In their mission to save forests, conservationists overlook forest dwellers
In a cruel environmental paradox, there is provision in Indian forest laws for conserving tigers and trees, but little thought for the tribal people who have lived in the jungles for centuries. Successive laws passed since the late 19th century, ostensibly to protect forests, have stripped away tribal rights over forest resources, impoverishing more than 50 million tribals.
Tribal leaders have protested against provisions in the Forest Conservation Act of 1984 – amended in 1988 – which threaten the already precarious livelihood of the country’s poorest and most exploited group.
At a recent workshop on the rights of tribals and forest policies, many experts voiced the opinion that forest conservation and tribal welfare were synonymous. A government agency was to have handed in a report in October on a forest conservation strategy that is charged with insufficiently considering tribals’ views.
The proposals precede a massive show of force organised recently in central India by environmental action groups which protested against policies that promote “destructive development.” The protests centred on the huge Narvada Valley dam project, which is expected to displace up to one million people.
An official in the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes said that although there were an estimated 5,000 forest villages in India, the tribals living in them have no land rights. Because these villages have not been designated as “revenue villages,” they are not eligible for government development funding. Basic social services such as schools and water have to be provided by the forest department, which views tribals as the chief source of environmental degradation and as a budgetary burden. And the department refuses to sanction any change in the tribals’ status because, legally, forest land cannot be allotted for “non-forest” activities.
Ironically, as Indian “greens” demand better conservation measures, forest authorities appear to be placing greater restrictions on tribals. Consequently, tribals find it difficult to graze their cattle or pick fodder and fuelwood around their settlements. Also, forests continue to be turned over to industrialists who extract raw materials such as pulp and timber, helped by authorities and their promotion of fast-growing exotic commercial species.
According to Walter Fernandes of the New Delhi-based Indian Social Institute, “Everything that the tribal needs – such as fruit and fodder – has been declared as a non-forest priority. The forest department sees forests as plantations and not as a life-support system for the people living in them.”
Fernandes has studied the way the tribals traditionally use their community resources in the dense jungle tracts of central India and believes that, left to themselves, they maintain a sound environmental balance.
However, with more than 15 million tribals displaced in the name of development, and the steady ingress of commerce into their native lands, the tribals have tragically become wage-earning partners in the destruction of their own habitat. Thus many activists in India are beginning to question the usefulness of western prescriptions for ecological regeneration. They say that most industrialised countries have no experience in tackling the human dimension of the problem, since their forests are not inhabited by aboriginal settlers.
Fernandes, among others, holds that India’s forests are community resources that cannot be handed over to corporations nor turned into sources of profits for individuals who have been awarded rights. Many well known Indian conservationists say that humans must be completely kept out of biosphere reserves crucial for maintaining an ecological balance. Experts are said to agree that no more than six percent of Indian forests need to be left untouched. With an estimated 23 percent of India’s land area under forest cover, there is more than enough to apportion to the tribals, who are likely to take better care of them than do forest officials, according to Fernandes.
At present, the same tribal who fells trees for a timber contractor could be employed by the government to plant them. Critics argue that this is not sustainable and say that the forest department should not be allowed to monopolise the forests and to sublease them to industry. And no one contests the fact that there is an area of partnership between the forests and forest people.
If the government restores to tribals the right to collect minor forest produce, fuelwood, fodder and fruits, it may not need to allocate vast sums for “poverty alleviation programmes” that, in any case, seldom reach the beneficiaries, say experts. It remains to be seen if these concerns and suggestions find their way into the strategy being drawn up by the government committee headed by Duleep Mathai, vice-chairman of the National Wasteland Development Board. Officials say former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi intervened on behalf of the rights of tribals and asked the committee to include them in its plans.
But, as one official put it “There is still a danger that the strategy might be hijacked by conservationists who can’t see tribals for the trees.”
Rajiiv Tiwari is a New Delhi-based journalist, and a regular contributor to Himal.