Dappled sunlight streams through the foliage, the air is filled with a variety of birdsong. On one side, a stream from the Dhansiri river gushes by. There is some sign of human habitation. A thriving nursery occupies one side of the rough track. To the other, there is a shed beside it, a rustic and undeniably aesthetic cabin indicates an office, flanked by a few other buildings. A track leads away from here into the heart of the woods. This is a beautiful forest. And it is astonishing to learn that it is man-made.
This is the Gethsemane Man-Made Forest, part of the Bhairabkunda Reserve Forest in Udalguri district. The questions seem to tumble out all at once. What in fact is a man-made forest Why How The answer ties itself in a way, as so many stories in Bodoland seem to do, to the Bodo Mass Movement that demanded a separate Bodo territory. After the Bodo Accord was signed in 1993 and normalcy returned to the land, young men who had put all their might behind their cause began to seek other avenues equally worthy of their passion. And so it happened that 35 young men belonging to the All Bodo Students Union, with what seems to be curiously interlinked destinies, came together to transform a barren stretch of 750 hectares into a thriving forest.
This initiative was undertaken by 35 men. &ldquoWe all went to school together,&rdquo laughs Prinson Daimari, President of Gethsemane, &ldquoand then we belonged to the same church. we just grew up together. And so we have a bond.&rdquo A bond that has held firm in the face of time and immense challenges.
After the Accord was signed, the young men returned home. In spite of working on farms and trying other odd jobs, the going was tough. &ldquoWe found it difficult to keep the kitchen fires going,&rdquo says Bilup Daimari, Secretary, Gethsamane. &ldquoSo, we decided to try something else.&rdquo In 2003, the group earmarked some land inside Bhairabkunda Reserve Forest for farming and poultry. They formed a cooperative and with the permission of the Forest Department, the plan was to farm, fish and have poultry. But they were inexperienced and had no connections with the local market. Their efforts brought them hardly any profits.
In 2004, Forest Range Officer Naba Kumar Bordoloi had an inspiring proposition that the men plant saplings on the barren land for the next five years. With the promise of livelihood for the next five years, the group agreed. The Forest Officer helped form six Joint Forest Management Committees, and pushed the proposal through all necessary formalities. With ministerial and departmental support, the plantation of Gethsemane was underway in 2005.
The challenges were many. The flash floods of 1989 had caused massive damage and the land was severely eroded, with hard rocks and boulders showing. &ldquoIt was challenging,&rdquo Prinson Daimari recollects. &ldquoWe would cycle or walk 7-8 km to reach the forest, remove the rocks and make the ground suitable for plantation.&rdquo It was hard labour and they fondly remember cooking meals and eating together in the humble shed that still stands on the premises.
Some degree of success brought its own trouble. As word spread of what the group was trying to do, there arose envy and misinformation. Villagers feared that this was a ploy to usurp land or funds. Some conspired and set the forest on fire. The Gethsemane group was forced to add night patrols to their already heavy work schedule. With the water source 3km away, they brought and stored enough to douse emergency fires. The arson occurred three times, and the foresters would rush with water gallons on their backs to fight and contain the fires. Each time they lost saplings, they planted them again.
In recent years, since the trees have grown, the foresters have had to fend off timber theft as well.
The Forest Takes Over
The immense hard work has paid off. They have planted 1.4 million saplings of over 35 varieties since 2005. The deciduous and tropical evergreen forest for the most part takes care of itself, inviting back the snakes, deer, wild boars, birds and also elephants into their fold. Several streams from Daifam and Dhansiri rivers run through the forest.
The group also runs an eco-tourism initiative, hosting guests from various parts of the world, people who would like to have a taste of staying in the Bodo outdoors. They also offer traditional cuisine on request for travellers who wish to just visit for a few hours.
The initiative is much lauded and has won many awards and laurels including the Lifetime Achievement Award from Kaziranga Wildlife Society in 2016 and the Eastern Himalayan Conservation Awardfrom Balipara Foundation in 2017. The success has also proved to be inspirational. Similar initiatives in the region such as the Dhansiri-Sikaridanga JFMC have been launched, which has been working since 2014. The period of unrest in Bodoland is a thing of the past today. New initiatives undertaken by the state have helped individuals as well as organisations in conservation efforts and stories like Gethsemane abound in the region.
Agony and Ecstasy
These forests are named after a place of great significance in Christianity. is the fabled garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem where Jesus is said to have undergone agony before his arrest and crucifixion. Perhaps this band of brothers drew strength from there to meet this colossal challenge. Bilup says, &ldquoWe have spent our entire youth growing this forest. the only thing we want is its preservation when we are gone.&rdquo
Gethsemane Man-Made Forest is located in the Bhairabkunda Reserve Forest in Udalguri (Bhairabpur, East of Savio English school, Bhairabkunda, Assam 784513 see getsemaniforest.wordpress.com