Despite the fact that their name for themselves means “men of the forest,” Birhor living in East Singhbhum District of India’s Jharkhand State have started cutting down trees and planting crops. An article released online last Thursday by the Indian environmental biweekly Down to Earth explains that the Birhor and Sabar peoples, who live together in several villages of the district, are now growing vegetables, corn, pulses, mangos and guavas.

For many generations, both groups have been forest-based, gathering societies that have fabricated ropes to make money. Early in 2007, an NGO called the Socio Economic and Education Development Society (SEEDS), which tries to improve the conditions of tribal communities, took a team of seven Sabar and Birhor people from Jharkhand to the Raipur District of the neighboring state of Chhattisgarh to visit the Baigas, a tribal society that had abandoned their gathering lifestyle a while ago and taken up farming.

Ramdas Birhor, one of the visitors to the Baiga villages, said, “They were growing millets like kodo and kutki, besides corn and beans. We realized that this would make us self-sufficient too and we wanted to do it on a large scale.” Another villager commented that they began clearing forest lands when they learned about the provisions of India’s Forest Rights Act, 2006. That law gives tribal communities the rights to lands they have traditionally used when they begin to cultivate it.

In addition to their need for a more dependable food supply, the Birhor and the Sabar realized that they were not making enough money from their rope making and food gathering. SEEDS has assisted the villagers by giving them saplings to begin plantations of mangos, guavas, and lemons. The NGO has also given out seeds for water gourds, bitter gourds beans, and brinjals (eggplants). Interestingly, the villagers also plan to cultivate sabai grass, a raw material used in making ropes. They don’t want to loose completely their previous trade.

The land used for the farming is owned collectively by the villagers. As soon as they made the decision to begin cultivating crops, each village dug a pond to store rainwater so they could water their fields after the monsoons ended each year. The people share the earnings from their crops—much as they formerly shared the foods they gathered from the forest. The women of the villages, who work crushing stones for income, deposit each week Rs 5 per person (U.S.$ 0.115) into a capital fund to finance their new agricultural initiatives. SEEDS is planning to help the villagers open a bank account for each community.

Fortunately, the local politicians and officials of East Singhbhum District have left the projects pretty much alone. Ramdas Birhor told the magazine, “The block development officer did come and enquire when we were clearing the forest. But we stood firm and made our point that this was our land. After all, this is all that we have. How can we move out?”

Another villager added, “Initially, we were accused of destroying the forest but we explained to them that this was our land. The forest department came and demarcated the line beyond which we could not move but after that they never bothered us again.”