While the state of Karnataka in southern India was flooded with torrential monsoon rains, over 250 members of the Soliga community traveled through the deluge to attend International Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebrations in a small town in the south of India on August 9, 2019.
The two-hour long celebration in the town of Chamarajanagar included songs about animals, dances, and speeches from community leaders, government officials, and researchers. The speeches had a common theme: the Soliga’s natural and human rights, the importance of coexisting with wildlife, and developing the community in a fragile forest.
A chant breaks out, led by a speaker onstage. “Protect the forest!”
The Soligas are a Scheduled Tribe (ST) who live within and around Biligiriranga Hills in Karnataka, home to Biligiriranganatha Swamy Temple (BRT) Wildlife Sanctuary and a designated tiger reserve. The Soligas are Indigenous to the area, but have had to fight for the right to continue living there. They are not the state’s preferred residents of the forests—the tiger is.
In July 2019, the Indian government announced that India’s tiger population has more than doubled over 12 years, and stands at nearly 3,000 tigers. India now has around 75 percent of the world’s tiger population. Today, tribal and forest communities, called "adivasis," constitute roughly 9 percent of India’s total population, which is around 104 million people.
Unlike in the United States, where human habitation is not allowed in national parks, Indigenous tribes have always lived in India’s forests. Experts have long argued that forest-dwelling communities are its best guarantors, but the mineral-rich land on which they live is not only home to endangered wildlife, but also a resource important for development.
The landmark Forest Rights Act, which gave Indigenous, forest-dwelling communities like the Soligas the right to live in their ancestral homes, is being pitted against efforts toward wildlife conservation in shrinking forests, putting them at the frontline of one of many battles raging across India today.
Whose Land Is it Anyway?
Puttama is a Soliga community leader, and has come to attend International Indigenous Peoples’ Day. She is equipped for the rain, and wears a jacket over her saree.
“I was on a bike recently and saw a tiger cross the road in front of me,” she says excitedly. “Nowadays I go on safaris and see tigers.”
Puttamma, along with sixty-four other families, was forced out of her thatch-roofed home within what is now Bandipur National Park, Karnataka, in 1993. Bandipur was established as tiger reserve in 1974, under Project Tiger. The need to create inviolate spaces for tigers is used to justify the displacement of these tribes, and curtails their rights to cultivate and use forest products.
Mahadevaiah, another Soliga community leader living in BRT Wildlife Sanctuary, says elephants were used by the forest department to destroy his village when he was a child 35 years ago.
Like the Soligas, tribes across India living in protected areas have been facing similar threats to their ways of life. India’s "adivasis" were first declared encroachers in their own homes by the British colonial government. The 1972 Wildlife Protection Act required all land claims to be recognized and settled before declaring forests as protected areas, but this due process was rarely fully followed. The responsibility of resettling entire villages fell to the forest department.
Any activity conducted by Indigenous populations living within these protected areas could be considered illegal under the act, and effectively made some of the poorest lives illegitimate in the eyes of the state.
To correct this historic injustice, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, or the Forest Rights Act (FRA), was passed in 2006. The act provided a framework to recognize and vest land rights to adivasis, and other forest dwellers who had been living in and dependent on the forests for generations. Under the FRA, people could apply for individual and community forest rights which would grant them the right to continue living within protected areas and collect minor non-timber forest produce (NTFP) like bamboo, honey, tubers and lichen.
These rights still run into conflict with wildlife protection laws in protected areas. According to Puttamma, who was nominated to review FRA applications at the district level, applications for community forest rights in the Bandipur area were rejected.
The reason, she says, is because the area is a tiger reserve.
The denial of community forest rights has made things difficult for these adivasis, whose other sources of livelihood are unreliable. The Soligas depend on forest produce like gum, honey, lichen and amla (gooseberry), which they collect and sell for a steady income. Agriculture is difficult as animals like wild boars regularly destroy crops, and the tribals cannot afford to keep putting up new fencing. Some now have to cross the state border into Kerala and Tamil Nadu on a daily basis to work as laborers.
However, Puttamma says the forest department has filed cases against 10 men in Bandipur for collecting forest produce, which is illegal under the Wildlife Protection Act, even though some communities have won community rights under the FRA. Unable to post bail and afford lawyer fees, these men’s families have had to borrow money from non-tribal communities in the area.
“After that they come and work as bonded labor in others’ houses. Whatever they get is enough for just one day’s food,” Puttamma says. The only solution, she says, is if the forest department gives them actual jobs in the reserve and help them to reconstruct fences to protect their fields.
Living With Tigers
Despite strong criticism, some wildlife groups have challenged the constitutional validity of the FRA, arguing that human presence within protected areas is damaging to wildlife, and specifically tigers. In February 2019, the Supreme Court of India ordered the eviction of over one million people from the forests after their claims to forest land were rejected at the state level. The judgment was met with widespread protest, and the Supreme Court stayed its order and asked for the state government to provide details on why so many claims were rejected. The next hearing, meant to take place on July 24, was delayed. A subsequent hearing on August 6 simply reminded state governments to file affidavits or provide data.
C Madhappa, another community leader nominated to the district-level Forest Rights Committee by the state government, says that 40 claims in BRT Wildlife Sanctuary were rejected by the Supreme Court, and face the threat of eviction.
“Now the forest department says we can’t get land rights because it’s an eco-sensitive zone,” he says. “We have been living here for centuries,” he adds.
Project Tiger, the Indian government’s tiger conservation programme, was established in 1973. An amendment of the Wildlife Protection Act in 2006 set up the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) to ensure better implementation of Project Tiger.
On July 29, 2019, the NTCA published a Management Effective Evaluation of all the tiger reserves in India. In almost every reserve evaluation, the report clearly states that tribal presence within the core zones of tiger reserves are a nuisance to the conservation activities of the reserves and should be dealt with. Eco-tourism, on the other hand, is encouraged by the Indian government. With the increased tiger population, a higher chance of spotting the Royal Bengal Tiger is an added incentive to spend a weekend at a national park.
“We are able to live with tigers. The tiger population has increased, and communities are living in the same landscape. There is no issue,” says Madhappa. He also talks about how tigers are worshipped as a local deity. The Soligas have six clans, he says, and each worship a wild animal. India’s adivasis have traditionally co-existed with wildlife for centuries. Nature worship is also a common cultural practice.
“I don’t know what the new figures are, but in 2014 the tiger population was 62. The entire area is about 574 sq km, and each tiger requires about 10 sq km to move in. It’s overcrowded, I think, according to scientific studies,” says Dr. C Madegowda. He is a research associate at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, and is the first man from the Soliga community to have a PhD.
Madhappa agrees. “We made a community-based tiger conservation plan. We want to implement the plan in the future, and we even organized two-three workshops. We had a consultation meeting but the forest department attend it,” he says. “In our plan we identified threats to wildlife like forest fires, poaching, illegal activities, and we listed out solutions we can implement as a community.”
Data from the NTCA shows that over the last seven years, 657 tigers have died. 313 tigers died of natural causes, and 138 because of poaching.
The question of whether adivasis can co-exist with wildlife has divided the wildlife conservation community. Conservationists like MD Madhusudan, who co-founded Nature Conservation Foundation, say that there need not be a sharp binary between land for people versus land for wildlife. “There are examples of conservation built on negotiation that demonstrate that it is possible to address the needs of wildlife while also being fair to adivasis,” he says.
Research shows that the displacement of adivasis from their traditional homes has adversely affected forest ecosystems by putting an end to traditional conservation practices.
V Tirumal Rao, the Jannaram Forest Divisional Officer in the state of Telangana, says categorically that human beings and wildlife cannot live together. “Our main objective is to have more tigers in Kawal Tiger Reserve. As part of our management duties, protection of wildlife is most important. Then comes wildlife management, which includes making sure there’s enough food, water and shelter.”
Telangana’s Kawal Wildlife Sanctuary, which was declared a tiger reserve in 2012, is seeing its first wave of village relocations only now.
“Under habitat disturbance, we can stop all activities. The people have bona fide rights, we cannot deny that, but they are living in the core area of the tiger reserve,” Rao explained.
While the forest department is focused on wildlife conservation, the government is also considering using the land for development. The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has approved a draft proposal by the Department of Atomic Energy for the survey and exploration of uranium in the nearby Amrabad Tiger Reserve, another one of Telangana’s new tiger reserves.
Adivasi Aspirations for Development
In Kawal Tiger Reserve (KTR), the members of the Naikpod and Raj Gond tribes are being readied for resettlement. Both the Naikpods and the Raj Gonds have been present in the Andhra Pradesh-Telangana region for centuries. Gonds are one the largest adivasi groups in India today, and around 13 million Gonds live in the central-south region of India. KTR is located in the south Indian state of Telangana, and three villages in the core zone of the reserve will be moved out in a year’s time. Dosantla Rajavva, who has lived in Rampur village her entire life, doesn’t know what to expect from the new land she will be moved to.
“Is it nice?” she enquires about the new—and as yet unbuilt—village.
KTR is a new reserve, and partly owes its creation to local conservationists like Imran Siddiqui, who founded Hyderabad Tiger Conservation Society (HyTiCoS). “Nobody should be forcibly moved from their homes in the forests,” he says. “I can say that no adivasi in the area is being forced to leave. Families want to move out of Kawal, but they’re not being adequate resettlement packages.”
The resettlement package can either be given as a lump sum of Rs. 10 lakhs (nearly $14,000) or in the form of new land in another village. Younger adivasis tend to go for the cash and move to urban spaces.
Siddiqui is right. The villages of Rampur and Maisampet, where Naikpod adivasis live, are ready to move out of their villages into a new settlement that the forest department is building for them. The adivasis were taken to see a resettled village in nearby Tadoba National Park, the largest tiger reserve in the state of Maharashtra, and have returned impressed.
“I want my new house to be near a canal,” Gaja Narsavva, a Naikpod resident of Rampur, states emphatically. “It should be better!”
Ibrahim Sherif, the Range Officer in Kadam district in Telangana, where the new village is located, explains the plans for relocation. “We will provide 107 hectares of agricultural land and 12 acres of housing for the new village,” he says. “All this land will be divided between the 96 families who are moving from the two existing villages.”
Dense forest land, with both teak and non-teak tree cover, is being cleared to create agricultural land for the adivasis to cultivate. The cleared teak will be sold at the forest department’s timber depot. The nearby villages of Petherpu and Kotha Madi Padaga are pleased with the resettlement plans because they expect to employ the adivasis as laborers to work in their fields, according to Sherif.
“We will make it like a posh government housing colony, with all facilities,” he says.
The Naikpods’ traditional source of livelihood is working with bamboo and creating bamboo products, which they are legally allowed to do through the FRA. However, the forest department has been discouraging them from using bamboo and training them in other livelihoods which they believe can be more productive.
“They say we can get more money from agriculture,” Narsavva says, pointing to the two forest officers who had just arrived at the village. “So if we can get more money we can do that.”
The officers say that the forest department has been trying to reduce their dependence on bamboo and other NTFP by employing them to do labor, and work as “fire-watchers” and “animal-trackers” for the forest department.
What happens when these villages are moved out of KTR? “We will employ people from villages outside the reserve,” the forest officer says.
A way Forward
Employing outsiders to work in the forest and within tiger reserves could potentially damage natural habitats in the same way that eco-tourism poses a threat to Bandipur and BRT Reserves, as community leader Madhappa had pointed out in Chamarajanagar.
“We want the forest department to employ us so that we can also have a proper income,” Mahadeviah says. He is also currently in the process of applying for ex-situ cultivation rights to the forest land his community was forced out of nearly four decades ago. He contends that their community was not organized enough to fight for their rights at the time, which is why they need to do it now.
“We have no problem with the forest department now that we have got some of our rights. Whenever we have an issue, we can sort it out with the forest department. The only problem is that they are not giving any labor work to the community—they are using lots of machinery and equipment to do work which we can do more sustainably,” he says.
Unlike Narsavva, Mahadeviah and Madhappa do not want to move from within the core zone of the forest. But like her, they also want a better livelihood.
“We want to have basic facilities like electricity, better houses and roads, which we are allowed to do now that we have won our rights to the land,” Madhappa says. “They are not allowing us to do this and construct houses inside BRT. That is a problem. The District Collector has given us his permission, but the forest department isn’t accepting this because of wildlife conservation issues.”
“We’ll continue our struggle to get our rights for the community,” Mahadeviah adds.
And what about the tigers?
“We live with them,” he says. “We always have.”