Living in the forests, is it Human?

GLF 2017 Blog Competition
Mahesh Chander

I am reading a news story in today’s Newspaper about the Gujjar agitation for their dwelling and grazing rights on forests in the North Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. The Van Gujjars are a group of nomadic pastoralists who have been dwelling in the forests of Himalayan Shivalik region since the early medieval times. They are often in news for frequent conflicts with the Forest department. Forest dwelling communities including the nomads and pastoralists have been in constant conflicts with the governments in many countries. The Van Gujjars in North India are one among those, who claim their right on forests and settled in forest with their buffaloes-far away from modern day amenities. Is this way of life acceptable in the 21st century?

Ever since I finished a Master’s dissertation on Van Gujjars, in 2000, I have been closely tracking some of these communities and following the developments around them. This community of forest dwelling livestock keepers is in the state of turmoil due to sustained threat of evictions and consequent agitations and litigation. In 2014, I wrote a piece on the van Gujjars, arguing the great potential for sustainable development with Gujjars occupying the forests. Over the past three years, I have tried to see it from the eyes of anthropologists to that of development practitioners concerned with conserving the environment and sustainable development. I find it hard to arrive at a balanced viewpoint and take sides in these matters. Either I was wrong then supporting their existence inside the forest or I am wrong now suggesting they should join the mainstream giving up living inside the forests. I guess many of you might be having similar dilemma on this issue.

The nomads and pastoralists are claimed by some groups to be great conservators of the environment following the best organic practices. They have a close connection with their settlements and their techniques, lifestyle and association with grazing lands and forests have been claimed to be crucial for sustainable development. Yet, many of you might be thinking if it is justified for a community to be living in harsh forests without civic amenities. The nomads and pastoralists find strong support among the Anthropologists and NGOs/donors in the conferences and seminars globally. However, many a times these accounts ignore the modalities and complexities of the nomadic lifestyles leading to adverse climatic conditions owing to their living and animal rearing practices. The nomadic rearing techniques are claimed to be causes of overgrazing, desertification, and over-exploitation of forest resources etc. Yet, many people make the case that the nomads, pastoralists and other forest dwelling communities are excellent managers of the forest ecosystem and efficient users of the forest resources. Moreover, many believe that the products from pastoralists have high nutritional value and better taste, besides being usually free from undesirable residues. For Instance, in Iran as also in India, milk and meat produced by nomads is regarded as a local specialty and is much preferred to that of animals raised by large industrial complexes. Also, people say Pastoralist breeds are part of the local heritage and contribute to local and regional identity, besides often being essential for traditional rituals. Now, if we weigh these attributes against the environmental costs of continuing with nomadic mode, which one is going to weigh more?

The government of Uttarakhand is making efforts to relocate the Gujjars outside the reserve area and national parks. However, looking at the ground realities, these efforts do not seem to have borne fruit. But, we could sense that some of the Gujjars now believe that they should stop living inside the forests for a more settled life in cities and towns which promise a better future for their children. Can we afford new generations without good quality education? Can we afford a section of our society living in the wild devoid of civic amenities? What about good nutrition and health care, education and quality of life while living inside the forests? While talking to the women and young ones of the Gujjar community, I got the feeling that they want to taste the fruits of modernism which their urban counterparts enjoy. Are we not suppressing their desire to live life full of choices? It would be unfair if I don’t mention the much talked about Indian Forest Rights Act 2006, which has empowered tribal and other people living on the margins to assert their rights over the forestland over which they were traditionally dependent. Community forest rights recognized under the Forest Rights Act are important for securing livelihoods of the forest communities and for strengthening local self governance of forests and natural resources. The supporters of the rights of forest dwelling communities believe that clear land rights should be given to those that live within and along forests benefitting both the marginalized populations as well as the environment in the process. To them, forest dwellers are the best Protectors of the environment. Yet, the Indian Forest Rights Act 2006 has its opponents too, who see it as an effort to keep “tribals in the forest” instead of assisting their “development”. We know development has different meaning to different people. How then should we measure development?

We miss the beauty of collective wisdom, when we think in isolation in our individual domains as foresters, anthropologists, environmentalists, economists, development planners, social activists, politicians, wildlife custodians etc. We have to work together with empathy cutting across the narrow considerations of our vested interests to ensure a fruitful life out of the forests for the men, women and children of forest dwelling communities. Hope you would agree with me – forests are for trees and wildlife, not for men & women to reside in, forests are rich and beautiful only when full of trees & wildlife. What do you think?

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