Tigers Pitted Against Tribes by Indian Forest Law
Paroma Basu in New Delhi, West Bengal, and Orissa, India
for National Geographic News
|December 5, 2007|
Konka Murmu, an unemployed member of the Santal tribe, strode barefoot through the jungles of Buxa Tiger Reserve, casually sidestepping thorny brambles and razor-edged stones.
As he approached his home in Panbari—an impoverished forest hamlet in the heart of India's eastern state of West Bengal—Murmu surveyed the rickety straw shacks of the only home he and his family have ever known.
For reasons Murmu is only partly aware of, a political storm brewing hundreds of miles away in India's capital city of New Delhi is about to determine his future.
In 2006 India passed a new law that recognizes for the first time the rights of forest-dwelling tribes and other traditional residents to occupy and cultivate land that they and their ancestors have lived on for generations.
The law came as a welcome relief to hundreds of forest communities nationwide (see photos of Indian forest communities affected by the law).
But since then it has pitted tribal rights groups in a bitter standoff with conservationists, who believe that the move could devastate India's wildlife—including the iconic and endangered Bengal tiger.
The issue is so polarized that the act has yet to be enforced. Deciding how to implement it has become a sticking point at the highest levels of government.
Activists around the country have held heated demonstrations, and the national press has been rife with scornful editorials on both sides of the debate.
All the while, millions of forest residents are hanging in limbo. It's a familiar feeling for Murmu.
"Nobody comes to see us or hear what we have to say about our own future," he said. "Politicians come to get votes and then never come again. This law might sound good, but who knows whether it will actually happen?"
Known as the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, the law applies to families that have lived in the forest for at least three generations.
These families may occupy up to 9.8 acres (4 hectares) of land—including regions within protected areas set aside for wildlife.
Under the law, the responsibility of deciding a family's rightful territory falls to each village's gram sabha, or democratic village assembly.
The law outlines 13 rights, including the right to farm and to collect and use traditional forest products such as seeds, sticks, wax, and leaves.
Shankar Gopalakrishnan works for the Delhi-based Campaign for Survival and Dignity, which represents dozens of grassroots groups nationwide that advocate for forest rights.
If enforced, the new law would represent a landmark step forward for Indian forest communities, Gopalakrishnan said.
"These people have been systematically deprived of every livelihood resource," he said.
During India's colonial period in the 19th and 20th centuries, the British had declared thousands of acres as reserved forest for timber without determining the rights of communities already living there.
In the 1980s and '90s the independent Indian government set aside many forests as wildlife sanctuaries and national parks with the particular aim of protecting tigers.
The big cats have been in decline over the past few decades, with recent estimates of between 1,300 and 1,500 individuals left in the wild.
In accordance with India's Wildlife Protection Act (WPA) of 1972, certain forest areas in these reserves—such as core tiger-breeding grounds—must remain human-free.
The WPA includes a section on how to assess the holdings of people living inside such habitats and provide them with viable resettlement options. But observers on either side of the debate say the process has largely been ignored.
"It's been almost as if the local people don't really matter when setting up a protected area," said Ashish Kothari, co-founder of Kalpavriksh, an environmental research and advocacy group in Pune in Western India.
Kothari estimates that three million to four million people currently live within India's 602 protected areas, including 28 tiger reserves.
Although data are scarce, observers estimate that in the last few decades the Indian Forest Department has forcefully evicted up to 200,000 forest residents in the name of conservation.
Dushman Padhan is a Kisan tribal and activist who lives inside the Badrama Wildlife Sanctuary in the coastal eastern state of Orissa.
Nobody consulted with him or any of his people, he said, when the sanctuary was created in the late 1980s.
More than local 1,500 families once derived primary income from saal seeds and leaves collected in the forest and sold in the nearby town of Sambalpur.
Oil from the seeds is used for cooking—although most if it these days goes to chocolate-making companies—while the broad leaves are stitched into plates that are used throughout Orissa in weddings, funerals, and sacred ceremonies.
But these forest families faced a devastating cut in earnings as sanctuary guards began to bar their access to the jungle.
Many tribals have resorted to illegal activities, Padhan said. They sneak into the forest preserve to collect saal and other leaves, assist the local timber mafia in felling trees, and even help animal poachers.
Most wildlife scientists and forestry officials concede that India's forest peoples have had a raw deal. But they bristle at the fact that the Recognition of Forest Rights Act also applies to pristine wildlife habitat.
Sensitive species such as the tiger, they say, need access to untouched spaces to breed and grow.
"In my opinion this law is eco-suicide," said Ashok Kumar, a senior advisor and trustee to Delhi's Wildlife Trust of India. "It would pockmark the heart of tiger country and there simply won't be any forest anymore."
Sejal Worah is program director of conservation for the India branch of the conservation nonprofit WWF.
"Critical areas of high biodiversity value constitute only 4 percent of India's land, so this law should really have another mechanism for the people within these areas," Worah said.
The new act does allow for scientific assessment and identification of "critical wildlife habitats." Forest dwellers can be relocated from such regions on the condition that they are involved in every stage of the process and are offered viable livelihood options.
But critics say that the rules are ambiguous and that in reality the process is likely to be a big mess.
Prashanta Kumar Sen is former director of the government-run Wildlife Institute of India and an outspoken critic of the new law.
"There is no guarantee that gram sabhas will do things in a proper way, and by the time critical wildlife habitats are actually identified—which could take one year or ten years—forests will have already gone down the drain," Kumar Sen said.
The other big obstacle may come from forest dwellers themselves, many of whom cannot conceive of a life outside the trees.
Regina Drukpa, a mother of four, lives in the remote mountain village of Lalbangla, which sits inside core habitat in the Buxa Tiger Reserve.
There is no road to Lalbangla, and Drukpa and her family have to walk for three hours just to get to the nearest weekly bazaar. But even if the government offers all the incentives in the world, Drukpa says she can't imagine being anywhere else.
"There is a smell in this earth; we are in peace here," she said. "There is just no way we can leave."
Political pressure from both sides of the debate has leaders in the Indian National Congress, the country's dominant political party, frantically trying to break the impasse.
Hectic meetings between government ministries are ongoing, and several conservation and development groups have now joined forces to propose a middle path.
Still, many believe that when implementation finally happens, the rules will represent a huge departure from the way the law was originally envisioned.
"People who drafted this law with the best of intentions have not been in the center of the debate, because it got taken over by different political lobbies," said Sanjay Upadhyay, an environmental lawyer who helped draft the original act.
"Unfortunately no one is seeing reason."
Rajesh Gopal, inspector general of forests and member secretary of the National Tiger Conservation Authority, believes there is a way to find balance.
With regard to tiger reserves, Gopal has proposed the creation of 386-square-mile (1,000-square-kilometer) core areas that are to remain human-free.
These would be surrounded by a 386-square-mile (1,000-square-kilometer) buffer zone, where animals and humans would co-exist and commercial activities such as mining and plantation work could continue.
Gopal added that the government will earmark a significant sum—a little more than a billion U.S. dollars—to properly relocate the estimated 273 villages within India's tiger reserves.
It remains to be seen what courses of action the Indian government will actually adopt.
"We will have to give a fair deal to people as well as tigers," Gopal said, "and strive for a complete harmony between the two."
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