should be able to sell their products, or they will be on the verge of losing a source of income. So we devised a system of restoring market linkages, where we purchase the produce at the market rate. It is working very well in one place, and we want to expand to other areas.”
The Vanika initiative has seen great success. Photo courtesy: Kerala Forest Department
Attempts are also being made to ensure forest communities have access to healthcare during this period. Forest officials, in conjunction with the Health Department, collect information on residents who are sick and may be in need of medicines or healthcare. In Vazhachal, residents with cough and fever symptoms were taken to PHCs. The Achenkovil Division provides a 24x7 ambulance service. In other cases, forest officials visiting these communities regularly relay information about illnesses or health problems to health workers.
Providing healthcare to forest communities. Photo courtesy: Kerala Forest Department
Vijayanand, Chief Conservator of Forests, Southern Circle, Kollam explained the process, “Each settlement has a point person who coordinates with forest officers regularly — they share information and updates about the settlement, including any shortage of provisions. Every morning, the forest official in charge of the settlement collects information from the settlement, and shares it with the range officer who communicates this to the panchayat or tribal department. So we mainly play the role of facilitators.”
Apart from food and healthcare, the Forest Department is also giving out books! A travelling library facility has been kickstarted in Aralam.
To better understand what is of utmost importance to forest communities at the moment, we spoke to Dr. Shyla Menon, founder member, ASHWINI, a community health program established in 1990 that addresses the healthcare needs of 20,000 forest communities spread over 320 hamlets in the Gudalur Valley of the Nilgiri hills.
“The administration has given us the go ahead to take food to villages in the interiors. We have mobilized volunteers in all these villages to monitor and tell us what issues are arising. The big gap we have found is that they are not getting their medicines. In March, we had managed to send medicines and nutritional supplements before the lockdown, but now we find that patients with chronic illnesses are being given medicine for two days. We are now preparing a plan to go to villages with a mobile clinic.” she said.
Dr. Menon’s suggestion would be to give forest communities preferential treatment in this case, as they are unlikely to seek out healthcare on their own.
“They are in a peculiar position where they are not very health-seeking, so they have to be prodded to avail of healthcare. They need to be given some preferential treatment in this situation — for their regular health problems as well as in case of contracting the virus.” she said.
As we enter Day 15 of the nationwide lockdown, an inclusive pandemic response is becoming increasingly important. Swift and decisive measures need to be taken to reach out to forest communities and ensure they are not left behind.
In this light, the Kerala Forest Department’s comprehensive and discerning response to the pandemic is a welcome initiative during these trying times.
By Aashika Ravi