Ground zero of the fight between conservationists, forest dwellers

Ground zero of the fight between conservationists, forest dwellers

Mudumalai Tiger Reserve: Mudumulai, in the misty Nilgiri Hills to the extreme west of Tamil Nadu and neighbouring the national parks in Bandipur (Karnataka) and Wayanad (Kerala), is part of a thickly wooded region that is celebrated by travel guides and wildlife enthusiasts as the “sanctuary of the south".

Wildlife ranging from macaques and langurs to sloth bears and sambhar deer, elephants, leopards, civets and tigers thrives in Mudumulai, whose name translates as the ancient hills.

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It is also home—and a source of livelihood—for 377 mainly tribal families, or 1,538 people, spread across 30 settlements. And it is a focal point of the country’s latest man-animal conflict, pitting land and resource rights of forest dwellers against the cause of wildlife conservation.

One day in July, more than 1,000 people joined a hunger strike to protest the declaration of Mudumulai as “critical tiger habitat" by the ministry of environment and forests that forbade human habitation in the area. They were also protesting a ban on the collection of forest produce including firewood, a ban on grazing and night restrictions on vehicular traffic clamped as part of the declaration.

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M. Ganeshamurthy, a shy tribesman in his early 20s, didn’t need much persuasion to travel more than 500km by bus to join the protest. Ganeshamurthy sympathizes with the cause of the Mudumulai people because he is a resident of Kalakkad-Munduthurai Tiger Reserve, a declared critical tiger habitat and where, too, forest dwellers face the threat of eviction.

“We are tied to this land," he said. “Every time we go down to the plains, our first thoughts go back to the village."

The two reserves are among 36 wildlife parks nationwide that have been designated critical tiger habitat, requiring people dwelling in the forests and their vicinity to move out.

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There are about 1,500 villages populated by 65,000 families, or 325,000 people, in the so-called core and buffer areas of these parks, which are also home to 1,411 of the big cats, according to the latest tiger census and the Tiger Task Force report-2005.

Mudumulai itself is populated by 38 tigers, according to the forest department. Buxa Tiger Reserve in West Bengal and Satpura Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh have also seen tribal protests in recent months against the parks being declared critical tiger habitat.

Tiger scientist Ulhas Karanth says that for the survival of the tiger, whose diminishing numbers have been a cause of mounting concern among conservationists and policymakers, it is vital to keep the animal’s habitat inviolate.

“In a country like India, this is a dilemma," Karanth says. “We have semi-natural ecosystems, which cover about 10% of India’s land, and 4% is under protected areas. We have passed the point of squeezing this further. If the problems of a billion people have not been solved with 96% of the land then the remaining 4% cannot save them."

Root of the conflict

The current conflict is, ironically, rooted in a 2006 law that sought to confer on forest dwellers and tribal communities rights to land and forest resources they had lived off for generations; such rights had not been recognized in any land record since independence.

Conservationists and the ministry of environment and forests had warned that the Scheduled Tribes and Traditional Forest Dwellers Act, or forest rights Act, whose rules were notified in December last year, and which is now in the implementation phase, would be bogged down exactly where it is at risk of getting mired— in the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.

The rules of the Act were notified in early 2008. Opponents of the Act have argued that it will lead to massive forest destruction.

The ministry of environment and forests had the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, amended in December 2006 to try and keep at least the tiger reserves out of the purview of the Forest Rights Act. Tiger parks until then didn’t have any legal status; they were merely an area designated to benefit from funds allocated to Project Tiger, which was launched in the early 1970s to protect the tiger from ruthless poaching that had led its population to fall.

The amendment gave legal backing to the idea of tiger reserves as a critical habitat and later executive orders ensured that such areas would be made inviolate and people living there relocated. Two officials from the ministry of environment and forests declined to comment on the matter, citing its “sensitive nature."

Villagers say the critical tiger habitats were notified in great haste, just two days before the rules of the Forest Rights Act were published. And although the so-called core regions of critical tiger habitat need to be free of human presence, the rules require gram sabhas, or village councils, to be informed about the scientific basis for declaring the areas inviolate. Regardless of any relocation, forest dwellers’ rights to land and other resources have to be signed off by a district-level committee. These rules were overlooked, according to the villagers.

Rules bypassed

“We were just sent a notice and told. No gram sabhas were called nor any discussion held, nor have any rights been settled," said D. Rajan, of Moyar village in Mudumulai tiger reserve.

The forest department admits that some provisions have been overlooked. “The processes in the sequence have not been followed. We are currently in the process of obtaining gram sabha agreements," said Rajiv K. Srivastava, field director of Mudumulai Tiger Reserve.

Rajan and 3,000 other residents of the village are at the risk of losing water and grazing rights. According to the critical tiger habitat guidelines, no non-forestry activity will be tolerated in the core zone, but habitation and limited usage of the buffer zone around the core will be allowed. Though Moyar villagers retain their houses, the grazing lands for their cattle and water resources are inside the core zone.

The collection and sale of cow dung, used as fuel and fertilizer, was one way villagers earned a living. That has stopped with the establishment of more check-points, which do not allow them to take it out. Villagers have also been banned from using mud, stones and grass from the parks that they need to strengthen their huts.

The Chettys

The Moundadan Chettys, whose habitation in the Nilgiris (a part of it is in Mudumalai Tiger Reserve) dates back ages, complain that they have been isolated in their own land, cut off from the outside world and left with no access to basic services since the area was declared a wildlife sanctuary 68 years ago. There are 260 Chetty families in the sanctuary area.

Chain gates erected at the entrance of villages restrict the movement of residents and there are no roads, electricity, health services, educational institutes and communication facilities, says C.R. Krishnan, adviser to the Nilgiri district Moundadan Chetty Community Association.

The Chettys went to court in 1998, petitioning that they be relocated to Ayyangolli outside the protected area. The court, in a February 2007 order, said those willing to relocate may be rehabilitated in the area with equal land and compensation for their houses and trees.

“These people have no other option but to move out and let go of centuries of history and belonging," said Krishnan.

The relocation for the Chettys has been approved and funds have already been allocated. “Now the revenue department will ascertain the value of the lands and give us the (rehabilitation) plan," said Srivastava.

But where the Chettys find a sense of belonging, the forest department sees a wildlife habitat.

“As I stood there, I imagined that once the villages were outside, how the whole area would slowly become grassland, from the hills to the plains," said Srivastava.

(This is the first part of a three-part series; the second part will be about the difficulties facing the implementation of the Forest Rights Act.)