A remote village in western India has become the first in the country to trade in forest produce. This is seen as a significant step in transforming the economy of rural and tribal communities in the country.
At a simple ceremony this week, the chief of the Mendha-Lekha village in Maharashtra state was given documents establishing the right of villagers to sell bamboo that grows in the lush forests in the area.
India Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh and Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan presided over by the ceremony.
The presence of the two high profile leaders in the remote village underscored the importance of the right granted to the local community to trade in forest produce for the first time. Bamboo is widely used by the paper industry.
For decades, the government controlled the harvesting and selling of bamboo. Although a law was passed five years ago to give village and tribal communities control over some of the forest resources in their area, it was not actually implemented.
Calling upon officials in charge of forest areas to facilitate the change, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh says bamboo has now been "liberated from government control."
"There is a need for a mindset change in the entire forest bureaucracy," said Ramesh.
Maharashtra Chief Minister Chavan expressed hope the step will empower the village, which lies in a lush, forested, but backward area.
Activists who have waged a long battle to give tribal communities a stake in the forests, expressed hope that Mendha-Lekha's example will soon be replicated in other areas of the country.
Forest rights activist, Madhu Sarin says such a step could transform the economy of tribal, underdeveloped communities, which use bamboo for such purposes as making homes and handicrafts. More importantly, she says, they will be able to earn an income by selling bamboo.
"Certainly for artisans who use bamboo as a raw material, it will be a huge benefit," said Sarin. "Secondly, if they have a lot of bamboo in their local forest, and it is more than their local needs, on a sustainable harvesting basis, then they have many options. They can cut the bamboo and sell it to surrounding villages which need it, to other artisans from surrounding areas or even to commercial users."
India's Planning Commission estimates that bamboo trade is worth approximately $1 billion.
There are hopes that giving villagers a stake in forest produce such as bamboo will help lift them from poverty and make them less vulnerable to the influence of Maoist rebels, who have established bases in many impoverished areas of the country.