The South Indian
By CK Janu
06 October, 2003
The theme of the Vth World Parks Congress
- "Benefits Beyond Boundaries" - suggests that the Congress
will focus on addressing people's needs and providing a stream of economic,
political and environmental benefits to societies worldwide.
We, the adivasis
(indigenous people) , the original inhabitants of most of the areas
that now come under the Parks and the Protected Areas, appreciate the
concern shown by the Congress towards the 'needs of the people'. At
the same time, however, we have our doubts and apprehensions.
First of all, who
are the people whose needs are to be addressed? Does it include us,
the adivasis, the indigenous people? Or, in the name of extending benefits
to the 'people', will the big multinational or national corporates and
donor agencies such as the World Bank be allowed more footholds in the
forests? The doubt is valid because hitherto in the management of Protected
Areas and Parks and for that matter any forest in my country, Governments
had only sought to wipe us out completely or push us out of our habitats.
international conventions and even the Indian Forest Policy of 1988
recognizing the role of the indigenous people in conservation and sustenance
of forests, the governments have been practising a policy of "Nature
without People." Eviction and displacement had been the reality
faced by the forest people of India all through the colonial history.
Even after the country gaining Independence, the threat of eviction
loomed large following the promulgation of the Wild Life Protection
Act, 1972 and Forest Conservation Act, 1980. It has become all-pervasive
and palpable now following an order of the Ministry of Environment and
Forests in May 2002. As many as 10 million indigenous people in India
now face the threat of eviction. In the state of Assam, more than 100,000
people have already been evicted in just three months between April
2002 and July 2002. This has been the case in the Nagarhole National
Park in the State of Karnataka and again, more recently, in the Muthanga
Wild Life Sanctuary in my own state of Kerala. My presentation here
will dwell mostly on my experience of the indigenous peoples' struggles
in the Protected Areas of Nagarhole and Muthanga in South India.
the indigenous people had fought for their rights. This is to say that
we are demanding much more than 'benefits.' We are demanding RIGHTS
And we are also
demanding that there is an urgent need to redraw the 'boundaries', if
at all drawing boundaries protect nature.
The talk about extending
'benefits' is in fact a cover-up for several DENIALS, several costs
borne by the people. Firstly the indigenous people have been robbed
of their traditional/customary rights to land and territories. Secondly,
they have been robbed of their historical role in conservation of nature.
These two fundamental denials have by now turned the indigenous peoples
in most part of India into victims rather than beneficiaries of the
Protected Area management system and, the forest management system,
in the Nagar Hole (Rajiv Gandhi) National Park
In the case of the
Nagarhole National Park in the State of Karnataka, there was indeed
much talk about the 'benefits'. And the promises were made out by none
other than the World Bank.
The Nagar Hole national
park is now a part of the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve -- one of the 440
biosphere reserves in 97 countries where the UNESCO is implementing
the Man and Biosphere program. Nilgiris was the first internationally
designated biosphere reserve in India. Several ethnic groups had inhabited
the area from time immemorial. They included the Cholanaikans, the only
surviving hunter-gatherers of the Indian subcontinent, concentrated
in the Nilambur area. In 2000 there were 11,60,200 permanent inhabitants
within the biosphere reserve subsisting on the use of natural resources
such as medicinal plants, agriculture and agri-horticulture.
An area of 57,155
ha in Nagar Hole had been constituted as a sanctuary in 1955. The Government
of Karnataka declared Nagar Hole (which meant, Snake River, in the local
language) as a game sanctuary in 1972. Subsequently the area under the
sanctuary was further increased to 64,339 ha. The Nagar Hole National
Park was constituted in 1983.
Over 9,000 indigenous
people were residing in 58 hamlets inside what the government called
the National Park. There were Jenu Kurubas, the honey-gatherers; the
Hakki Pikki (bird-trappers), the Betta Kurubas who specialised in making
bamboo baskets and utensils; the Yeravas who survived on fishing and
the Soligas who had diversified into agriculture and herding goats.
Apart from those who lived within the forests, there were more than
23,000 adivasis residing within 5 km distance, all depending on the
Nagar Hole forests for their survival.
Under the UN scheme
for the Biosphere Reserve, the forests, the animals, the birds, the
agriculture and the human being ought to have been protected for their
uniqueness. But the government agencies continued to violate this norm
for lucrative business interests. The natural forests were extensively
logged and substituted with plantations of teak, eucalyptus and rosewood.
Nearly 15 per cent of the area within the National Park is now under
been systematically pushing out the adivasis to the forest fringes.
In 1970s, a total of 1220 families consisting of more than 6000 people
were pushed out to locations 1-12 km from their original habitats. In
more than 40 hamlets within the Park, adivasi lands were taken over
for teak and eucalyptus plantations. People in 20 hamlets were ousted
to make way for the Kabini River valley project and the Taraka dam.
Those who were evicted and 'rehabilitated' did not get anything other
than makeshift tents or huts to live in. They became 'coolies', menial
servants, or virtual bonded labourers in estates.
were placed on indigenous people who continued to live within the forests.
They were seen and labelled as encroachers. Trenches were dug in their
fields and paths. No cultivation of any kind was allowed. This was so,
despite the fact that the adivasi method of cultivation did not clear
any trees, now ploughing or sowing was done, no chemical fertilisers
or pesticides used. Hunting, even ritual hunting, was banned No livestock
or dogs were allowed. No wells could be dug. The houses could not be
renovated. A total ban on collection of minor forest produce such as
tubers, mushrooms and wild vegetables was imposed. Adivasis were not
allowed entry to the sacred sites and burial grounds within the forests.
The government even sought to put a ban on traditional music and dance
forms. The adivasis were constantly harassed. Several adivasi women
were molested. Many were put behind bars on fake charges of forest offences.
The indigenous people
had to suffer all this while several non-adivasi encroachers were allowed
to remain within the forests and cultivate nearly 660 ha of forestlands
on payment of yearly taxes. Many among them managed to get title deeds
for nearly 100 ha of forestland.
the World Bank's Eco-development project
The worst of such
preference shown to the non-adivasis and the rich pleasure-seeking people
at the cost of the indigenous people came about when the Government
in 1994 entered into a lease agreement with Taj Group of hotels and
a little later when the World Bank supported eco-development project
was proposed to be started in Nagarhole. The lease agreement with the
Taj group, one of the riches business groups in India, was to lease
10 ha of forestland at Murkal in Nagarhole to build and operate a three-star
tourist resort. The agreement was in total violation of the Forest Conservation
Act and the Wild Life Protection Act. The agreement was also a contradiction
of all tall claims of protecting the ecological balance and the biodiversity
in the National Park.
Similarly, the eco-development
project negated the World Bank's own norms of "not carrying out
any involuntary resettlement of people," not eroding the "customary
tenure rights over land and other assets of tribals living in the Protected
Areas" ensuring "prior informed consent and participation"
and "compensating the people relocated". Nevertheless, with
the Rs. 295-crore (1 crore is 10 million) eco-development project promising
a huge bounty, the Government intensified the pressure to evict the
remaining Indigenous People from the Nagarhole forests. The project
intended to wean away the adivasis from the forests by nominally "training"
them in subsistence occupations such as pig rearing. This enterprise
will be shown to be viable by pumping in massive subsidies. With this
the indigenous people could be resettled outside the forests. The World
Bank would have its hands clean. The plan of the Taj group was also
interesting. Once the IPs are thrown out, the forests would be opened
up to visitors interested in biodiversity research - a euphemism for
But organised resistance
from the adivasis with the support gained from various quarters made
these plans difficult. When the adivasis blocked the construction of
the "jungle Lodge", the authorities arrested them, men women
and children. The adivasis launched an "enter the forest campaign"
on the Independence Day of 1995 and declared Self-Rule as their goal.
After several waves of protests, the number of arrested people rose
to 200.The campaign continued through the years. The adivasis called
for a general strike in Nagarhole on December 29, 1996 and it turned
out to be a total success. All the six roads leading to the Park was
blocked. Subsequently, a writ petition was moved in the High Court of
Karnataka by Nagarhole Budhakkattu Hakku Sthapana Samithi (Nagarhole
Adivasi Rights Restoration Forum) and others. On 20 January 1997, the
High Court ruled that the assignment of forestland to the Taj Group
was in gross violation of several national laws for conservation of
nature and wild life.
World Bank officials were stopped during their visit to Nagarhole and
told in no uncertain terms that with the indigenous people declaring
Self-Rule in the area, the imposed eco-development project would be
doomed. Soon the World Bank withdrew from implementing the Eco-development
Project in Nagarhole.
An important fall-out
of the Nagarhole struggle was that the indigenous people took over the
leadership. The adivasis donned the mantle with confidence and élan.
And more importantly, they evolved their own plan for the regeneration
of the forests, based on the deep wealth of indigenous knowledge of
for Self-Rule in Muthanga Wild Life Sanctuary, Kerala
The indigenous communities
pre-existed the State. The rights to manage their own affairs, to appropriate
forest resources and to redress disputes had all along been the customary
rights of the indigenous people in India. In the past, kings did not
dare to interfere with the adivasi communities, nor could the British
colonialists conquer them fully. However, these rights suffered severe
erosion when the colonial rulers went on turning the natural forests
into "reserved forests". Post-Independence Governments in
several States including Karnataka and Kerala have only aped this practice,
despite the Indian Constitution under Article 244 providing for bringing
indigenous peoples' villages under Schedule V areas ruled by Self-Governing
institutions. Hence, to this day, Self-Rule has remained the abiding
goal and demand of indigenous people all over the country. As in Nagarhole
in the 90s, the struggle in the Muthanga Wild Life Sanctuary in Wayanad
last year was motivated by the goal of Self-Rule.
Muthanga forest forms a part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve and is
a designated Elephant Reserve. Until two decades ago, Muthanga was a
forestland with rich biodiversity. More than 3,000 diverse species had
made this area qualify for protection. However, disregarding the importance
of the biosphere, 77 sq. km of the Muthanga Range was opened up for
commercial plantations for feeding a single pulp factory of the Birlas,
an Indian multinational business group. Soon there would be no natural
forests left in nearly 40 per cent of the forest range. More than 3,500
ha of forestland became completely barren. The water stream that separated
the Bandipur Reserve of Karnataka and the Mudumalai Reserve of Tamil
Nadu from the Muthanga Range in Kerala - locally called Mamana halla
-- completely dried up as a result of the spread of eucalyptus plantations.
The river is now nothing but a stretch of white sand. The marks of elephants
trying to dig holes in the sand in search of water are evident in the
dried up riverbed. Elephants frantically searching for water and crossing
the Muthanga Range to reach the Noolpuzha River located east of Muthanga
is what makes the Wild Life Sanctuary qualify as an Elephant Reserve
and an elephant corridor. The plight of the elephants in the Wayanad
Wild Life Sanctuary presents the other side of the saga of the disrupted
lives in indigenous people in Muthanga as well as the whole State.
Following a series
of starvation deaths, the adivasis in Kerala had launched a struggle
in August 2001 by setting up 'Refugee Camps' in front of the State Chief
Minister's residence. The struggle continued for 48 days forcing the
Govt. of Kerala to promise disbursement of land and other rehabilitation
measures for the adivasi people in the state. However, as the government
did not keep its word even after a year, we were again forced to take
to the path of struggle. And, as in Nagarhole, the indigenous people
of Kerala decided to "Enter the Forests," our homeland, under
the banner of the Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha (AGMS). The Muthanga forest
where we put up huts was the homeland of different adivasi communities
in Wayanad such as the Paniyas, the Vetta Kurumas, the Kattunaikkas,
the Adiyas and the Mullukuruma etc. Our sacred groves and burial grounds
still exist in Muthanga. Several adivasi families had been forcibly
evicted from Muthanga during 1970s and '80s, first while declaring the
area as a sanctuary and then for establishing the eucalyptus plantations.
Those who were evicted were compelled to live a wretched life in several
tribal 'colonies' where starvation deaths were rampant.
The adivasi families
who entered the forestland had only sought to assert the traditional
right over the Muthanga forests. They erected huts in the barren area
and reorganised the Adivasi Oorukootams (hamlet-level self-government
institution). Along with subsistence agriculture, we re-started our
gothra pooja (collective ritual worship). A minimum programme for Self-Rule
in accordance with the spirit of the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled
Areas) Act, 1996 was drawn up. The regeneration of the eco-system, primarily
the water sources and the vegetation was an important objective in this.
The Adivasi Oorukootams reorganised in the Muthanga were determined
to achieve this through community management and the application of
traditional knowledge. We were convinced that there was no need for
huge donor agency funds for achieving this objective.
At no point during
the struggle in Muthanga, did the Govt. authorities conduct a discussion
with the protestors. The authorities never issued any notice in accordance
with eviction procedures. The police or the District Collector did not
gather any information from us. Throughout the AGMS occupation of Muthanga,
the Forest Department, however, resorted to unlawful and covert means
to evict the adivasis. Twice they sent domesticated elephants fed with
alcohol to attack the adivasi huts. On two occasions, some unknown persons,
obviously hired by the Forest Department, set fire to the forests and
All the authorities,
and a few fake conservationists with vested interests, concealed the
truth regarding the actual status of the Muthanga forest and the indigenous
people who had a right over it. Instead, they churned out false reports
claiming that Muthanga was the breeding ground of elephants and a core
area of the sanctuary. Most of the biodiversity of Muthanga had been
sucked dry by a parallel economy that thrived on illegal ivory and sandalwood
trade that went on unabated with the connivance of the Forest Department.
Despite the fact that the adivasis did not do anything that could be
construed as criminal or destructive of the ecosystem, the State Chief
Minister Antony and the Forest Minister Sudhakaran propagated that the
occupation in Muthanga was an "armed struggle waged against the
With the backing
of this false, malicious propaganda, the state authorities first resorted
to setting fire to the forests and then, two days later, opened bullet
fire on over a thousand adivasi men, women and children who had 'occupied'
the Muthanga forest. The assault on innocent adivasis was completed
by the armed forces, by marching on to the hamlets and booking hundreds
of innocent adivasis and throwing them into jails several weeks. This
has been one of the most criminal incidents in the history of Kerala.
"Moments in the life of a society when something happens to put
its moral fibre on public display," as writer Arundhati Roy put
it. "The Muthanga atrocity will go down in Kerala's history as
a government's attempt to decimate an extraordinary and historical struggle
for justice by the poorest, most oppressed community in Kerala"
Despite the harrowing
experiences that followed the brutal eviction in February last year
in the Muthanga forest, the decision of the indigenous people is to
go back to Muthanga and assert our rights. There is no other way but
to return to the locale and the roots of the primordial conflict with
the rulers of the land who had usurped our forests and turned us into
the wretched of the earth, bereft of rights over resources and rights
over even our own life.
In such a context,
the challenge for the Vth World Parks Congress would be to explicitly
recognise indigenous peoples' rights to forestland and our role in conservation
of nature as not just that of equal partners but as the key players.
(CK Janu is the leader of Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha Kerala State, South