Imagine people who live in clearings inside an extensive dense forest, cultivating paddy, harvesting grass, bamboo, and mushrooms, and hunting the occasional deer. They stay awake at night, beating drums to tell their elephant brothers not to come for their hard-earned crop. Once the harvest is over, they sing songs in praise of their animist jungle gods.
Imagine another scene. Towering hillocks of black tailings left from mining. Not a scrap of greenery anywhere. Trees cut and carted away. People driven from their villages. The wildlife has fled or is long dead. In their place are powerful machines digging into the ground and coughing exhaust. Dust churned up from their activities settles in layers upon everything.
These two visions of Hasdeo Arand in Chhattisgarh epitomise the battle in the Supreme Court, where wildlife activists filed a petition challenging the constitutionality of The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Act, 2006, commonly referred as the Forest Rights Act (FRA). The petitioners say the law collides against the interests of wildlife. That is not the case. Instead, it's people and wildlife on one side battling extractive industry. It's also a few urban privileged conservationists versus millions of poor marginalised forest dwellers.
The government seemingly plays along as it would much rather have the forest people under its thumb instead of empowered villagers telling it where to get off. So its lawyer didn't even come to hearings to defend a law the government enacted a decade ago.
The wildlife-first conservationists imply that communities are bad for conservation. They argue that given the people's unique access, they plunder the jungle of timber and hunt wildlife. If the forest cannot regenerate fast enough to replace harvesting levels, it becomes degraded and wildlife numbers drop. They claim giving rights to people is tantamount to opening the wilderness areas to a free for all, and the only way to protect them is to clear out the humans and put the state Forest Departments in sole control. Garrett Hardin, an American ecologist and philosopher, called this spectre the 'Tragedy of the Commons' in 1968.
However, communities in forest after forest show themselves to be sophisticated managers. The forest dwellers draw up rules that everyone follows. They set caps on how much flowers, fruits and herbs can be collected with minimal damage. Taking turns to patrol, they penalise disobedience. It makes sense because profligacy handicaps their own survival.
Moreover, the very existence of these wilderness areas is evidence people managed them sustainably until the colonial administration and later the government of Independent India held them up as the last bastions of our wildlife. These ancestral lands mean much more to its people than any outsider. Since their stories, history, culture and spirituality are tied to the landscape, the forest denizens are demonstrably stronger custodians of forests than the state. They confronted the power of might and money of corporate empires such as Vedanta and POSCO. These are not exceptions. Across central India, people of the jungle are a thorn in the side of mining companies for holding back their entry. They even stand toe-to-toe against the forest departments that wanted to replace bio-diversity rich forests with monoculture plantations.
Their ability to adjust their lives around large, dangerous animals and manage resources offers an alternative paradigm to the western model that places the onus of protection on the state alone. This is the reason the petition being heard by the court shouldn't have pitched forest people against wildlife.
Conservation globally is seen as a preoccupation of the elite. You'd think that the wildlife-first conservationists would rejoice at the grassroots conservation taking place here, of the forest communities' intransigence in protecting their natural resources which benefits wildlife too. But instead, the activists have them firmly in their sights while being blind to what their champion, the state, is up to.
According to a recent report, the Government of India approved 99% of the projects planned on forest land. In Hasdeo Arand, despite 18 gram sabhas passing resolutions against coal mining, the government is about to open it up for extraction after depriving them of their community rights under FRA. And yet, there's not a peep from conservationists whose hearts bleed for wildlife. In several cases, these forest villagers are the last defence against the destruction of wild habitats.
True, not all communities make wise use of resources. There are instances of excessive hunting and exploitation of jungle produce. Indigenous people were told for generations that they are encroachers who can be thrown out at any time and can live in their homes only on the whim of the forest department officials. Their rights and self-governing institutions were dismantled and stomped upon repeatedly since colonial times. It's a depressingly positive feedback loop — the more they are denied their rights, the worse their alienation, and the greater the degradation. How can anyone take care of forests under such hostile conditions? Aren't we demanding too much when we say — you have no rights, but you will sustainably manage the forest? To manage a resource, people need to feel a sense of ownership, have skin in the game.
We need to ask who sits in judgement on forest communities. Do they not live in the safety of their homes far from jungles? Do they not consider that the cities where they live were built by clearing forests, reclaiming wetlands and lakes, and dumping sewage into rivers? By what yardstick then do they decide who does (not) have a conservation ethic?
The FRA’s community forest rights offer a mechanism for restoring collective and democratic management practices of forests. Documented cases across central India, such as Dindhori district in Madhya Pradesh and the villages of Mendha Lekha and Payvihir in Maharashtra, show residents exercising their rights as a collective to manage forests.
Elinor Ostrom studied what makes people collectively monitor and take care of their commons, such as forests, research for which she won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009. Hardin acknowledged Ostrom's ground-breaking studies by revising the title of his theory as the 'Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons'.
By attacking the law that grants rights to forest-dwelling communities, the activists have become the proxies of the state and industry, doing a disservice to conservation.
Considering how the central and state governments have handed forests to destructive industries, I ask tongue firmly in cheek — why don't these wildlife-first organisations demand the eviction of the Forest Departments from forest lands?
(Janaki Lenin is the author of My Husband and Other Animals. Views are personal)