Forest Restoration Begins with Returning Land Use Rights
Updated: Jun 29, 2022
By Varsha S Kumar
India has set goals to increase forest cover and restore degraded land in the next few years as part of its sustainability initiatives. But how much of this is possible without involving the people who have been managing forests for thousands of years?
In 2019, India increased its original goal of restoring degraded and deforested land by 5 million hectares. This brings the total restored land area to 26 million hectares by 2030. A noble effort, especially considering India’s large population and its ever-expanding urban centres. But reforestation in India is not so much about planting trees, as it is about land management, land use rights, and overcoming post-colonial hangover.
Conservation is incomplete without Adivasi rights
According to government data, nearly 30 percent of the land in India, or about 97 million hectares, is degraded. The majority of this forest loss is concentrated in forests that were traditionally home to and managed by Adivasis—a term referring to the various tribal communities in India. In many Indian languages, Adivasi means “original inhabitant” and is usually used for forest-dwelling tribes.
At the root of this forest cover loss is a misguided notion of what environmental conservation and protection are. The Western model of conservation demands a completely human-free zone and this entails the total eradication of human-wildlife contact. A big part of this involves expelling people from lands earmarked for conservation. More often than not, this leads to an expulsion of the indigenous inhabitants of the area.
The Adivasi way of forest stewardship, however, asserts that humans and nature can co-exist and harmonise with each other. Or, rather, it asserts that humans are a part of nature and not separate from it. This can also be seen in how Adivasis treat human-wildlife interactions, as most Adivasis tend not to kill wildlife unless necessary.
Human-wildlife interaction becomes a conflict only when land use is profit-driven and land is seen as a private commodity. In contrast, Adivasis believe that there is space for both humans and wildlife in the same forest, as long as they don’t bother each other.
Take the Jenu Kuruba tribe of Karnataka, a south Indian state. They are traditionally forest-dwelling honey-gatherers who were also famed for their forest management skills. Their ancestral area lies within a present-day tiger reserve. Consequently, they face evictions from the very land that they lived in for millennia.
To understand why modern-day India neglects Adivasi claims to forest lands, it is important to travel back in time to ancient India and then the British colonial period.
The original story
Mainstream Indian society has largely been a settled one, with most people living in villages, towns, or cities. Forests were known to be the homes of sages, recluses, and most importantly — Adivasis.
While the usage of the word and classification of tribes as “indigenous” is hotly debated by Indian policymakers, the word Adivasi unites the tribal populations of India under one umbrella term. In recent years, the Adivasi identity has been centred around the struggle for their historical rights to the forests that they were alienated from during the British colonial period.
Historically, Adivasis and local rulers often enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship. Adivasis were given rights to their lands and forests, in return for forest management services for local rulers. Their main occupation was subsistence agriculture, hunting, and gathering.
In ancient India, Adivasis were considered not to be a full part of Indian society and therefore did not fall into any of the four castes. They were their own people, with their own rules and ways of life.
This changed with the British colonial administration as they started to classify Adivasis under the caste system in an effort to ‘civilise them’. Doing so put Adivasis in a position where they were neither fully accepted by caste Hindus nor recognised as their own people by the colonial administration. The effects of this neither-here-nor-there status continue to date.
Additionally, forest land became privatised and/or nationalised under acts such as the Indian Forest Act (1865) and Forest Rights Act (1927). Supported by feudal landlords, the British administration sought to bring forest resources fully under their control.
The Adivasi way of life, where forest resources were common property with open access, was seen as a threat to the British government. Adivasis were then evicted from their own land and forced into working for feudal landlords as bonded labourers.
The Adivasi way of managing wildlife and forest resources was considered primitive, while western monoculture and profit-driven forest management techniques came into vogue.
After India’s Independence in 1947, the Indian government has sought to undo centuries of oppression towards the Adivasis through a gradual reinstatement of their access to forests. Unfortunately, the process has been stalled by decades of bureaucracy and land-grabbing incidents. And the damage from the colonial period was already done—society viewed Adivasis and their way of life as primitive and the poverty-stricken tribes could do little to convince people otherwise.
A land without a people for a people without a land
Coming back to the Jenu Kuruba tribe in South India. They are classified as one of the most backward tribes in India. Close to 39 percent of Jenu Kuruba children are severely malnourished, owing to extreme poverty, illiteracy, poor sanitation, and lack of access to facilities. A sad state for a tribe whose honey-gathering, cliff-climbing, tiger-managing skills were hailed as legendary.
Ethnologists have long recognised the importance of the Jenu Kurubas in helping to maintain healthy tiger populations in the area. The Jenu Kurubas worship the tiger and view the forest as a god-given gift, that anyone who respects it has rights to it.
Unfortunately, forest rangers in coalition with Western conservation groups such as the Wildlife Conservation Society forcibly evict the Jenu Kuruba from their traditional lands, despite protests from the tribe to recognise their rights to the forest. Jenu Kuruba tribe leaders prophetically warn that if they are evicted from their lands, tiger populations will rapidly fall to poachers and loggers.
This pattern repeats itself across the world, among various indigenous societies. But several anthropological studies have demonstrated time and again that Adivasis are crucial to the conservation puzzle, without whom forest and wildlife protection will always remain a struggle to achieve.
Perhaps it is now time to return Indian forest lands to those who were the traditional custodians of it. This could prove rehabilitative not only to the thousands of displaced Adivasis but also to the land, and the wildlife that depends on that land.
This is a guest contribution as part of SG Climate Rally's theme for January and February 2022, "Return".