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Conservation hypocrisy: Again, they come for the forest dwellers

Centuries ago, humans and beasts lived in harmony. People harvested the fruits of the forest for their basic needs and were satisfied. They did not aspire to trade with other communities nor did they reap more than they needed. Other races invaded India, cleared the forest, established settlements, and agriculture. Then came European colonization and the amicable connection with nature was forcibly snapped. Large cats were hunted to extinction, and forests were cut down for timber. This is the widely held belief of our environmental history but it is no more than a romantic myth.

Today, there are two issues cleaving the conservation community into polarized camps: the rights of human residents within forested areas and the role of the state in managing natural resources. Both came to a head when the Forest Rights Act was ratified by Parliament in 2006, granting residents in forests the right to reside and cultivate. Conservationists, who would like to build a fortress around our forests, see this as a squandering of our natural wealth, while the Forest Department took it as a challenge to its overlordship. P.J. Dilip Kumar, the senior-most forest official in the Ministry of Environment and Forests circulated a defiant note warning that implementing this Act would unleash “a land scam of gargantuan proportions.”

Forest dwellers row a boat in Sunderbans in India. Reuters

The recently published India’s Environmental History: From Ancient Times to the Colonial Period provides a historical backdrop to these debates. This anthology is edited by two eminent environmental historians, Mahesh Rangarajan, currently the Director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library and K. Sivaramakrishnan, Professor of Anthropology at Yale University. The volume encompasses a range of time periods and landscapes. This first volume in a two-part series highlights the fact that debates such as development versus conservation, and state versus forest people, are not new and peculiar to an economically emergent India.

Ever since humans evolved, they have interacted with forests and wildlife. Our forefathers didn’t view forests as benignly as we would like to believe. They were destructive long before European powers took control of the country. For instance, elephants were wiped out of much of central India long before the Colonial Era.

Throughout history, forests were seen as safe havens for bandits and unruly tribes, and one of the ways of subjugating them was to destroy the wilderness. For centuries, whether in the fourth century BCE or the sixteenth century, clearing forests was a state enterprise. Special tax incentives were given to citizens who aided the endeavour. For instance, the Khandava forests were set ablaze and the slaughter of wild animals was so great that it seemed like the end of the universe had arrived. That was how Indraprastha, the celebrated capital of the epic heroes, the Pandavas, was established, writes Romila Thapar. We know the city today as Delhi.

Which forests to set aside and protect, and which to clear for human use, was a preoccupation of successive rulers of yore. More and more forest land was needed to grow food to support the growing population of the cities, and increase the state’s revenues from taxes levied on food surplus. But equally, these areas were also valued for elephants (an essential military asset) and other vital resources. Designated warehouses were established to store forest produce. Then, as now, elephants, fish, game and plant products belonged to the state and local people’s interests were completely over-ruled.

Rulers went hunting as if to war, accompanied by large retinues of heavily armed soldiers and hundreds of horses and elephants. Large numbers of wild animals were killed indiscriminately. The more the kings killed, the more they were admired. However, forest tribes who hunted for subsistence were viewed with contempt and relegated to low-caste status. Although it could be said that they were so treated because they were “less civilized,” Thapar argues that they were more likely oppressed to establish the royal prerogative to hunt.

Even sages who renounced society and lived in the forest did not live in peace with the native residents. It’s probable that the rakshasas, yaksas and nagas, the sometimes-negative characters in epics, were forest tribes who were annoyed by the hermitages usurping their shrinking territory. In this conflict, the sages were protected by the rulers.

According to Aloka Parasher-Sen, the prevailing attitude of the time was to destroy pastoral and hunter-gatherer tribes, and every dirty trick was used to destroy tribal societies. Not only were their forests cleared, they were made more dependent on agrarian society while some tribes were pushed into forest interiors and mountains. Even Asoka, the great emperor of the third century BCE, treated forest dwellers sternly. In his newfound compassion for all living things, after the Kalinga War, he decreed that no animals should be killed. Hunters and fishermen were left without a livelihood and any who dared to disobey were expelled.

This is not unlike the modern day implementation of the Wildlife Protection Act which forbade the extraction of forest produce by communities living within. The law insisted that the state provide alternatives, but it was ignored, leaving these communities without a legal means of making a living for nearly four decades. They were further viewed with suspicion by conservationists who suspected them of colluding with poaching gangs and the timber mafia.

Across the centuries, the attitude of the elite to forest dwellers has been the same, only differing in action. While the ancients sought to destroy the forests to evict troublemakers, modern-day conservationists try to remove the people from the forests.

Who were these forest communities and where did they come from? Have they lived in forests since the original migration out of Africa? Although it is possible that some have lived in forests longer than others, people tend to migrate in response to opportunities and away from marginalization. While examining the usage of forest resources in the Western Ghats, Kathleen Morrison suggests that trade in spices, aromatics, dyes, ivory and sandalwood could have opened up livelihood opportunities for marginalized people from the plains. It’s likely that hunter-gatherer tribes lived in these forested hills prior to the first century BCE and there was conflict with latter day immigrants. By this time, these forests were cleared for agriculture.

By the sixteenth century, Europe was consuming greater quantities of Oriental spices than ever before. Pepper, collected from the wild since the first century, began to be cultivated to feed the hungry market. Tribes who gathered forest produce for this global trade were exploited by brokers who kept them perpetually in debt.

“Fortress” conservationists appear to think forests can be kept unchanged from any external influences. Much as the idea is appealing, these areas have been changed and affected by the hand of human through the centuries. Additionally, not only are the people living in it influenced by market forces but so are the “protectors,” the Forest Department, and champions, the conservationists themselves.

The recently released report by the Centre for Science and Environment shows that in the last four years alone, the government has diverted more than 2000 sq km of forest land, handing the bulk to mining companies. Besides, three non-government members of the Forest Advisory Committee have written to Jayanthi Natarajan, Minister of Environment and Forests, alleging that the forest officials are withholding and even fudging information during project appraisal meetings.

Our attitude to conservation has not changed since the days of Ashoka. Forests continue to be cleared with state sanction, and the situation is only likely to worsen as officials become even more susceptible to pressure from corporate houses. Yet, conservationists and the Forest Department lobby for more and more power to be vested in the state while denying basic rights to forest dwellers.

True, studies have shown that local communities do have an impact on forest ecosystems, but what options have we provided them? According to a 1989 report, there were an estimated three to four million people living inside National Parks and Sanctuaries then. In 1995, another reported an estimated 100 million people lived not only in Parks and Sanctuaries but other public forest lands (there are no new updated figures). For close to forty years after the Wildife Act came into effect, these millions have lived under the threat of eviction, harassed and marginalized at every turn. The longer they live in this state of limbo, their antagonism towards wildlife and forests is likely to become more entrenched. Where relocation and rehabilitation of forest people occurred, it was woefully pathetic, leaving them even more impoverished. Is this the way to create a constituency for the protection of our wild places?

The bigger threat to our forests comes from corporate houses who want natural resources at dirt-cheap prices. While there is a tremendous amount of opposition to recognizing the rights of forest people, far fewer forces coalesce against the threat posed by extractive industries. We could lose this war if we did not have local forest communities, empowered by the Forest Rights Act, fighting to save their homes, our forests. The battle for Nyamgiri in Orissa is a case in point.

“Fortress” conservationists fail to realize that the strongest instrument for conservation is the Critical Wildlife Habitat as mandated by the Forest Rights Act. Once declared, the area cannot be denotified or diverted for any other purpose. Tactically, it is in the interests of conservation to use the best of the Wildlife Protection Act and the Forest Rights Act to keep industries and an acquiescent Forest Department at bay.

India’s Environmental History puts our current approach to conservation and forest dwellers in perspective: it is an outmoded, unjust and futile strategy in a society aspiring for egalitarianism. We cannot in good conscience do good for animals and forests while tyrannizing the people who live alongside them.