In the heart of the CHiRP project in India lies a village called Newaratola, where the power of innovative prototyping and community decision-making has unfolded into an inspiring tale of resilience and prosperity.

Nearly 25% of the world’s population depends on forests for their livelihoods. Forests play a crucial role in providing various resources and services, including timber, food, medicine, and employment opportunities, which are essential for the well-being and sustenance of millions of people worldwide. When combined with community-based approaches to forest management – which prioritise local and regional needs over export demands, incorporate local knowledge into management, and involve communities in the decision-making process – forest livelihoods provide multiple income streams for communities while supporting the protection and restoration of forests.

In The Central Highlands Restoration Project (CHiRP) in Kabirdam, India, a 4 Returns landscape initiative, a recent incident from the prototyping of alternative income streams from forests led to the beginning stages of a common governance structure. Having such a structure in place will greatly improve continued access to natural resources and additional forest-based income.

Prototyping for additional income streams

Samerth Trust’s staff of field coordinators and community mobilisers collaborate in the CHiRP area to inspire and stimulate forest restoration and generate additional income streams. People put ideas into action through prototyping: a tool part of the Theory U methodology from the Presencing Institute. “Prototyping is a stage where people try to put ideas into action and then to see how they materialise in reality,” says Shekhar Kolipaka, Senior Landscape Developer at Commonland.

The prototyping process has contributed to inspiration, strengthened social networks in the village and led to the ideation of agroforestry interventions, bamboo production, and mushroom cultivation. In the village of Newaratola, villagers started experimenting with a new endeavour to create forest-based income: Lac cultivation.

Lac cultivation: from community-generated wealth to an act of solidarity

People use lac as a natural resin across India and Southeast Asia. Lac cultivation takes place by introducing lac insects on trees. The insects feed on the bark of the host tree and secrete a resin which is then harvested and processed. High-quality lac is produced by monitoring growth, maintaining the trees and tending the forest with care.

After several months of introducing Lac insects and caring for the trees, the villagers at Newaratola were getting ready to harvest. However, disaster struck just as the community were about to harvest. Thieves, drawn to the financial return being generated, stole the community-generated wealth.

This was a shock to all the Lac growers and their ambitions to earn additional income. As any group of people under similar circumstances would react, they were disappointed and shattered by their loss. Fortunately, there was an unseen hero in their midst.

A young villager who had 3 out of his 8 trees stripped by the thieves, decided to help his fellow growers. Rather than selling his yield, he shared his remaining Lac-secreting insects with the other villagers so they could start growing once again.

This act of solidarity triggered a shared question: how can we work as a collective to protect shared resources? The idea of creating a governance structure for the commons took root.

Imagining what local governance makes possible

The villagers of Newaratola began discussing how to protect future yields and quickly realised that, as the forest is a common property resource used by surrounding villages, more people would need to be brought into the discussion. “They realised it’s just not us. It’s also the neighbouring villagers who need to be involved,” describes Shekhar. “They’re thinking about the prosperity of other people and how to collectively manage the forests. In that way, they have very consciously used their heart to look at it from a very empathetic perspective, where they’re looking at everybody’s prosperity.”

Imagining what is possible when they work as a collective led to new ideas – such as establishing additional forest plantations, finding ways to control the free-roaming cattle that overgraze the forest, and collectively exploring and managing additional forest-based income streams. “What we see here in Newaratola is the implementation of Noble laureate Elinor Ostrom’s insights on ‘Governing the commons'”, explains Shekhar,” and how with their newfound Inspiration, people are working together to avoid the ‘tragedy of the commons’.”

Putting the governance into place

The villagers are already taking strides towards establishing a governance structure. On 23 September, a meeting was organised in Newaratola regarding the cultivation and protection of lac with farmers participating from four villages: Newaratola, Makkekonah, Tendupani, and Thuhapani.

People decided that villagers at Newaratola will provide materials, training and technical support to farmers in the other villagers and that a Farmers Interest Group will be established to ensure good governance. Rules for grazing animals will be established in consensus with the other villagers and farmers will work towards the communal effort to regenerate the forest. To ensure maximum profit for their lac produce, farmers will sell lakh together as a cooperative. Any thieves found taking lac, will be fined double the price of the stolen goods.

“There’s a lot of opportunity with a governance structure in place”, says Shekhar, “Once it becomes routine to communicate about the collective responsibility of the forest, it opens up opportunities for sustained and continued incomes, and a regenerated local landscape.”