Since early this year, the news on tigers vanishing from Sariska and Ranthambore, India's flagship conservation areas in Rajasthan, has dominated the media and shocked the Indian public. But few are aware of the parallel decline, rather the near-death, of India's pastoral cultures, even though it concerns the livelihoods of millions of poor people throughout India.
As a signatory to the un Convention on Biological Diversity (in force since December 1993), India has committed to "respect, preserve and maintain the knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity". However, this commitment has been rudely shaken by certain events over the last one year.
The whole situation was triggered by a letter, sent on July 2, 2004, to the chief secretaries, principal chief conservators of forests and chief wildlife wardens of each state, by the Supreme Court's (sc) Central Empowered Committee (cec). The cec is composed of two wildlife conservationists (one of them is tiger expert Valmik Thapar), besides three officials from the Union ministry of environment and forests.
The cec letter referred to an sc order, dated February 14, 2000, which had restrained the removal of dead, diseased, dying or wind-fallen trees, driftwood and grasses from a national park or game sanctuary. The letter also listed several activities -- felling of trees or bamboo; digging of canals; mining and underground mining; collection of sand and boulders; laying of transmission lines, optic fibre cables and pipelines; plus grass-cutting; collection of minor forest produce; grazing; construction and road widening -- that had been going on under the guise of park management. These activities had been allowed without permission from the sc.
The letter goes on to request strict compliance so that none of the "prohibited activities" take place. This memo was forwarded routinely down the line of command, finally reaching the forest officers charged with implementing the order on the ground, by August 2004.
While the intent of the cec's move was essentially to defend forests against commercial extraction and abuse, the memo has had one disastrous effect. Since August 2004, no grazing permits have been issued for livestock keepers living on the outskirts of protected areas -- among them the Kumbhalgarh sanctuary in the Mewar region of Rajasthan.
While the need to protect forests is beyond debate, what of the nearly four million tribal and poor people who live inside protected areas and are dependant on their resources for survival? As it is, most pastoralists do not even reside inside protected areas, but depend on them only seasonally, to support their livestock. Putting blanket restrictions on the removal of grass and deadwood deprives people of their livelihoods and results in large-scale displacement. As Madhu Sarin has pointed out, the conduct of the sc and the cec even conflicts with the National Forest Policy, 1988, a document whose section on tribal people and forests talks of "the symbiotic relationship between the tribal people and forests" and goes on to say, "a primary task of all agencies responsible for forest management, including the forest development corporations, should be to associate the tribal people closely in the protection, regeneration and development of forests as well as to provide gainful employment to people living in and around the forest".
There are also other issues here. The survival of pastoralism is interlinked with many aspects of sustainable land use. Besides conserving domestic biodiversity, it is a means of producing food in dry lands without depleting groundwater resources -- a vital aspect to consider in a state such as Rajasthan. Pastoralism in the new millennium, a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization, concludes that the politically popular development of rangelands by mining fossil water is not sustainable for long and that pastoralists may eventually reclaim this land.
As pastoral people like the Maldhari in Gujarat and the Raika and Rebari in Rajasthan decline, the species they rear -- world-famous breeds of camels, sheep, goats and cattle -- will be affected as well. The notification of the Kumbhalgarh sanctuary has struck the Raika in places way beyond its periphery. Its closure has led to thousands of female camels being sold for slaughter in Uttar Pradesh and Bangladesh. As it is, camel population in Rajasthan has shrunk by around 50 per cent over the last 10 years. Unless the Rajasthan government ensures grazing opportunities for camel breeding herds, the next generation might see the camel -- Rajasthan's signature animal and an important biodiversity element -- only in zoos.
Rajasthan also has eight scientifically-recognised breeds of sheep. One of them is the Marwari sheep or boti, a breed extremely drought-resistant and ideally adapted to long migrations and scant fodder resources. Like the camel, these sheep are able to make sustainable use of Rajasthan's rangeland vegetation. But the sheep population of Rajasthan is also in decline -- between 1997 and 2003, numbers have reduced by 31 per cent. The Raika have also created the Sirohi goat, a goat breed that is more productive than imported Swiss goats. Finally, the Rebari are the guardians of the Kankrej cattle, that has been among the founding stock of South American beef, plus that of another breed, the Nari cattle, that was never documented by scientists, but is extremely disease-resistant and has good milk yields.
These breeds form part of India's heritage of domestic biodiversity -- they have been nurtured over many generations in adaptation to the environment and are the result of indigenous knowledge about animal breeding. Being endowed with genetic traits for disease and drought resistance, they form very valuable animal genetic resources for the future. The survival of these breeds is linked to the survival of the pastoralists and impossible without their continuing custodianship.
Once again, the breeds stewarded by pastoralists represent biological diversity just as the tiger does. But this domestic biodiversity is seen as an enemy or antagonistic to wildlife conservation by many environmentalists. In fact, the animals kept by pastoralists retain many of the characteristics of their wild progenitors. Ecological research in the Sahara about the effects of camel feeding on desert vegetation demonstrated that grazing by this species actually stimulates plant growth. In recognition of predator species such as the wolf or leopard preying on this livestock, pastoralists elsewhere are even compensated for the livestock they lose.
To return to the cec letter, what are the options facing the Raika? In a surprising and unprecedented departure from the time-honoured practice of giving bribes to the forest guards to obtain entry to the forest, the Raika have actually formed a Sangharsh Samiti (struggle committee) to protest the sudden withdrawal of their traditional rights.
Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan, a non-governmental organisation in the area, has encouraged the Raika to also take recourse to legal aid and hire a lawyer to represent their interests. Since they had never before broken out of the rural social hierarchy and usually pursue their goals through submissive behaviour towards the land-owning castes, this has been an extremely courageous step for the Raika to take.
The Sansthan had also noticed that the original sc order, referred to by the cec, does not mention the word grazing among restricted activities. The Raika's lawyer has now sent a polite enquiry to the cec's secretary, requesting him to clarify the status of grazing, but is yet to receive a reply.
The Raika are considering future action and have tabled a petition to the Rajasthan high court, asking the government to clarify the situation. All these deliberations hinge on one point -- do they have grazing rights or not?
It's high time that the role of India's estimated pastoralists in sustaining biodiversity and in making use of patchy, seasonally available resources for food production is officially acknowledged. They should also receive the support due to them, as per international convention and in deference to their contribution to the economy.
Ilse Kehler-Rollefson, founder, League for Pastoral Peoples and Endogenous Livestock Development, has been working in Rajasthan for the past 15 years