Combating the effects of deforestation:
Tree planting carried out by women
in a rural region of India

Home - < China - Uzbekistan >
Region South-central Asia
Capital New Delhi
Surface area 3,287,263 km2
Population 1,119,539,000 inhab.
Population density 341 inhab./km2
Infant mortality rate (per thousand births) 68
Fertility rate (births per woman) 3.1
Population growth rate (per annum) 1.6 %
Life expectancy (female-male) 65 – 62 years
Average temperatures (min./max.) 18.8 / 31.4 ºC
Forest area 22 %


Though the causes of desertification are complex, in India, as in many countries affected by the phenomenon, desertification is due to the combined effects of natural factors such as climatic variations and ill adapted human activities, such as intensive agriculture, overgrazing, deforestation and poor irrigation practices.

Human population growth and its accompanying poverty lead to irregular or over-exploitation of natural resources resulting in soil erosion thus reducing land productivity. As a consequence, many young men abandon the degraded lands of the rural regions to look for work in towns and cities, leaving the women behind to cultivate the unproductive lands. The NGO Youth for Action (YFA) decided to concentrate its efforts on helping the women develop their environmental knowledge and skills to take the initiative to improve their living conditions.

Their commitment

YFA chose to focus their varied environmental protection activities on women since they suffer the consequences of desertification more directly than men. Traditionally, women have cultivated and managed common natural resources such as water, fuel, fodder and fruits. In the Mahaboobnagar district (in the state of Andhra Pradesh, in south-east India), a great majority of women work, many of them work in agriculture. In general, it can be said that the greater the levels of poverty, the more women have to work (picture 1.).

1. Indian women in Arepally market.
© Youth For Action

Women also suffer from the effects of male migration as the men leave for the cities in search of alternative lifestyles leaving the women behind to fend for themselves on meagre subsistence activities and the threat of famine. According to a survey undertaken in Arepally, 10% of all households are headed by women who are single, separated, widowed or divorced. Women
are more receptive to and affected by their natural environment and are therefore the principal victims of resource degradation (picture 4.).

Women, especially the most impoverished among them, lack the organization and environmental management strategies, due to limited access to information and education, compared to men.

Before engaging in any specific project, YFA wanted to invest primarily in training women to develop group leadership skills that would enable them to co-ordinate their activities more effectively. YFA concentrated their efforts on the Karyakathas, a name given to women who have a higher level of education and certain leadership qualities and are concerned about their environment and their social situation. Women were elected by the self-help group, composed of active women in the Sangha community.
YFA completed their training by helping them strengthen existing skills. To encourage the women to stay in the region and from migrating to other regions of India, YFA explored alternative income generating activities such as mango plantations, vegetable cultivation, dairy production and leaf plate or bamboo basket making (picture 2.).

2. An Indian woman performing an income
generating activity: pepper pressing.
© Youth For Action

badCauses and effects of intensive farming

Traditionally, India favours rain-fed agriculture for the cultivation of millet, pulses and oilseeds. The basic staple crop was jowar, commonly known as sorghum (sorghum vulgare), which grows in arid regions, but the change in food habits and the pressure of the international market spurred the population to intensify rice (paddy) and cotton cultivation using groundwater reserves, thus increasing soil salt content due to evaporation.

Furthermore, the cycle of fallow periods that restore land fertility was gradually abandoned or reduced and replaced by the excessive use of chemical fertilizers, destroying the natural soil balance. The soil became degraded and prone to the harmful effects of water and wind erosion with the formation of gullies, diminishing agricultural productivity. The socio-economic fall-out of soil degradation is multiple and disastrous: despite a relatively low rate of unemployment, 70% of the population find themselves below the poverty line in Mahaboobnagar district. Furthermore, this region is affected by the migration of young people and malnutrition.

goodPossible solutions

The project was carried out in a small peaceful village called Arepally in Atmakoor Mandal, situated in the Mahaboobnagar district of Andhra Pradesh, a region vulnerable to severe drought. Here, the farmers have always depended on subsistence living because of the hilly landscape.

When strolling through Arepally today, you can see the many trees planted by the Sangha community. As the children sing on their way to school, which incidentally is managed by the women, the whole village gives a neat impression and it is apparent that the women feel confident again. How can this be explained?

3. A nursery created by the women of Arepally.
© Youth For Action

4. Women carrying water.
© Bernard Henry, UNESCO

About thirty-five years ago, the government offered ‘Inam’ land to the villagers. The land, belonging to the state and situated on rocky and steep hills distant from the village, was generally in very poor condition and seemed unfit for cultivation. So when YFA proposed the land to the men of the village, they were far from enthusiastic. On the other hand, the women showed a keen interest in cultivating the land for fodder and tree plantations.

bladWomen leading reforestation

During the summer of 1992–1993, the women of Arepally began by improving water retention on the arable land by establishing mounds of earth called bunding, on the borders of the fields.

A small nursery was started and species such as subabul and mango were later replanted on the hill (picture 3.). Convinced of the determination shown by the women, the district inspector visited the fields and approved a pipeline to irrigate the hill that prompted the women to begin horticulture plantations, selecting the species they wished to cultivate.

In 1995-96 reservoirs or percolation tanks, were installed with the help of the government to collect rainwater. Indeed, around the reservoir area the farmers took advantage of the increased humidity to grow cereal crops such as jowar and pulses.
These initiatives soon interested the men and they agreed to contribute to the cultivation of the entire patch of 34 hectares. The men and women finally agreed on an arrangement to share responsibility of the land. The trees have since grown and the hill has taken on a green colour. In a couple of years, the women will be able to sell their produce at the local market.


NGOs are well accepted in many regions of India where their activities are often considered an important complement to government programmes. The social orientation of NGOs generally predominate over their technical capabilities and they place great effort in fund-raising, bridging relationships with appropriate government bodies and training. Youth for Action (YFA) has been working since 1986 in the drought prone regions of Mahaboobnagar district.

The priorities of YFA in the Arepally village are:

  • Mobilizing and raising awareness among women, since they are more directly affected by drought related problems than men.
  • Education and training of women and the development of group leadership skills to help them take on more responsibility.
  • The construction of earth dikes to retain rainwater on arable lands, thereby influencing their flow.
  • The creation of a nursery and the cultivation of species adapted to arid environments.
  • Responsibility-sharing among men and women.

The projects initiated by YFA have had a very positive impact on the population of the village. Among the 80 families belonging to the eight different castes, all but three of the castes participated in the project to combat desertification. The species planted created an advantageous microclimate supplying fodder for cattle, timber for construction and firewood and fruits for consumption and sale. More importantly, the women gained self-confidence: their activities are directly related to combating desertification.

This case study was proposed by Mr Venkat Ramnayya.
For more information, please contact him at the following address:

Mr E. Venkat Ramnayya
Director General
Youth for Action
1-8-702/26/1 Padma Colony
Hyderabad 500044 A.P

Tel. (+91) 40 7632474
Fax (+91) 40 7632372



The teacher tells
the story of the Arepally women in class.


Do women in your village work hard in the fields?
Do they have to manage
on their own because the men have migrated to towns
and cities?


Draw the story of the Arepally women in cartoon form with captions. Describe their solitude
and anger. Describe the intervention of the NGO and their proposition
to cultivate abandoned land.
Describe the ideas to create a nursery and reforest a hill, the recognition by
the men of the work carried out
by the women and their pride
in accomplishing a useful project to restart the local economy and combat desertification.

(This work can be carried out in teams: each team could draw
a different cartoon scene).


Where is India located?
Is your country on the same continent as India?
What characterizes the climate
of Arepally compared to your country? Are the problems faced in Arepally similar to the problems you encounter in your village/town?
What are the differences?
What are the similarities?


By role-playing, tell the story of
the Arepally women. How are the women, men and the environmental instructors organized? What is the role of the women in the project and how does this compare to the men?
How did they manage to achieve
the rehabilitation of the land
and combat desertification?


Draw Arepally village before and after the project to combat desertification. In the first picture, draw the degraded land around the village, the sparse vegetation, next to it, draw the village after the project: the nursery run by the women, the numerous trees on the hill,
the happy villagers. Glue your picture to the wall chart
(See Teacher’s Guide).

Home - < China - Uzbekistan >