Saving tigers, killing people
States are evicting and murdering Indigenous people in the guise of biodiversity conservation.
By: Souparna Lahiri
From forced eviction to restrictions on access to resources, conservation practices have long been tied to violence against the indigenous peoples that live in forest areas. In recent years, we witnessed an exponential increase in conservation-related violence across the world.
Today, as conservation efforts become more and more militarised, state-sponsored actors are not only evicting and restricting the movements of indigenous community members, but also killing them for allegedly trespassing on their own ancestral lands.
In India, conservation violence seems to be on the rise.
On June 5, a 40-year-old villager named Roopchand Sonwane was beaten to death by Forest Department Officials in the central Indian State of Madhya Pradesh, near Pench Tiger Reserve. Sonwane was simply collecting firewood, but officials suspected he was preparing to fell teak trees so they detained him and took him to a forest ranger’s residence. At the residence, they beat up and killed the villager and later burned his body to destroy evidence.
In November 2017, two people were killed and five others injured when police opened fire to disperse protesters demanding compensation before they move out of areas near the Kaziranga National Park as part of a state-sanctioned eviction drive.
Also in November last year, over 700 families were rendered homeless by a similar eviction drive in the Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary located in the northeast Indian state of Assam. A posse of 1,500 policemen carried out the eviction razing houses, demolishing schools and places of worship, and injuring women and children in the process.
Since 2007, Forest Department Officials shot and killed at least 13 villagers in the Buxa National Park, a Tiger Reserve situated along the foothills of the eastern Himalayas in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal. Officials claimed the killed villagers were part of a so-called “timber mafia”.
Elsewhere in the Indian states of Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, coercive relocation of forest communities is continuing in the protected areas of Nagarhole, Achanakmar, Udanti, Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, Melghat, and Pench.
For decades, India’s Forest Department officials – aided and abetted by the omnipotent National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) – have been implementing a violent policy of “people-less conservation” resulting in human rights violations.
But, of course, people-less conservation is not a problem specific to India. Across the world, governments have long been using the need for the conservation of land and wildlife as an excuse to remove Indigenous communities from their homes, sometimes with the support of large international conservation groups.
Targeted relocation and eviction of indigenous and local communities living in biodiversity-rich ecosystems for conservation, have, over the years, brutalised, belittled and decimated them. Communities have gone extinct, their traditions, language and culture vanishing forever.
Take the example of San and Bakgalagadi people who have been removed from their ancestral lands to make way for the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana or the Miwok people who were forced to leave the Yosemite National Park in California. Maasai of eastern Africa were similarly pushed off their traditional grazing lands to make way for the parks that foreign tourists enjoy today. The Dongi-Dongi people were evicted from their homes in Sulawesi, Indonesia and the Banding Agung were removed from the Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park in Sumatra.
One study estimates that as many as 14 million people in Africa alone have become “conservation refugees” since the beginning of modern conservation efforts in the 19th century. In India, the government also admits pushing over a million people out of National Parks, mostly to protect tigers.
Today, most governments around the world imitate this Western style of people-less conservation and continue to disregard community-based conservation systems where communities can coexist with wildlife.
But globally, there is a wealth of knowledge and documentation around Community Conserved Areas (CCAs) where local communities have championed biodiversity protection.
A growing body of scientific evidence shows that forest communities and indigenous peoples actively conserve and restore biodiversity in their territories, with women often taking the lead in such conservation efforts. Studies show that such conservation governance systems are often more effective in protecting biodiversity than systems that prioritise formation of state-controlled conservation areas.
Moreover, when protected areas overlap with the traditional territories of indigenous communities, they harm the communities’ health, livelihoods and spiritual wellbeing. Protected areas threaten essential aspects of the communities’ resilience, such as their autonomy and self-management.
Community-based conservation systems protect the land and wildlife while also taking local people’s rights, knowledge, culture and skills, as well as their right to land and territory into consideration.
Indigenous communities have conserved their territories for millennia through their own customary practices. They are closely connected to these ecosystems.
Therefore, the mainstream, militarised conservation model supported by states like India and often big international conservation NGOs must change. It must give way to a more humane and community-centred, managed and governed model of conservation that will not only protect our forests and conserve biodiversity, but will also secure livelihoods, provide shelter and ensure the well-being of millions of people who call forests their home.