Giving wildlife a fighting chance: The new face of conservation in India

The Soliga people have lived with, shaped and used the forests of the Biligiriranga Hill, Karnataka for generations before it was locked down as a sanctuary
No outsider is allowed to visit the 30 families of Gombegallu hamlet in Kollegal tehsil of Chamarajnagar, Karnataka, without the written permission of the authorities. Their village is an enclosure — called the Biligiri Ranganathaswamy Temple (BRT) Tiger Reserve.

Consequently, they do not enjoy the rights that other citizens in the country take for granted. Basic services and facilities like water, electricity, healthcare, childcare, roads — all require special permissions and depend on the authorities’ discretion. Even in a medical emergency an ambulance cannot come close to the village without permission.

While they are free to leave their enclosure anytime they want, they have to use the kuccha road out for kilometres and one expected to return before 6 pm. In fact, the authorities keep pushing them to leave for good. They are offered Rs 10 lakh a family to do so.

Their ancestors once inhabited these lands more freely. They did a little shifting agriculture and “cultivated the forest” with their practices of controlled fires. (Yes, research shows forests that we imagine as pristine have often been cultivated over centuries by forest-dwellers to become what they are today.) They hunted small animals for protein, and collected and sold gooseberries, honey, lichen and other such forest produce. It cannot be said if they did well then, but life got much worse.

In 1974, the government identified their forests as rich with tigers, elephants and gaur (Indian bison), and declared the area a wildlife sanctuary. They were ordered to stop their small game hunting, shifting agriculture and using fire to cultivate the forests. Their access to forest produce was restricted. Their incomes crashed, their health collapsed and their homesteads became their enclosures. Several were removed to the periphery or the main roads. With their livelihood and freedom restricted, the nature of the forest too changed. The invasive weed, lantana, grew and the wild boar population increased. Tiger numbers remained just as healthy, or improved.

The irony was lost on everyone. The Soliga lifestyle had ensured a particular kind of forest. And now they had been turned into lesser citizens to protect their own forest from them. Ecologist Nitin Rai explains this clearly in his research paper, “Political Ecology of Tiger Conservation in India: Adverse Effects of Banning Customary Practices in a Protected Area,” published in the Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography. Others have recorded similar work. These are not ecologists and conservationists that one encounters often in the media.

The Soligas are not alone. Today, there are 655 such designated areas — sanctuaries and national parks covering 160,276 sq km. Almost all of these had people who originally lived in these forests or depended on them directly for their livelihood much before these “protected areas” were created. People were either evicted or declared “encroachers” on their own lands or their rights to draw resources from them were summarily declared illegal. A large majority of them were given no compensation, or very little. Rai puts it succinctly: these people were “let die” by the State. Then there were millions of families who lived in or off other non-protected forest lands, which had earlier been appropriated by the State in the colonial era — the British regime turned all forests into government-controlled lands through blanket orders, alienating all rights of people that existed at the time. This was the legacy independent India continued to live with till the Forest Rights Act (FRA) came about in 2006.

The rest of India was easily blinded to this reality. It did not help that a steady consumption of wildlife documentaries and films (mostly on large mammals such as tigers and elephants) celebrated these protected areas as “pristine forests” untouched by people, even as the naturalists advocated to get the people out. The myth solidified over decades.

The Soliga were luckier than many others. Aided by a civil organisation — the Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra at first and the Bengaluru-based conservation group Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE) later — and at times because of the generosity of benign officials, they gained some benefits.

When the FRA was legislated, the Soliga were well organised and supported by these two organisations to take advantage of it. The Act promised to partially restore their historical rights over their homelands. If they had been cultivating land of which records had been erased, these would be restored. If they were using the forests and those records had been obliterated, those too would be restored. The law did not provide for any new use or expansion, but merely correcting a historic mass obliteration of existing lives from government records. Of all the communities living inside tiger reserves, sanctuaries and national parks, the Soliga were one of the best placed to regain rights over their traditional lands under the law.

Thirteen years later, most of them have documents affirming that they have been cultivating 0.5-2 acres of land inside the tiger reserve for ages. They have a letter affirming that they have been collecting forest produce from the forests they inhabit. The extraction still continues under the careful watch of the forest department. Many continue to work in the coffee plantations as labour. Little else has changed. They still live as lesser citizens on their own homelands, in enclosures, under physical restrictions. The government and some wildlife groups still want them out.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently released the latest tiger population numbers. The report notes that tigers in the BRT Tiger Reserve were doing well. But this is how a status report, “Management Effectiveness Evaluation of Tiger Reserves in India”, released the same day by the Union government describes the Soligas’ demand to be treated as equal citizens: “The demand of the Sholigas (sic) for roads, electricity, a school and a hospital as well as community forest rights (which have not yet been granted) is a constant headache for the authorities of the reserve.” What the Soligas see as a hope of economic and physical freedom the report terms a “major and permanent threat”.

What difference has the FRA made, I ask half a dozen residents of Gombegellu gathered at one house to meet the rare outsider. I was expecting to hear their lives had begun to turn around. “Just that the daily harassment (by the forest department) has gone down,” says one. The others nod.

Then, without noticing the contradiction, another Soliga man says, “They (the forest department officials) did come the night before. Asked us to agree to leave. We said ‘no’. They keep coming. We keep saying ‘no’. They once came with guns when Veerappan (the notorious timber smuggler) was alive. They promised us a life outside. We said, ‘You can shoot us’. We said, ‘We would rather die here’.” There is no perceptible anger in his voice. The people cut and serve a jackfruit and oranges.

“We drew up an extensive management plan with the help of ecologists such as those from ATREE. But the forest department did not even bother to respond to it. Instead, we hear they are giving contracts to outsiders to come and eradicate lantana (the weed has taken over 60 per cent of the forest),” says C Mahedeo, one of the community leaders I am sitting in a huddle with. His daughter is studying to become a chartered accountant — the first from the community.

 “Those of us who want to go out to find other work opportunities do so. Nobody holds anyone back. But nobody should force us to do so,” says another of the community leaders. “We shall retain our lands. We know of the Jenu Kurubas in the nearby Bandipur Tiger Reserve. They were forced to relocate from their forests and given tin sheds on uncultivable lands. The reserve is full of lantana now and they have become labour and servants.”

I ask about C Madegowda, the first from the community to have completed a PhD. He continues to live in the village and is one of their key leaders. I am informed he is in Australia attending an ecology conference.

The conversation drifts to an imagined future for forest-dwellers where wildlife and forest laws do not deplete their lives so severely that working as displaced cheap labour in towns, wildlife resorts and farms seems better — where they at least have rights like other citizens. Where, if a section of society or the State finds something of value on their land — a tiger or an iron mine — and wants to appropriate their resources, the community’s consent is essential and secured on fair, non-coercive terms. Oddly, they are not talking of an imaginary world, I realise. The Forest Rights Act provides for this, at least on paper.

Around the time I am sitting with the Soliga leaders, in Delhi the Supreme Court is slated to again hear the case that some wildlife groups and retired forest officers had filed pleading that the FRA was unconstitutional and should be struck down. It would destroy wildlife and forests, they had argued, and was therefore against the fundamental right to life.

Hearing this case, on February 14, the Supreme Court ordered the forced eviction of 1.89 million tribals and forest-dwelling families. The petitioners argued that these people had laid claim to forestland under the FRA but their claims had been rejected. Thus, they should be evicted.

Even though the Central government’s internal records showed that many of these claims had been rejected illegally and often arbitrarily, government lawyers went missing during the court hearings. Once the order was out, tribal rights groups and opposition parties protested. The Centre asked for a temporary stay on the eviction order to allow states to present the real picture. The court agreed, stayed its order temporarily and slated the next hearing for July 24. The July hearing was delayed and the court is yet to hear the matter again.

This stay order on evictions resulted in anti-FRA conservationists writing in favour of the evictions and against the law. It would have been predictable had tribal groups taken umbrage at their arguments. But, surprisingly, it was a group of well-reputed ecologists and conservationists who came out furiously against the evictions.

So now, on one side you have K Ullas Karanth, tiger expert; Shekar Dattatri, filmmaker and former member of the National Board for Wildlife; Bittu Sahgal, editor of wildlife conservation magazine, Sanctuary Asia; and wildlife filmmaker Valmik Thapar weighing in against the FRA and for the evictions. Several of these count among those who have had a deep role in shaping both the public image of and policy on wildlife conservation between the 1980s and early 2000s.

The Soliga community wants the right to manage their forests, not just the right to till their small farms and gather forest produce. They worked out a plan along with ecologists. They have the right to do so under the Forest Rights Act. But the government wants them out of the critical tiger habitat
On the other side is another set of reputed ecologists: M D Madhusudan, co-founder and director of the Mysuru-based non-governmental wildlife conservation and research organisation Nature Conservation Foundation; Sharadchandra Lele, of ATREE; Ravi Chellam, wildlife biologist and conservation scientist; Kamaljit S Bawa, founder of ATREE; and Nitin Rai.

Neither side minced words. There was even a bit of name-calling. Later, Lele and Madhusudan, along with eminent academics such as Nandini Sundar, Ramachandra Guha, Geetanjoy Sahu and Amita Baviskar, pleaded to join the Supreme Court case against the anti-FRA wildlife groups. “Working with experts from other fields we learnt further of how, historically, the tribal and forest-dwelling communities have been wronged,” Lele told Business Standard.

The crux of the pro-FRA ecologists’ argument: India’s forests have been customarily managed and shaped over centuries by the ecological practices of forest-dwellers such as the Soligas. These forest-dwelling people have been wronged historically. There is little evidence to show that recognition of rights has led to large-scale deforestation or that conservation gains uniformly from evicting people. The FRA provides the opportunity to strengthen forest conservation in India. 

In other words, they contend: it is scientifically not essential, morally unacceptable and simply not pragmatic — even if one were to forego questions of justice and morality — to evict millions of India’s poorest to conserve India’s remaining biodiversity. Their arguments hinge on research such as that done on the Soligas’ forests, like that by Rai, as also on the Amazon.

Contrary to the simplistic “Man versus Wild” trope, a review of the research being conducted by a new breed of ecologists in India shows the relationship between human societies and nature as being more complex and dynamic. Instead of oversimplified solutions that can be forced upon a population, several of these researchers try to inform and incentivise people who directly impact bio resources — farmers, fishermen, pastoralists.

Even if forcibly creating “pristine forests” is one way to save the tiger at a lower cost to the economy, can it work to save the floral and faunal diversity? Say, the Sarus crane or the endangered great Indian bustard that lives on farms or grasslands? How do you save the vast marine biodiversity? These questions abound in the small, largely elite, but passionately committed community of ecologists.

But the argument over what it costs to artificially create these pristine forests and who pays for it has been long settled. India is not an exception. The creation of these parks and sanctuaries has led to the displacement and alienation of 20-50 million people across the world, research shows. Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher, two sociologists who have tracked this for long, call the idea of creating large people-free wildlife zones across the world “a global programme of conservation Lebensraum”.

Many globally renowned conservationists continue to stick to this formula. In fact, writing recently against the FRA, Karanth demands that the area under these “people-free” sanctuaries and national parks be doubled — from the existing 5 per cent of the country’s geographical area to 10. That’s a whopping 328,726 sq km of forested lands. His contention: these are the last remaining patches of biodiversity and have to be preserved at all costs. He leaves one point unsaid in his article published in the Hindustan Times: sequestering all this area for tigers and other animals will require the alienation and eviction of many more people.

Reading these differing views from ecologists who end up addressing only the immediate physical interaction of the poor with nature, I imagine a law that puts all high natural resource- and energy-consuming citizens — the ones with large ecological footprints (always the rich amongst us, which will include all the famous names in conservation) — into restricted urban enclosures with minimal economic services and restrained physical freedom. Maybe just for a few years. To protect the environment. It’s an amusing thought.

To be fair, the conservationists who lobbied with governments for these wildlife enclaves (and often sat on committees to advise governments on running them) never actively wished the tribals ill. They even professed to want that tribals be treated better. They also wished to protect wildlife zones from mining and other infrastructure projects. But their influence with the political executive and forest bureaucracy made little difference on this count. The government, with almost complete discretion, could permit the chopping down of forests inside any wildlife zone and in all other forests. Data for the last two decades shows more than 90 per cent of proposals to cut down forests received government clearance. A catena of judicial pronouncements over this period shows how this discretionary power was misused.

For tribals it was a double whammy. The conservationists wanted them out to save wildlife and the government wanted to clear forests (including wildlife parks) for other economic activity. The system made everyone agnostic to the unfolding fate of the tribals and the forest-dwellers. Till the Forest Rights Act came about. It gave the tribal communities veto powers over the bureaucracy to stop forests from being chopped down and also a management role in protecting biodiversity — on a better footing than the influential conservationists.

Now, wildlife conservation in India has to contend with notions of justice, democratic rights and morality anew. Some within the fraternity have begun to do so with vigour, some are waking up to it and others are being forced into doing so.

“As conservationists and ecologists, we have to do better. The science tells us to. A democratic society requires us to do so,” Madhusudan tells me in the middle of a conversation we have in Mysuru that lasts hours. Back at the BRT Tiger Reserve, the Soligas are not waiting for this debate among the wildlife conservationists to settle. They cannot afford to.

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