Paving Roads For Conservation or Development

Tribal people have been forcibly evicted from India’s Kanha Tiger Reserve in the name of tiger conservation, according to Survival International. Evicted tribespeople report that the Forest Department threatened to release elephants to trample their houses and crops if they did not leave immediately.

The area is the ancestral home of the Baiga and Gond tribes, who face a desperate future without their forests.

The families were harassed for years to leave the reserve. When they were finally evicted, they received no land or help in establishing their lives outside. Months after their eviction, families report that they have received only a fraction of the compensation they were expecting. Others have received nothing.

“We got some money, but we are lost – wandering in search of land”, said a tribal spokesperson evicted from Jholar village in Kanha. “Here there is only sadness. We need the jungle.”

The communities have now been scattered among the surrounding villages. One Baiga man told Survival before the eviction: “They want to give us money. We don’t want money. We want land. Money doesn’t mean anything to us. It comes and it goes.”

In a similar eviction in December 2013, 32 Khadia families were moved out of Similipal Tiger Reserve in Odisha state and were living in dire conditions under plastic sheets. They have not received the compensation they were promised.

In a letter to India’s Tiger Conservation Authority, Survival reports: “Since their eviction, families report having had to ‘scatter’ to different villages; receiving abuse, including racial abuse, from residents of the villages where they are trying to settle; being tricked and cheated by middle men and land agents; and feeling lost, frightened and without means of livelihood or hope for their future.”

It also accuses the Tiger Authority of gross infringements of the tribal peoples legal rights to stay in, live from, and protect their forests as enshrined in both Indian and international law.

As Survival points out in a letter to the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), which has been providing infrastructural support, training and equipment for frontline Forest Department staff:

“The evictions are also illegal under both the Wildlife (Protection) Act Amendment (2006) and the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006 (FRA) because the gram sabhas (village councils) of these villages did not give their free, prior, informed consent and people left under duress.

“A vital prerequisite to relocation under both acts is that villagers’ forest rights should be recognised, but this process had hardly begun in these villages, and many people did not even know about the FRA.”

None of the required conditions were fulfilled in Kanha.

“What’s happening in Kanha epitomizes the ugly side of the conservation industry”, said Survival’s Director Stephen Corry. “Thousands of tourists career through the park in noisy jeeps, clamoring to take photos of the beleaguered tigers. Meanwhile, Baiga communities that have carefully managed the tiger’s habitat over generations are annihilated by forced evictions.

“The irony appears to be lost on the conservationists. If India doesn’t allow the Baiga and Gond to return and prevent further villagers being kicked out, these communities will be completely destroyed. Evicting tribes won’t save the tiger. Tribal peoples are the best conservationists.”

In response to similar heavy-handed and misguided indigenous evictions around the world, Survival has launched its ‘Parks Need Peoples’ campaign, which challenges the current model of conservation.

The core demands are that conservation programs must stick to international law, protect tribal peoples’ rights to their lands, ask them what help they need in protecting their lands, listen to them, and then be prepared to back them up as much as they can.

Survival is now awaiting from WWF answers to a number of questions, including what steps WWF-India has taken to oppose forced relocations and “ensure that WWF-India is not complicit in this gross abuse of the rights of the families evicted from Kanha.”

It also wishes to know whether WWF’s activities in the area are consistent with its own promises on indigenous peoples, and ILO Convention 169 and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

It has also asked the Tiger Authority to “act with great haste to investigate these illegal evictions, bring to justice those members of the relevant Forest Departments who are responsible for these illegalities and ensure that those who wish to return to their homes in Kanha are assisted to do so.

“We also call on you to enact a moratorium on any further relocations from tiger reserves unless and until it can be assured that all the conditions in the Act will be met in all cases.”

In a similar eviction in December 2013, 32 Khadia families were moved out of Similipal Tiger Reserve in Odisha state and were living in dire conditions under plastic sheets. They have not received the compensation they were promised.

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