May 17, 2012

People and Forests – An inherent togetherness

Forests across the country and the state have a significant percentage of adivasi
population, dependent on natural resources for their livelihood. These diverse
communities have had a symbiotic relationship in the past but are now fragmented
and few in number yet strung together culturally. The more than fifty indigenous
groups who reside in the forests of Karnataka have lived in these regions for countless

Often, forests mean many things to many people. It is a source for food for some,
supply of medicinal plants for others and a valuable economic source of timber for
many. All these are traditional demands that have been met by the forest since life
began on earth. There would be infact few forests that do not provide benefits to
either man or animal, in one way or the other. This role of the forest as a mutual agent
of assistance is acknowledged by millions countrywide. For them, the forest is the
omnipresent philanthropist, always ready to give.

Adivasis began using forest resources many centuries ago, as a result of which, their
indigenous and ethno-botanical knowledge of their surroundings is immense and
diversified. Numerous instances have been documented wherein the adivasis shows
precise knowledge with respect to the properties of a particular plant.
Traditionally they used to harvest species based on a time tested schedule
resulting in minimal harm to the harvested species. Besides adivasi paintings and oral
tradition continually make a mention of their relations with the forest. Traditional
vaidyas are still the mainstay for indigenous people and their services taken great use
of. This reciprocal relationship underscores the importance and need to preserve Non
timber Forest Produce (NTFP) resources. They collect NTFPs for trade, honey being
one of the major items. Other items collected for trade are mainly resin, gooseberry,
myrobalans, soapnut, eecham grass, wild pepper and nutmeg, etc. The collection is a
major source of seasonal livelihood for the people.

Traditional and cultural uses of the forests are also high for most adivasi
communities. Their deities live in the forests, with the ensuing protection often
resulting in large tracts being nurtured as ‘sacred groves’. The rules for the use of
such forests is strictly governed by the community and punishments meted out to
those who violate the unwritten law.

However, Indigenous People find themselves in a piquant position today. From the
hitherto generations old custodians of the forest to being frequently branded as the
single biggest reason for resource degradation – most members of the various forest
dwelling tribes wonder where are they going to end up in the coming few decades.

Ecosystem people that they are, inspite of living in resource rich areas, they suffer
from what can be termed material poverty. Surrounded by relatively prosperous
communities of outsiders, indigenous people feel a deep sense of apathy at their
present condition and often tend to blindly follow the ways of the dominant and richer
communities. This has had and impact on their culture, food and overall lifestyle.
The vicious cycle including factors as loss of tenural rights over forests, loss of food
security and a high degree of dependency upon wage labour has led to a breakdown
in their community governance systems and to an increase in indebtedness to money lenders.

Hemmed in by all sides, adivasis continue to languish at the lowest strata of society.
Their present skills leaves them ill-equipped to work in the normal structure of the
mainstream society and poor education levels often means that all they end up with
in the name of work is wage labour. It is a catch 22 situation gone haywire for most
members of these communities. The tenuous links with ancient forests is weakening
rapidly, they are ill at ease with the modern world. Just as it is necessary to provide
a safe refuge to diverse fauna, it is also difficult to ignore the communities who have
traditionally lived by the forests and accessed it for their livelihood. Can they be made
partners in forest management and continue to protect its resources, undertaking the
least damaging activity of NTFP collection, rather than large scale mutilation of forest
regions. These are a few questions that beg serious discourse as involving them in
forest protection is seemingly the best way ahead, as opposed to their ever increasing
dependence upon wage labour – a highly exploitative occupation. The indigenous
people, if made a modern day guardian, will result in being the pre-eminent defender
of the forest, augmenting the efforts of the solitary forest guard, significantly.