The tribal community which lived in the remotest area of the reserve depended on fishing, poaching, and illegal wood-cutting in order to eke out a living. The eco-development project aimed at reducing their dependency on the forest as only such a shift in lifestyle would discourage the illegal activities.
The first step was to address the economic needs of the community living in and around the park. Eco-development committees (EDC) were formed in different villages with the participation of local people to find innovative and alternative livelihood methods. As a result, the number of tribal people collecting and selling firewood for a living has greatly reduced.
Many involved in smuggling, poaching, debarking of cinnamon trees etc have stopped these illegal practices and have pledged to conserve the beauty and diversity of their surroundings. Now they are part of the patrolling group of the Forest Department and help to chase away poachers and illegal wood cutters. Some accompany tourists to remote forests for sightseeing, night camping and the like.
A bamboo rafting programme for tourists too was initiated keeping in mind the uplift of the tribal community through such tourism-related activities. The EDCs were also empowered to collect and market pepper directly. All these measures have helped the local community to improve their standard of living.
A Tribal Trekkers’ Eco-Development Committee and a Periyar Tiger Samrakshnan Eco-Development Committee were formed as part of the eco-development project. The members of the committees are entrusted with the task of helping the Forest Department in the collection of census data. The local people also contribute to research initiatives based on the flora and fauna of the forest. Some of them have even reported spotting new species of birds in the sanctuary. The birds identified by them have later been entered in the checklist of the reserve.
Self- help groups of women in the area contribute to the eco-development programme through the Vasantha Sena. Members of the Vasantha Sena patrol the reserve, report the day’s happenings and inform authorities if they come across any signs of encroachment or poaching.
The Eco-Development committees also encourage enhanced agricultural activities in tribal settlements on the fringes of the Periyar Reserve. The project has been beneficial to around 40,000 locals belonging to more than 5500 families.
The eco-development project in Periyar is envisaged in such a way that even the tourists can take part in the conservation-related activities or do their bit to prevent poaching. The success of the project owes a lot to clear planning and execution. It is conceived in a way that it recognizes the legitimacy of the tribal community in the forests and ensures that the link between these communities and the forest is not severed even while equipping them with alternative livelihood options. The eco-development effort took into consideration all the regional socio-economic issues and that is what has ultimately made it sustainable and dynamic.
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