Friday, December 18, 2009

Children of the Forests

Much time, energy, and capital is invested in the protection of equatorial and tropical forests, a characteristic seen not just in India, but also in many other nations who have been blessed with such green lungs and hotspots of biodiversity. As a consequence, one also reads of how the natives of the forests, a.k.a tribals, are often evicted on the grounds that they have been practicing activities resulting in deforestation/forest degradation. Their pathetic huts are torn down, and the families are left by the wayside (some lucky ones are rehabilitated elsewhere) without a roof over their heads. Is it indeed necessary to evict these people from the very places where they were born and which they know well like the back of their hands? And that too citing deforestation?

I doubt. Tribals are hardly the sole perpetrators of deforestation. Indeed, their settlements may be located deep within the forests. But so has it been for their fathers, grandfathers, and countless ancestors from centuries ago. They live in sync with the environment, using sustainable practices, including gleaning resources from the forest. They may indeed hunt various animals and may even have converted a tiny area into agricultural land. They may speak their own language, which might sound like gibberish, may be scantily clad, and unaware of the world beyond. But they are happy to remain in their simplicity and seldom have anyone advocating their cause. But since education has reached most of them, they may (like anyone else) try their fortunes in the lush green cities. But I may be erroneous, for my views are based on my observations on the Keralite tribals. One study elsewhere stated that tribals are responsible for 5% of deforestation, and this might be true in other areas where they encroach and build settlements, in the process, destroying the forests.

But when I observe the nearby mountain ranges of the Western Ghats, I find that the main culprits are others. Although much of this deforestation has been reduced due to efficient forest preservation legislation, timber thieves do find leeway to lay hands on rosewood and ebony, so freely available without a price tag. Then there are highland tea and coffee plantations (for which forested area were cleared which had been a century or two ago) who believes in the maxim ‘slow and steady wins the race’- for they gradually encroach into the forest by planting their crops amidst the scrub in one year, and gently annexing that area later. Or, of course, the blatant encroachment by burning the existing vegetation and planting their crops on the fertile soil. These annexed/encroached areas are of a gargantuan scale than the petty cents trespassed by the tribals. Are these activities noticed by the powers-that-be? Does anyone raise a voice of dissent? Perhaps not.

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