APPROACH AND METHODOLOGY
AERF will partner with local NGOs engaged in rural development projects but who lack the capacity to implement conservation projects. Due to AERF's support and capacity building, these NGOs will be able to now select forest patches for conservation and implement conservation practices. AERF will also initiate the process of building rapport with the landowners and the wider community to help them enter into conservation agreements. AERF will then provide support for actual agreements and compensation negotiations, and will help develop a participatory monitoring system. Through these partnerships, AERF will be able to effectively cover large amounts of degrading and threatened forest patches in the north Western Ghats landscape. The conservation agreements will be unique in that they target, not individual landowners like typical easements, but groups of adjacent landowners and communities. This ensures that larger areas are protected and forest fragmentation is decreased.
A unique aspect of this easement program is the range of compensation options that will be available for group and individual owners. In a few cases, cash compensation will be given if there is dire need, but usually in-kind compensation is provided. In-kind compensation types include support for developmental activities that benefit a village or a particular hamlet of owners. Such activities include repairing the damaged water sources like wells, stream restoration, provision of irrigation pipelines, repairing the old temple within the village or sacred grove, and technical support for implementing schemes like agro forestry development. In some cases, higher education support will be given to individual land owners for their children. Compensation will not be given at one time - the legal agreement will contain clearly defined terms and conditions for payments at the time of signing the agreement, within a one year after designing plan of management and after three to five years of protection with AERF. This will help ensure that forests are protected over the long term. Agreements are done on a case-by-case basis and ability to negotiate better for equal benefits to conservation and forest owners.
Local partners will also be trained to collect the seeds of rare endangered and endemic tree species and to manage the nursery of these plants. They will develop two nurseries of about 6,000 plants with the help of local NGO partners and will plant 4,000 seedlings in July 2011 in the degraded patches within the existing forests under conservation agreements. Another 5,000 saplings will be planted in the degraded areas within the sacred groves from Sangameshwar block. AERF also has a nursery of rare and endangered species in Sangameshwar block and has raised 10,000 saplings in it. AERF continues to collect seeds with the help of local schoolchildren.
Planting trees is relatively easy, but caring for them and assuring their survival is extremely difficult. Therefore, AERF has planned monitoring visits and developed a training program for local people so they can monitor these trees in the villages near all of AERF's sites. For every forest under a protection agreement, AERF has prepared the profiles and kept track of changes like regenerating species, growth of trees planted, invasive weeds and climbers, etc. Each area has a protection plan like fence preparation, guards patrolling at night, etc. Similarly, AERF's interns and volunteers will continuously collect the data on wildlife, its movement, nesting sites of birds, development and protection of riparian habitats within the forest under protection, etc. AERF will also hold meetings with owners of these lands to develop innovative ways of co-management.
IMPLEMENTATION, TIMELINE, AND DELIVERABLES
In December 2011, conservation agreements for 300 acres of forests will be finalized, and the planting of 5000 rare endangered and threatened (RET) tree species in both Sacred Groves and forests under agreements will be completed. AERF will complete the planting of RET tree species in four sacred groves in July and August 2011, and will complete the planting of RET species on forests under agreements by end August 2011. From Jan 2012 to March 2012 AERF will complete the agreements for another 125 acres. AERF has been negotiating with community and private forests owners for more agreements and will complete the agreements by July 2012.
In July 2012 AERF will plant another 7500 saplings of RET tree species. The revival of sacred groves and planning for restoration of sacred groves will be started in 9 new sacred groves and participatory restoration activities in a total of 25 sacred groves will be completed in August 2012 (for a total of 250 acres in Sacred Groves). Monitoring and evaluation in all villages will be completed by December 2012.
Conservation agreements: 625 total by March 2012, as follows:
- Completed since March 2011: 200 acres
- To be completed by December 2011: 300 acres
- To be completed by March 2012: 125 acres
Restoration of sacred forests: 250 acres total by July 2012, as follows:
- Initiated restoration in five groves: 110 acres
- To be complete by July 2012: 140 acres
In the north Western Ghats of India, there are very few legally protected forest areas. Much of the biodiversity-rich landscape is under open access and owned by poor farmers and land ownership patterns are not conducive to protection. Lands that are not under paddy cultivation or any other agriculture are considered as non-agricultural lands and typically are on moderate to steep slopes. These patches of independently owned land are termed private forests. In most of the cases, areas of shifting agriculture fallows owned by families with large number of claimants. In the Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts of the north Western Ghats, this type of land use and ownership is extensive and the lands include forests with a high level of biodiversity. Due to the structure of family ownership, the remaining forests are often converted to cash crop cultivation or leased to logging contractors. When farmers are in dire need of money, they sell these forest patches on steeper and steeper slopes to logging contractors for meager sums of money.
AERF will address these problems by developing conservation agreements with incentives to not cut the forest for five to ten years. Typically, these easements are directed to individual landowners and the compensation is monetary. AERF bring groups of farmers with adjacent lands together to enter into an agreement and the compensation is non-monetary - but is service based and can include enhanced water resources, technical support for agroforestry development, and increased capacity for enterprise development of the local groups .
Additionally, the age-old practice of protecting sacred groves is disappearing due to acculturation and it is, therefore, important to provide incentives for protecting these areas. AERF will work with the local community to protect sacred forestland and create partnerships across the regions with local NGOs to participate and build up their capacity to implement the protection of these lands. AERF will raise the seedlings of indigenous, fast growing, ecologically suitable tree species for plantations in open degraded spaces within these forests.
As stated AERF would like to scale up the commitment up to 1000 ha of forests owned by marginal farmers. However we need substantial financial support to accomplish this. As a part of our commitment we could engage few corporations into the process and ensure long term funding barely sufficient to maintain our current forests under conservation agreements. Therefore, to test new approaches and to link them with carbon markets and certifications like PEFC and Fairwild, we need long term support. Therefore, we are looking for partners who will provide financial support, work with us, or provide expert advice to improve our work of conservation on the ground.