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?"

Landmark Step

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.

Continued on Next Page >>




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