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INDIA: Indigenous Rights Versus Wildlife Rights? – Part 2

BANGALORE, Jan 14 2012 (IPS) - As the amount of protected forest dwindles rapidly in India, indigenous groups and wildlife find themselves living cheek to jowl in an increasingly contested space.

The Billigiri Ranga Temple Hills tiger reserve (BRT) in the South Indian state of Karnataka has become the site at which impoverished tribes like the Soligas and endangered species such as tigers are scrabbling for survival in the tide of India’s rampant neoliberal development program that is throttling both the environment and indigenous peoples.

Though the Soligas have traditionally been a subsistence community, their newfound participation in the market economy has made them reliant on the trade of non-timber forest products (NTFPs), which is detrimental to the local ecology.

“The Soligas’ dependence on different types of spinach, lichens, mosses, honey, seeds, nuts, berries, yams, roots, tubers, and fruits have reduced drastically, as these products [no longer] generate a substantial income,” Suresh Patil, deputy director of the Anthropological Survey of India, told IPS.

“Instead, they now prefer to work as daily wage labourers in the coffee and tea estates surrounding the forests,” or engage in extracting and selling forest products.

In order to sustainably integrate tribes into the mainstream economy the government of India introduced Large Scale Adivasi Multi Purpose Societies (LAMPS), a scheme through which forest contractors buy forest produce from tribes under the supervision of forest officials.

These contractors would then supply the produce to large economic enterprises for the manufacture of cosmetics, herbal medicines, and pharmaceuticals.

This system has created a strain between tribes and the forests in which they live, leaving tribes aspiring for a higher standard of living but constantly unable to achieve it, given their battle for space with the wildlife.

The Central Tiger Task Force report ‘Joining the Dots’ claimed, “Villagers (in Karnataka) regard the tiger and the park administration as their common enemy number one. They live sandwiched between the two, and are bitter about their desperately wretched existence.”

“Thousands of years ago humans could coexist with wildlife, for they took from forests only those resources needed for their basic survival. There were no linkages to the market then,” Ullas Karanth, a biologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, told IPS. Now, however, the Soligas’ use of cattle and wells – in their effort to generate more income and escape the throes of poverty – has ramped up the human- animal conflict in the already overcrowded reserve.

Tigers and leopards have begun to prey on cattle, causing great hardships for tribe members. Crop raiding elephants also threaten forest dwellers and squatters.

Human settlements in forests account for deforestation, rendering thousands of creatures homeless. Deforestation also traumatises migrating wildlife and separates individuals from the herd, which can lead to inbreeding.

Still, experts point out that the Soligas are only marginally responsible for deforestation when compared to the scale of deforestation perpetuated by the state forest department itself. Industrial farming in the BRT, including huge coffee estates owned by the biggest industrial houses in India, has seriously impinged on the protected land, pushing wildlife further into a concentrated space with tribes.

Following a lengthy lawsuit, which finally culminated this year in the Soligas winning access to 60 percent of the protected tiger reserve, conservationists fear that the tigers will bear the brunt of dwindling forest space.

The renowned tiger conservationist Valmik Thapar remarked famously, “[That] tigers and people are forced to co-exist, through some innovative scheme of increased use of underutilised forest resources involving the local people, does not make any sense to tiger conservationists, especially since human and cattle populations are constantly rising.”

“Each tiger must eat 50 cow-sized animals a year to survive, and if you put [a hungry tiger] amidst cows and people, the conflict will be eternal. Tigers [have witnessed a decline of] over 95 percent of their former range in India.”

“The premise of continued co-existence over vast landscapes where tigers thrive ecologically and people thrive economically is an impractical dream, with which I totally disagree. Such dreaming cannot save the tiger in the real world,” he said.

“This scenario is a “no win” situation for everyone and [could] result in the eventual extinction of tiger populations Alternatives where tigers have priority inside identified protected reserves and people have priority outside them have to be explored fast and implemented expeditiously. There is no other way,” Thapar concluded.

In 1998, when the Bhadra wildlife sanctuary was officially declared a protected tiger reserve, the government of Karnataka – assisted by a generous World Bank loan – earmarked a sizeable plot of land to create a township for relocated forest dwellers.

Indigenous groups living in the Bhadra sanctuary became the beneficiaries of a very sound relocation package. All the settlers were given ample arable land for cultivation, housing with sanitation, infrastructure for a sufficient power and water supply, agricultural produce markets, and facilities such as banks and schools and hospitals for both humans and livestock.

The Soligas have fiercely resisted a similar relocation package, claiming they would rather suffer death than be separated from their ancestral land.

However, conservationists are agreed on one thing: if the Soligas’ move to resist relocation is replicated in the future, habitat conservation could be futile. According to experts like Thapar, “The present concept of a ‘new’ coexistence [between tribes and tigers] is a utopian idea and will not work. This I am absolutely clear about.”

*This is the second of a two-part series on the struggle for space between indigenous peoples and endangered species.

*Malini Shankar is a wildlife photojournalist and filmmaker based in Bangalore.

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