Local people dependent for their survival on forests, now part of protected areas, are beginning to organise themselves to fight for their rights to forest produce.
There are 105 villages on the periphery of the Phulwari Ki Nal sanctuary in Rajasthan and about 15 villages in its core area. In 1988, a ban was imposed on collection of minor forest produce, and in 1990, gathering of tendu leaves by the local people was also banned.
Despite it being notified in 1982, unauthorised felling by contractors with the connivance of forest officials has not stopped. In one instance, the local people caught the smugglers and the guilty forest-guard and handed them over to the wildlife officers in Udaipur.
Astha Sansthan, an NGO, has helped the people to set up the Van Suraksha aur Adivasi Haq Raksha Samiti, which is now agitating for the right to pick tendu leaves.
The Sitamata forest was declared a sanctuary in 1979. The original 13 villages increased to 42 when the Mahi and Kadana dam oustees were settled there. However, being located on forest lands, no pattas (land deeds) were given to the people.
While the 13 revenue villages located outside the sanctuary have got four schools and 12 hand-pumps, the ones in the forest are untouched by development programmes. The villagers have formed a committee -- the Sitamata Sangharsh Samiti -- to protect their forests, but conflicts with outsiders continue.
Kanha was notified as a nature reserve in 1955. Even though about 4,000 forest-dwellers have been rehabilitated outside the park, there are about 5,000 people still inside the national park. These people own about 5,000 heads of cattle.
Says Vivek Pawar of Ekta Parishad in Kanha, "The people cannot take any produce from the forest, even fruits or dry leaves." Agriculture, the main source of livelihood, is threatened. Digging wells or harvesting water from streams for irrigation is prohibited. No compensation is paid when crops are damaged by animals.
This national park was established in 1982. It is also a World Heritage site, and covers 630 sq km over Chamoli, Almora and Pithoragarh districts. Though there are no villages within the reserve, about 5,000 people are dependent on the forests.
People from the villages of Reni and Lata on the northwestern side used to bring more than 4,000 sheep to graze and also derived employment as porters and guides, but these were stopped in 1983.
Poaching is reported from the Pithoragarh side of the sanctuary. Omprakash Bhatt of the Dasholi Gram Swarajya Mandal in Gopeshwar says, "Conservation efforts are more successful in keeping the local community under control, but are weak-kneed when it comes to preventing raiders and poachers."
"The Mudumalai sanctuary was announced in 1954, but restrictions were imposed in 1962," says activist C R Bijoy of Coimbatore, who has been organising the Adivasi communities in the sanctuary. "Though the population affected is small, the scale of the problem and people's suffering is appalling."
About 1,200 people suffered land alienation as leases on fertile lands were cancelled. The firearms of the people were also confiscated. Destruction of crops by wild pigs is so common, the people are abandoning agriculture. Scarcity of fodder has rendered cattle-rearing insignificant. Fuelwood, too, is scarce.
Says Bijoy, "The growing emphasis on wildlife tourism only opens up forest areas and increases buildings and roads, whereas communities that originally earned their livelihood collecting minor forest produce, are now treated as criminals."
We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.
Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.