India has adopted a coloniser’s approach to tribal populations
The proper implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights Act) of 2006 is an opportunity for India to demonstrate a model of conservation where historic missteps are addressed while being strategic about our commitment to climate and biodiversity action.Updated: Sep 04, 2019 12:40 IST
The Supreme Court of India’s ruling in February ordering the eviction of forest dwellers and tribes from India’s forests was based on petitions that deem these communities encroachers. They blame the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights Act) of 2006 for the denudation of forests. The charge largely paints entire communities with the same brush, hardly paying any nuanced attention. Backed by some Indian conservationists, these petitions ignore historic injustices and remove the agency of forest-dwelling and tribal communities over their traditional lands and forest management practices. They also miss a crucial opportunity of indigenising the conservation movement in India.
The idea of conservation as we know it is a Euro-American conception of the ideal “natural”. It lays down rules on the forms of interaction with nature that are acceptable, even noble. Anything outside that formulation harms the idea of the pristine wild. Pitted against this is usually the paradigm of runaway development.
In this scramble, the ones that often get dismissed are indigenous groups and forest dwellers who have lived in and around forests and have helped maintain these resources for centuries. The counter from the development lobby is typically about this being a step towards the betterment of these communities. The conservationist argument is usually about harmful ecological practices among these communities that lead to deforestation and loss of biodiversity. Both views believe that the forest is the “other”, something to be used or preserved.
While it is true that human activity has resulted in unprecedented environmental destruction as well as the extinction of species, there is also evidence of alternative paradigms where community-led forest conservation initiatives have been successful in preventing the over-exploitation of natural resources.
A 2019 study in the journal Environmental Science and Policy by Richard Schuster at the University of British Columbia and colleagues investigated habitat loss owing to environmental degradation and the resultant losses in biodiversity across three countries - Canada, Brazil, and Australia.
They found that land managed by indigenous populations and existing protected areas had similar levels of vertebrate biodiversity across the study areas. The study suggested that there were complementary benefits that both protected lands as well as indigenous lands provided. Synergistic and collaborative spaces can be created to co-manage these lands with the explicit purpose of addressing historic wrongs as well as meeting conservation goals.
The National Tiger Conservation Authority’s nod to securing local and indigenous participation in the goal of tiger conservation is a case in point.
The 2007 UN declaration on the rights of indigenous people lay down the need for pre-consent of indigenous tribes and communities on what takes place in their territories. India was a signatory to this declaration. However, we signed with the caveat that “the right to self-determination applied only to peoples under foreign domination”. India has after all, adopted a coloniser’s approach to our tribal and rural populations. The removal of these groups is usually the first step in removing roadblocks from the state’s goal of ad-hoc development that rarely benefits the affected communities.
Often conservationists precipitate action against these communities. Their ideal of the pristine, protected area free of human incursions is but a product of the same colonial mindset, one that author Dina Gilio Whitaker calls to attention in her book As Long As Grass Grows, where she documents the fight for indigenous environmental justice in North America. The early conservationists in the US, swung between fetishisation of the Native Americans’ “oneness with nature” to the inability of these communities to manage their lands effectively; a version of that exists in India.
Securing the rights of the indigenous and forest dwelling communities, particularly women in these groups, is critical to conserving biodiversity, as well as initiating scalable climate solutions. The response from the Indigenous peoples and local communities collective to the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on climate change and land was a little tongue and cheek, but pertinent:
“Finally, the world’s top scientists recognise what we have always known.”
Protected natural areas sans human communities is based on a western, Euro-American worldview of what constitutes the natural and has had negative impacts on indigenous communities around the world. This is an opportunity for India to demonstrate a model of conservation where historic missteps are addressed while being strategic about our commitment to climate and biodiversity action. Successful stewardship programmes have seen State and non-State collaborations with traditional forest dwellers in different parts of the world, including in India. This is yet another chance to re-imagine a collective, inclusive environmental future.
Smitha Rao is a Phd candidate in social work, focusing on environment, development, and social policy
The views expressed are personal
First Published: Sep 04, 2019 12:37 IST