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Restoring Community-Ecosystem Relationships through Nature-Based Livelihoods

 A Case Study of Vangrams in Kanha National Park.


Between 1968 and 2010, thousands of Gond and Baiga tribal families residing in Madhya Pradesh’s Kanha National Park were moved out of their villages in an effort to conserve the critical tiger habitat. These tribal communities, left without access to life-giving forest resources and offered a meagre amount as compensation, are facing several barriers to their livelihood opportunities. Consequently, many parts of Kanha’s core and buffer zones are being degraded due to increased pressure on keystone species like mahua and changing land use patterns due to intensive paddy cultivation. Recognising the need to restore the relationship between communities and the forest to allow both to thrive, Earth Focus Foundation intervened with a nature-based livelihoods project implemented through an agro-horti-forestry model that includes tree plantation, intercropping and reintroduction of native crops to enhance the ecosystem and improve the community’s wellbeing. In this case study, we detail our successful pilot program with 16 farmer families on 32 acres of degraded fallow land in the village of Chichrangpur, extending from 2019 to 2022. This nature-based solution has the potential to transform the lives of forest-dwelling communities by building ecological and economic resilience. The model can be adapted to other vangrams in central India and beyond, and has already begun expanding to other villages in the park’s buffer zone.


Considering the abundant possibilities in Kanha to restore degraded forest land, Earth Focus designed a nature-based livelihood solution that can effectively address the growing effects of climate change while allowing communities and nature to thrive. The IUCN defines nature-based solutions (NbS) as  “actions to protect, sustainably manage and restore natural or modified ecosystems, which address societal challenges (e.g. climate change, food and water security or natural disasters) effectively and adaptively while simultaneously providing human wellbeing and biodiversity benefits.” Communities are essential for the success and sustainability of any nature-based solution and thus, the activities in our intervention were designed and executed with community ownership in mind. We envision a Kanha in which the community and the environment take care of each other, living in harmony and not as adversaries. There is great potential to leverage these communities’ knowledge of nature, revive their symbiotic relationship, and place them on better life paths. A nature-based solution channels these communities’ local and indigenous knowledge and blends it with technical know-how is integral to sustainable land and forest management. This will allow us to address the root causes of climate change instead of remaining at the symptomatic level. 

While rice monoculture has adverse effects on the environment, lifestyles, and nutritional profiles of the villagers, it has become deeply ingrained into their way of living and requires a change in the mindset. To encourage this change, the intervention targets the farmers’ fallow land for crop diversification and additional income generation which will eventually result in a shift away from rice monoculture. At a larger scale, arresting and reversing landscape degradation is critical to climate change as tropical deforestation for agriculture accounts for 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. India is the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, of which agriculture accounts for 21%. Clear felling, paddy cultivation, and usage of harmful fertilisers and pesticides have had various adverse effects on the climate and landscape. However, land use and forestry (LUCF) offers a bright spot – since 2011, India’s forests have been acting as net carbon sinks, i.e., they have been removing more carbon from the atmosphere than they are adding. Carbon sinks are crucial for keeping atmospheric carbon at manageable levels and thereby helping mitigate the effects of climate change. In India, forests are the only carbon emitters that have been producing negative emissions and present an opportunity for intervention to accelerate carbon sequestration. 

The next sections will elaborate on how these activities effectively target the challenges faced by forest-dwelling communities, the short- and long-term outcomes, and the impact of the intervention. 

Resettlement and its Impact

Kanha, a forest nestled in the horseshoe-shaped valley of the Maikal Range, is home to a remarkable variety of flora and fauna. This area, known for its verdant sal forests, is also notable for its tiger population and indigenous hard ground swamp deer called Barasingha, a species found nowhere else in the world. For these unique qualities, Kanha was first declared a reserve forest in 1879, a wildlife sanctuary in 1933, and given its current title of national park in 1933. In 1968, the relocation of 27 villages of Baiga and Gond communities from the park’s core area to its buffer areas began. Between 2005 to 2010, the forest department carried out forceful evictions of hundreds of Baiga families. 

Forests hold huge cultural, social and spiritual significance for the Baiga tribal community. Considering themselves to be the children of the earth, they are protectors and worshippers of nature and live in harmony with wildlife. Being nomadic hunter-gatherers, they are also dependent on the forest to gather resources, and possess deep knowledge about the medicinal properties of forest produce. With their eviction from Kanha, Baigas’ connection with the forest was severed. The land they now inhabited was barren and even after decades, the villages lacked amenities such as water, electric supply, and schools. A tribe which only practised slash and burn subsistence farming were left without the tools to survive on this infertile land. However, over the years, driven by economic precarity, exposure to commercial farming, harmful subsidies and MSP-driven overproduction, these communities began cultivating rice extensively by clearing of forests in and around the villages. 

Overdependence on paddy cultivation not only changed the Baiga community’s means of livelihood, but also had severe effects on their land, lifestyle, education, and nutritional levels. Since it is the only crop grown, various fertilisers and pesticides are sprayed to make the land more productive and increase the output. These chemicals leach into the ground, affecting the quality of groundwater, as well as polluting nearby water bodies through runoff. Secondly, rice is sown, grown, and harvested in a six-month period. After these six months, farmers along with their families migrate to other states such as Telangana and Maharashtra in search of employment, uprooting not only their lives but also disrupting their children’s education. Leaving the land unattended till the next kharif season makes it susceptible to further degradation. Lastly, overconsumption of rice in their diets has resulted in nutritional deficiencies and health concerns which are further exacerbated by alcoholism. 

These communities once had unhindered access to all the native trees of the forest which they gathered and utilised for food, fuelwood, medicine, and raw material. However, since their relocation, a growing population of tribals are dependent on native trees which are found in much less abundance. Thus, the tree population is dwindling and forcing tribal communities to venture into the core zone (protected areas) to meet their needs. This created various kinds of conflict between community and authorities, as well as community and wildlife. 


In 1984, 32 Baiga families were among hundreds of others who were evicted from inside the national park and were moved to a piece of forest land in the buffer zone which later became the village of Chichrangpur. Chichrangpur, located in the Gudma gram panchayat is a hamlet perched atop a hill on a bend of the Banjar river. It lacked fertile land as well as basic amenities such as water, housing, and schools. After a years-long struggle, each family received 3-5 acres of land under the Forest Rights Act but Chichrangpur remained severely underdeveloped – the village faced acute water stress and community members’ growing dependence on rice and reduced access to forest produce posed major challenges to their subsistence.

As the aim of Earth Focus was to create a nature-based restoration model for all vangrams in central India, we chose to pilot our intervention in Chichrangpur, one of the most underserved villages in this geography. After a year of trust-building and visioning with the community, local leader Charan Singh Dhurwey, known to his community as Sardar Baiga, offered to pilot the intervention on 1.5 acres of his barren land. A year later, his was the only patch of green sprouting bamboo shoots over five feet tall. The sight inspired the other farmers to undertake the restoration project on 32 acres of their combined fallow land. 

Our activities are designed and driven by the following objectives:

  1. Creating demonstrable impact of habitat and landscape restoration in Kanha National Park’s buffer zone by conserving native flora that have cultural, economic and ecological significance for the Baiga community. This includes planting trees and cultivating traditional millets, pulses and oilseeds.
  2. Utilising barren land and preventing its conversion into paddy fields or commercial agriculture to arrest and prevent further degradation of the land. 
  3. Developing community participatory mechanisms towards sustainable development and building capacity for collaboration with the local administration and forest department to use public funds, schemes and knowledge.
  4. Building resilient income streams and community’s self-reliance.
  5. Building a credible data-backed understanding of flora conservation efforts in Kanha that enables replication and scaling.

The activities fall under these two main categories: 

  1. Agroforestry – Reintroducing key species like Mahua, Harra, Khamer, Bamboo and other fruiting trees and medicinal plants that arrest ecosystem degradation and provide income generation and reduce conflict over scarce resources in the buffer zone and pressure on the fringe core area.
  2. Crop management – Over the last two decades, the shift in cultivation from indigenous millets such as kodo and kutki to rice monoculture and intensive commercial farming has increased the need for water, reduced nutrition levels and degraded the soil. We are working with communities to reintroduce millets and oilseeds which will improve the nutritional profile of the communities, have high commercial value, and encourage better cultivation practices. 

Map of plantation activities in Chichrangpur


  • Plantation – Plantation of native trees such as mahua, khamer, harra, and bamboo, and fruit trees such as mango, jackfruit, guava. These trees have great ecological and commercial value while also being of traditional use to forest-dwelling communities. Bamboo was planted along the perimeter as bio-fencing to protect from wild animals. Once matured, it can be sold for raw wood or as finished products, and used in the  construction of the farmers’ dwellings. Both desi and hybrid varieties of bamboo have been planted with saplings procured from Madhya Pradesh’s State Bamboo Mission. Seeds for fruiting trees and medicinal plants were obtained from the Horticulture Department.
  • Intercropping – Plantation of herbs, pulses, and oilseeds such as turmeric, arhar dal, and chilli, between the fruit and native trees. With intercropping, a half acre of land contains at least six to seven different plant species, greatly improving the biodiversity and ecological stability. These plants allow for economic use of land and soil, and improve soil quality. 
  • Reintroduction of millets – Millets such as kodo and kutki were routinely grown and consumed by tribal communities before the shift to rice cultivation. Given their nutritional and growing commercial value, it was integral and beneficial to reintroduce these millets into the farmers’ cultivation and diets. A millet processing unit is being set up for the community’s use. This allows them to process, package, and market the millet which fetches them over 150 per kg, as compared to 18-25 per kg for unprocessed millet. 
  • Training and use of organic fertilisers and pesticides – Beneficiary farmers were provided training on preparing organic fertilisers and pesticide, and also trained on identifying and treating common plant diseases. They are making use of organic matter found in their own backyards such as compost, cow dung, gomutra, and mahua flowers to prepare these fertilisers and pesticides. 
  • Grow-bags – Employing an innovative method called Jawahar Baadi Model, all beneficiary farmer families were trained in growing vegetables and spices in their own backyards in boris (plastic gunny bags). The Jawahar Baadi Model utilises less soil, water, seeds, and fertiliser, is less susceptible to diseases, and can be moved around in case of bad weather. This training is provided to the women in the family so they can grow vegetables like tomato, chilli, eggplant and spices such as turmeric and mustard that are required in their kitchens. Surplus produce can be sold in the local market and the money kept by the women for their needs. 
  • Support activities – Certain support activities are necessary to ensure the survival, health, and success of the saplings. To protect from the intrusion of wild and domestic animals, the farmers’ combined fallow land was fenced with chain-link. Drip irrigation and sprinklers were facilitated to reduce wastage of water.

Fruit and native trees

Fruit TreesUseCount
MangoFruit, wood1256
LemonFruit, medicinal uses141
Custard apple Fruit85
MoringaMedicinal uses, own consumption32
Native TreesUseCount
MahuaFruit, flowers, firewood154
MohlainLeaves for pattal-making150
Desi bambooWood, biofencing, furniture, construction, tools1655
Katang bambooWood, biofencing, furniture, construction, tools4603
Balcooa bambooWood, biofencing, furniture, construction, tools256
KarondaBiofencing, fruit428 
KhamerWood, firewood30
NeemMedicinal uses, natural pesticide36
HarraMedicinal use15


Crop TypeCrop
Makka (Maize)
Jawahar Badi (Grow-Bags)Vegetables

From front to back: Mango saplings, turmeric and pulses intercrop, and Jawahar Badi grow-bags bounded by chain link fencing

Convergence with Government Departments

Moulding a self-reliant community is of utmost importance to ensure ownership and sustainability of the restoration project. To facilitate this, the intervention was designed to obtain raw material, infrastructure, and employment from government departments through various schemes. These schemes cover a part of a farmer’s input costs and resources but they remain underutilised as the application process is complex and time-consuming, and the farmers are unsure of what approvals are required from which officials. Farmers must submit a myriad of personal information and documentation to avail these schemes which can be cumbersome. To streamline this, the organisation collected all the data and documentation at once.

We enquired about community and individual resource requirements of the village, collected necessary documents from the beneficiaries, and approached the Horticulture, Agriculture and Forest departments, and the panchayat to connect farmers with the various government schemes. Frequent informational sessions called Krishi Paatshaalas were organised with the farmers and members from the Agriculture, Horticulture, and Forest Departments to apprise farmers of available schemes and subsidies. 

DepartmentSchemeProvisionValue (per farmer)
Panchayat and Rural DevelopmentMahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA)80 days of employment per farmerRs 16,000
Horticulture DepartmentPradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana (PMKSY)Sprinklers and pipes for drip irrigation
Fruit Plantation Scheme100 mango saplings per farmerRs 5,200*
Farmer Training Scheme (Krishak Parikshan sah Brahman Yojana)Vermibed for vermicompostingRs 4,000* 
Pushp Vikaas PradarshanMarigold seedsRs 200*
State Bamboo MissionChief Minister Bamboo Plantation SchemeBamboo saplingsRs 10,500* 
Agriculture DepartmentDalhan Ghatak Millets (kodo, kutki, tuar) and pulsesRs 760*
Integrated Scheme of Oilseeds and MaizeOilseeds (mustard, til)Rs 50*

*Notional value


  1. Short-term (6 months onwards):
    • Vegetable intercropping
    • Convergence with schemes and subsidies provided by the horticulture, agriculture and forest departments, and the Bamboo Mission, which has reduced input costs
    • Convergence with MGNREGA providing 150 days of employment to work on farmers’ own land for which they are earning Rs 200 per day. ​​This ensures that, over 3 years, the farmer will earn Rs 92,000 if 80% of the saplings survive. 
  2. Medium-term (1-3 years onward): Agriculture on fallow land will begin to yield results with the maturing of kodo-kutki, oilseeds, and intercrops.
  3. Long-term (>3 years): Farmers will continue to benefit from government schemes, and also profit from matured fruit trees and bamboo. Community members will make use of fallow land to support local flora and fauna, and their own livelihood needs. 


Building trust with the community was a years-long process that involved patience and understanding from both sides. Having been forcibly removed from the forest and compelled to cultivate rice, the farmers in Chichrangpur were understandably sceptical of replanting those same trees. “Will you make this a forest and take it away from us again?” was a common concern. They were also reluctant to grow fruit and native trees as they did not think them to be commercially viable. 

It was the community leader Sardar Baiga who was finally able to convince the farmers through the example of his own plot of land. Bamboo, harra and kamer were among the saplings planted. While the rest of the village migrated to other states after the rice harvest, Sardar Baiga stayed and tended to his land. His patch of land survived and thrived through the brutal heat waves that lashed central India in March and May of 2022 while the surrounding areas were scorched a dusty brown. Soon after, the other farmers joined the project. 

The long-term nature of this project was also a point of reluctance for the farmers but once they began to receive employment from MGNREGA, fencing to protect their land and water supply, the immediate benefits assuaged their doubts and they were receptive to the other activities in the intervention. Fencing is an especially critical factor as many crops are destroyed by animals, either wild or domestic grazers. 

Changes to the climate are an ongoing as well as anticipated challenge of this project. Extreme heat waves and prolonged monsoons are disrupting the crop seasons across central India. Due to the interconnectedness of the ecosystem and the cycles it comprises, changes in climate will have adverse effects in known and unknown ways. It is, thus, consequential to mitigate, adapt, and build resilience to protect and prepare these communities from climate change.



The greatest change has been observed within the community of Chichrangrpur. Sardar Baiga, whose keen interest in restoration initiated this project, is a local leader whose pilot patch now thrives with bamboo trees, grow-bags, and fruit and native trees despite the brutal heat waves suffered by central India in the months of March and May. The remaining villagers joined the program upon seeing this lush patch. These farmers have now inspired other neighbouring villages to make use of their barren land – just across the Banjar river, Gond villagers from Mukki approached the organisation and proposed to begin the project on 60+ acres of their own land. Villagers from Parsatola, adjacent to Mukki, have similarly expressed their interest on 40+ acres of their land. There is potential to restore several hundred acres of degraded land through nature-based livelihood options in this landscape. 

The positive response to reintroducing plants that hold deep social and cultural significance to local tribal communities is noteworthy and exhibits the importance of rooting interventions in indigeneous knowledge. These farmers are reviving traditional methods of farming and organic treatment of diseased plants, skills which are seldom valued in modern cultivation. They are also passing this knowledge onto their sons and daughters, the current generation of farmers who have only known commercial rice cultivation. 

The restoration of the relationship between communities and the land is being supplemented by an educational program in anganwadis and primary schools. Earth Focus has established anand ghars where children are taught literacy, numeracy, and biodiversity through contextual and activity-based education. Grow-bags gardens from the Jawahar Badi Model are also being tended in these schools. Through this, they learn to relate to their environment and view nature with fascination instead of as an adversity. Thus, the impact on the community can be seen across three generations of tribal families in Chichrangpur and other villages in Kanha. 


Tree plantation, multicropping, and intercropping are proven methods to improve soil quality – they reduce erosion through their root systems, improve water retention, enrich the soil with nutrients, reduce soil nitrogen leaching, and provide weed control. This will reverse some of the effects of leaving the land barren and maintain its fertility. Forests also act as carbon sinks that draw and store atmospheric carbon dioxide, the largest contributor to greenhouse gases. 

Second, oilseeds, fruit trees, herbs and spices attract pollinators with their bright and fragrant flowers. Pollination by bees increases the yield of the crop, improves the quality of fruits and seeds, increases the oil content in oilseeds, and, for some plants, is the only method of fruit formation. The contribution of pollinators like bees, birds, butterflies and moths in maintaining a balanced ecosystem is tremendous. In Chichrangpur, bright yellow mustard flowers are already alluring bees into the patch. 

Third, the planting of millets and oilseeds such as kodo, kutki, madiya and jagni will balance and improve the community’s nutritional basket. Some of these species are recognised as endangered while others like arjun and jagni have been insufficiently studied. Like bamboo, they may seem abundant at a larger level but are insufficient where the community requires them the most. 


Beneficiary farmers in Chichrangpur now have several sources of agricultural income. Diversifying income streams is important to prepare the community against climate and subsequent economic shocks. Overdependence on rice monoculture is risky as central India experiences more erratic monsoons and more severe heat waves. Farmers in Chichrangpur are continuing rice cultivation but have added fruit and native tree cultivation, intercropping, and produce from grow-bags to their income streams. 

In the immediate term, beneficiaries are receiving income and employment from government schemes such as MGNREGA. These incentivise them to cultivate crops that are environmentally beneficial and have long-term returns. Secondly, grow-bags and intercropping will provide immediate returns, and fruit and native trees will be profitable once mature, securing a steady income for the next 3 to 50 years. Earth Focus is also equipping farmers with entrepreneurial skills that will help them enter the markets through value addition to their existing produce and products. 

In the long term, we aim to build resilient income streams that will provide adequate employment on the farmers’ own lands and reduce distress migration. This will have a positive influence on their lifestyles, their land, and their children’s education. 

Creating a Replicable Model

The project in Chichrangpur provides a robust model for restoring the relationship between communities and nature, providing better livelihood opportunities, and encouraging better environmental practices in other vangrams around Kanha National Park as well as other parts of central India. The powerful proof of concept in Chichrangpur has led to bottom-up demand from the community in other villages. The following factors make this a successful, sustainable, and scalable model: 

  1. Community Ownership – Indigenous people are the best conservationists so it was imperative for this project to be initiated and owned by the community. The project’s success can be attributed to their deep-rooted knowledge of the land, flora and fauna, and the community buy-in that has been ensured by the organisation. The farmers have invested their own money, labour and time into cultivating their barren land. They are the sole beneficiaries of the produce from that land now as well as years later it grows into a thriving functional forest. 
  2. Convergence with Government – The recurring input costs that farmers will have to invest to maintain their land will be provided not by Earth Focus’ funds or any private party but through convergence with long-standing government schemes. The community does not have to depend on an external agency to procure seeds, construct cattle sheds, or receive employment for their labour. Through Krishi Paatshaalas, they are also made aware of the process for scheme application. 


In its 2022 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has emphasised on the importance of “regionally-specific technological solutions, based both on new scientific innovations and indigenous and local knowledge (ILK)” to avoid, reduce, and reverse land degradation. This recognises the need to place communities at the centre of climate action, acknowledging them as both the principal custodians of nature as well as the most vulnerable to climate shocks. The program in Chichrangpur presents a model to put this principle into practice. It can be adapted to other vangrams where there is great potential to leverage the rooted knowledge of tribal communities to build climate resilient livelihoods and arrest land degradation. 

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