LEWIS EVANS | 7 APRIL, 2017
You Can't Save the Tiger Without Respect For Tribal Rights
Every country in the world today faces a serious dilemma: how do you balance the interests of the urbanized population with the need to protect the environment, human rights and the wishes of communities? As far as a lot of people are concerned, the answer is a simple concept beginning with “c”: conservation.
The conventional conservation narrative goes something like this: as the human population grows, it's important to safeguard as much of the environment as possible as “protected areas” or “wilderness” – perhaps open to tourists or scientists, but otherwise “pristine” and “untouched.”
This idea is at the core of the “deep green” movement which has gained traction in Europe and the United States. It has also been exported to India, in large part by big western NGOs like the Wildlife Conservation Society (an offshoot of New York’s Bronx Zoo) and the Swiss-based World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
For many of the big conservation organizations, India is a priority country in the development of protected areas and “fortress conservation” policy. The tiger, India’s official national animal, is an icon of the environmental movement. The fact that its numbers are growing, even if only modestly, is held up as evidence that this hardline, anti-people approach works. Tigers fronted WWF’s recent fundraising drive in the United Kingdom. Tiger-spotting tourism is a booming industry in India, popular in famous reserves like Kanha in Madhya Pradesh, and Kaziranga in Assam.
The argument goes that as tigers need space in which to live and hunt, human beings must cede space to them. People must be banned from living in areas where tigers are found. Any people who do live alongside tigers – as many Adivasis (tribal peoples) have, quite happily, for millennia – have to be moved. There may be unfortunate consequences to this process, and it might be necessary for forest departments to use coercion, bullying, bribery, and other means, but in the end, it is supposedly worth it. Life outside the forest is billed as “progress” for Adivasi peoples like the Baiga, and it secures the future of the Bengal tiger.
These evictions – illegal under Indian and international law – are billed as voluntary relocations by leading conservationists like Krithi Karanth of WCS. In reality, they are usually anything but. Communities are pressured into "agreeing" to leave the land they have been dependent on and managed for millennia, and almost never informed that they have the right to stay. They are promised compensation which often doesn’t materialize, or moved into inadequate government settlements. They are threatened – one department said it would release dangerous wild animals into a village unless people agreed to move – others are threatened with arrest or being branded as naxals. Ultimately what becomes of the tribal people once they have left is not the forest department's concern.
Part of the authorities’ justification for this is that it is ultimately for the Adivasis’ own good, a form of “progress” by which they can become more “modern.” Try telling that to the Baiga. As one woman told a Survival International campaigner: “We are lost – wandering in search of land. Here there is only sadness. We need the jungle.”
Communities rarely get the facilities or compensation they are promised. When a High Court Committee investigated the situation of tribal people in the resettlement sites of Nagarhole National Park, they concluded: “We have not found a single tribal enjoying the fruits of development.”
No money is adequate compensation for the loss of entire ways of life, of a sense of identity and belonging and a life suddenly transplanted to the fringes of a society which offers them next to nothing. The buildings that villagers are moved into are often very poor quality and lacking basic facilities. The land is bad for farming and they don’t have the means or experience to switch to mechanized agriculture overnight. They are promised clinics, medicine, and schools for their children, but these promises often prove empty. A school that was supposed to be built for Baiga villagers evicted from Achanakmar tiger reserve in 2009 is still a shell, nearly eight years on.
Another Baiga man said: “We were one of the last families to resist. But the people from the reserve forced us to leave. They told us they’d take care of us for three years, but they didn’t do a thing. Even when my brother was killed, no one came to help us.” Tribal people have radical changes of lifestyle forced upon them – and then receive next to no support when they struggle to adapt.
There is a dreadful hypocrisy to this policy. While arguing that tribal people must move out to make way for tigers, forest departments across India are more than happy to invite vast numbers of fee-paying tourists in from towns and cities. The visitors litter, they make noise, they disturb the animals and disrupt their habitat. Some experts have even suggested that their presence makes tigers used to jeeps and human activity – making them more vulnerable to poachers.
The attitude of tourists – whether foreign or Indian – is extractive. They want pictures of themselves wth tigers, riding around the wilderness in jeeps. Contrast this with the attitudes of many tribal people, who revere the tiger, and even in some cases, worship it. The Soliga people in Karnataka, for example, have a very deep respect for the iconic big cats. One Soliga man said: “We worship tigers and several other animals as gods. There hasn’t been a single incident of conflict with tigers and Soligas or hunting here.”
What is perhaps most shocking about this persecution of tribal peoples in the name of conservation is that it targets the wrong people. Tribal people did not drive the Bengal tiger to the brink of extinction – over-hunting by the Raj elite did. Tribal peoples are not driving the industrialization projects that are destroying tiger habitats, and tribal people are rarely involved in poaching operations. The same cannot be said of some forest officials, who conspire with criminals to profit from the illegal wildlife trade. Green colonialism – driven by western donors and organizations and facilitated by Indian forest authorities – does not work.
The scale of these illegal evictions is extraordinary. In 2016, the Minister for Environment and Forests stated that 282,000 people, from 751 villages, are due to be relocated. There are also plans for 10 more tiger reserves – celebrated by people who are justifiably concerned for wildlife, but unaware of what the creation of a reserve really means for tribal people.
Even where evictions are not taking place, tribal peoples are often forced to live in conditions of brutality in the name of conservation. In Kaziranga National Park in Assam, recently featured in a BBC investigation, local forest guards are armed and encouraged to shoot suspected poachers – with virtually complete impunity. What this amounts to in effect are extrajudicial executions, often of innocent local tribal people.
Villagers have been shot for unknowingly wandering over the park boundaries to retrieve cattle. Last year a seven-year-old tribal boy was shot and severely injured. A disabled tribal man was shot dead, apparently after failing to respond to shouts from guards. In all, 106 people are reported to have been killed there in the last 20 years, all without arrest, trial or prosecution. There is, quite simply, no justification for this cruel and immoral policy. It represents a complete subversion of the rule of law and the most basic principles of human rights.
It's time the world woke up to this scandal. These policies are a con, and they're harming conservation. Instead of partnering with tribal peoples – who have been dependent on and managed their environments for millennia – the Indian authorities, supported by big conservation organizations, are destroying them. They are wiping self-sufficient peoples with diverse ways of life off the face of the Earth. They are promoting a flawed vision of a wilderness untouched by human hands and then profiting from it by promoting it to tourists. In the one tiger reserve in India where tribal peoples won the right to stay, tiger numbers are increasing at above the national average. Evictions are not even necessary. The con needs to be exposed for what it is.
At Survival International, we’re fighting this abuse, for tribes, for nature, and for all humanity. We have a simple message to Indian conservationists: If you want to save the tiger, you have to keep the people as well. Only with proper respect for human rights, the rule of law, and the great knowledge and respect that tribal peoples – the best conservationists and guardians of the natural world – have for their environments, will India’s remarkable national animal survive.