"Bel pakyo kaglai harsha na bishmat (Let the wood apple ripe, there’s nothing in it for a crow to be happy or sad)" – the Nepali adage was spelled out by the people residing in Khata of Bardia district in western Nepal whenever they were asked to preserve bel (Aegle marmelos) trees. It's quite difficult to crack the fruit open – let it alone be the case of a crow – it's simply impossible for the poor bird to peck at the ripe yellow round fruit hanging in abundance in the Terai forests. In case of humans too it isn't so popular – the reasons being a wild fruit and possessing a peculiar pungent smell apart from its hard wood shell.
As the wood apple timber is very hard and burns for a very long time, the demand of bel wood was high in the local brick kilns. The kiln owners encouraged the woodcutters to bring in more fuelwood in form of bel wood from the nearby forests. Due to this the bel trees were near to disappearing from the forests in Khata.
From waste to cash chest
The villagers of Khata were unaware about the importance of these fruits and how it could be utilised to improve their livelihoods. Tons of hard wood bel fruits with sweet pulp inside used to go waste every year in Khata.
With the establishment of the Nawa Durga Community Bel Juice Industry in 2006 with the help of Terai Arc Landscape Program (TAL), the locals have not only got employment but they are motivated to conserve the bel trees in their forests.
A highly regarded fruit in Hindu mythology
The local people believe that spirits dwell in bel trees. However, bel leaves is a must offering to Lord Shiva, supreme Hindu deity of destruction. Newars, the ethnic people of Kathmandu marry their daughters to bel fruits when they reach puberty assuming that they will never get widowed as bel is the incarnation of Lord Vishnu, the Hindu caretaker God in the Hindu mythology. Besides the mythological values, bel is an ayurvedic remedy for ailments like diarrhoea, dysentery and constipation.
Small investment reaps big returns
The TAL invested NRs. 3,60,000 (1USD = NRs. 70)in the initial phase to install the juice processing equipment. Rest NRs.6,22,000 was contributed by 24 community forest user groups and a community forest coordination committee making them shareholders of the bel juice industry.
Within the four years the juice industry has become one of the best examples of community-based enterprises for sustainable forest management. It produces two brands of bel juice – Marmelous, for countrywide distribution and Saugat, for distribution in local markets of Bardia district. They are considering exporting Marmelous to the neighbouring India and other countries as well.
The Nawa Durga Community Bel Juice Industry pays NRs. 4 per kilo for the fruit from local villagers who bring it from the forest and locals earn thousands of rupees by collecting bel from nearby forests. Besides, the factory has been providing seasonal employment to 16-17 villagers.
Now the local people have realized the importance of bel trees. "Nobody cared about bel trees and fruits before the juice plant was established," said Maya Yogi, a mobilizer with TAL. "These days people have realized bel tress are a source of income and have started conserving it," she said.