Wildlife & Biodiversity

One step too far: Madras High Court ban on forest grazing may hurt on forest dwellers, biodiversity

Madras High Court's decision to ban cattle grazing in Tamil Nadu's forests will have far-reaching impacts on forest-dwelling communities and natural biodiversity 

By Shuchita Jha
Published: Monday 30 May 2022
Forest dwellers in and around Theni district depend on the forests for grazing cattle
Forest dwellers in and around Theni district depend on the forests for grazing cattle, which is a major source of livelihood for the community (Photograph: Akanksha Sood Singh / The gaia people) Forest dwellers in and around Theni district depend on the forests for grazing cattle, which is a major source of livelihood for the community (Photograph: Akanksha Sood Singh / The gaia people)

Great intentions often fail to yield positive outcomes when delivered without careful thought. This is what several conservationists in Tamil Nadu feared after the Madras High Court in its recent order has restricted cattle grazing in the state’s protected forest areas. They said the order would not only deprive local communities of their livelihood but also risk overriding laws that protect their interests while endangering forest health.

The court order was in response to a public interest petition by a Thirvadanai-based lawyer G Thirumurugan in July 2020. The petitioner sought a ban on grazing in Megamalai wildlife division (which includes a sanctuary) and the Theni forest division of Theni district, alleging destruction of grasslands and a threat of the cattle transmitting diseases to wild animals.

On March 4 this year, the court expanded the scope of the petition and banned grazing in the entire 22,877 sq km of recorded forest area in the state, under provisions related to restricted entry in sanctuaries under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, and on cattle trespass under the Tamil Nadu Forest Act, 1882.

The decision angered pastoralists and cattle farmers across the state, who staged protests on March 15. Two days later, the court revised its order and limited the ban to 8,102 sq km of protected forest areas after amicus curie T Mohan cited that Section 16 of the Tamil Nadu Forest Act, 1882 states “the authorities may be permitted to allow cattle grazing rights.”

Rights eroded

Grazing cattle, particularly the native malaimadu species, has traditionally been a major source of earning for forest dwelling communities in and around Theni.

“These species are reared for manure rather than milching. They cannot be stall-fed,” said S Bharathidasan of Arulagam, a conservation non-profit in Coimbatore.

The communities’ grazing rights in forest areas are already protected under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition Of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 or FRA.

“But instead of referring to FRA, the ruling refers to colonial-era laws like the Tamil Nadu Forest Act that are obsolete,” said CR Bijoy, an independent resource-conflict and governance issue examiner in Coimbatore. This will only lead to exploitation of forest dwellers.

First, the ruling calls for the current system of issuing permits to be continued. Under the 1882 Act, the forest department issues permits for grazing. But these permits are not based on any recorded data of cattle numbers, which results in confusion among herders, said K Mohan Raj, an environmentalist based in Coimbatore.

“It is also difficult to keep a tab on the cattle licensed to graze. If a grazier buys new cows, how will the forest department track them?” he asked.

Bijoy said the court order severely curtails the communities’ access to forests in a state that has not performed well on settling individual or community rights over forest land under FRA. His analysis of Census 2001 data shows that communities in the state can claim land titles on some 15,826.93 sq km of forest land that falls within revenue boundaries [Census 2011 data is not used as it calculates forest areas within customary or traditional boundaries, not revenue boundaries].

Latest data on FRA shows by October 2021, as many as 1,082 claims for community rights were filed. Of these, only 450 titles have been issued while 86 claims were rejected. Of the 33,755 claims to individual land titles filed, 8,144 titles were issued for 96.26 sq km.

Now, with the order banning grazing in protected areas, much of the forest areas are out of bounds for the communities. Bijoy says if the order is replicated in other states, it will affect more pastoralists and forest dwellers.

Leo Saldanha of Bengaluru-based Environment Support Group, said the ruling must be challenged in the Supreme Court, as it “sets a legal precedent for further territorialising forests at the hands of the state and creates barriers between the people and their forests”.

VP Gunasekaran, executive member, Tamil Nadu Tribal People’s Association, wrote April 6 to the state government asking it to challenge the order in the apex court.

Biodiversity threat

The ban goes beyond threatening communities and risks conservation of biodiversity. Grasslands are resilient ecosystems that are healthier when frequently grazed, creating niches for multiple wild species, Saldanha said.

Grazing is also recognised as a wildfire prevention tool. A 2014 paper published by Società Italiana di Selvicoltura ed Ecologia Forestale, a cultural non-profit, stated, “the use of grazing animals could be an efficient method for controlling shrub encroachment and reducing the risk of fire through the elimination of dangerous fuel ladders…”.

Bijoy added that: “As of March, we have already seen wildfires in Palani Hills of Kodaikanal and the Nadugani forest range in Gudalur forest division in the Nilgiris."

Abi T Vanak, senior fellow, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bengaluru, said: “On one hand, the government wants to ban grazing in forest areas; and on the other, traditional grazing areas are being usurped and converted to various other land-uses. India has a long history and culture of pastoralism, with several unique breeds. If these are to survive, then traditional grazing rights must be met.”

Vanak said protecting wild species from diseases, as the original petition says, is important. “For this, the government should focus on vaccinating livestock and helping owners maintain healthy herds, rather than having knee-jerk reactions,” he said.

This was first published in Down Ti To Earth’s print edition (dated 1-15 May, 2022)

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