Philosophical Foundation of Tribal-Forest Interface
Thursday, July 05, 2007
Philosophical Foundation of Tribal-Forest Interface

By Pradeep Baisakh

Among the Warli tribal community of Maharastra a rat story is popular. The story is as follows. " In ancient time when the man decided to start agriculture by gradually shifting from hunting and food gathering, he approached different creatures for a grain of paddy to plant, but in vain. The rat came to his rescue and gave him a seed from its own savings. The man then cultivated paddy and made good harvests. In reciprocation to the help of rat the man promised him a fixed quota of paddy from paddy field each time it harvests. So, when the rat takes some paddy from the field, in the understanding of this community, it does not amount to stealing but it is the fulfillment of the promise made by the man to repay the debt it owed to rat from ancient time ." The moral of the story: the human being should not only think about its own living but also for all other living creatures, and they have to live in harmony with each other. Similar stories are prevalent which teach the tribal communities about the harmonious relationship they have to maintain with the forest, for forest gives them the livelihood and in turn they have to protect it. Forest is not a commodity for the tribal people to enjoy and then ditch after its utility is finished, but it is his/her God (or mother) who s/he worships and makes only limited use based on need. There are some trees which are so sacrosanct to a particular tribal community that it does not cut or destroy those species. This is sacred for him/her and s/he identifies the species with its ancestors, therefore worships and protects it. The concept of 'Sacred Groves' has come from this aspect of tribal culture. To understand the relationship between tribal and forest one has to analyze the personified relationship it bears with the latter. Various trees are equated with various gods or highly respected ancestors. Before a tree is cut for any purpose, the tribal, standing before it, murmurs about the purpose and seek permission from the same for cutting. In the so called modern understanding it might all sound superstitious, but there lies the true philosophy of the tribal-forest interface.

During British period the alien rulers by legislating the Indian Forest Act 1927 (IFA) declared the State supremacy over the forest for meeting its timber needs in building railway tracks, house building wooden accessories etc. As a result, the cultural rights of the tribals over the forest were taken away by the State in a single sweep; the practice even the government of independent India perpetuated. This is termed as 'Historical Injustice' on the tribals. In independent India many of the forest areas were declared as Reserve Forests and Sanctuaries with the declared objective to protect the forests. The tribals were made to leave such forest areas to be resettled and rehabilitated elsewhere which, in most of the cases, were not properly done by the authorities leaving the tribals in hi and dry.

The very concept of 'protecting the forest by declaring them Reserve forest and Sanctuaries' lies in the philosophy derived from Judeo-Christian approach. As against the personalized relationship between the human and forest, the concept dwells on the commodification or objectification of forest. The underlying belief is that the human can protect the forest because it can destroy the forest. If one objectively analyses the causes of disappearance of forest, one can easily come to the conclusion that tribals have never been the cause of the same though these innocent people have been used by the non-tribals to cut the forest for commercial purposes. In fact, minute observation of the various tribal practices would reveal that conservation concept is implicit in their very life style. The statistics provided by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs suggest that nearly 70% of the protected forests are in the scheduled and tribal areas. This is testimony of the fact that tribals are the best protectors of the forest.

The modern intelligentsia, the political class, the bureaucracy and the courts have developed their understanding of tribal-forest relationship based on the western concept of 'Commodification of Forest'. Since the tribal lobby over the issue of their inherent rights over the forest has been visibly insignificant, almost all the legislation in the centre and the States toed the line of this concept-that forest can be best protected if there is no human being inside. In the follow up to the Godavarman vs the Union of India and others, which is being heard by the Supreme Court since 1995, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (mOef) issued a circular in 2002 directing the State governments and UTs to remove encroachments from the forest mentioning that the Supreme Court had expressed concern over the issue. In response to the circular, various state governments like Assam, Maharastra, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh etc started massive eviction drive of the tribals and other forest dwellers.

Joint Forest management (JFM) is a forest conservation mechanism being promoted by the World Bank now which has been accepted by the central government in the policy level and is also being implemented. As against the self-initiated conservation mechanism by the local people the JFM promotes plantation of timber wood varieties like Acacia, Eucalyptus etc. which, the research based studies suggest, are unfit for providing shelter to the birds, squirrels etc. who live building their nests in trees. The species also prevent the rain water to percolate into ground; their leaves are non degradable; their presence prevent the growth of other trees to grow around that area so on and so forth.

Sensing the threat to the rights of tribals due to the fall out of aforesaid Supreme Court orders and the government's obsession with the JFM mechanism of forest conservation, a lobby of tribal rights activists and tribal based people's organisations gradually gained ground and finally it succeeded in the passage of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 undoing the 'Historical Injustice' done to the tribals form the alien rule. The assumption behind the legislation is that the tribals are the best protectors of the forest, which has been witnessed from time immemorial. It is based on the true understanding of the tribal culture of forest and wild life conservation.


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