Situated on the Kerala-Karnataka border is the Nagarahole Tiger Reserve, where a struggle led by tribals is calling for an end to forced evictions in the name of wildlife conservation and demanding the right to go back to the forest.
Nagarahole Adivasi Forest Rights Establishment Committee (Nagarahole Adivasi Jamma Pale Hakku Sthaapana Samiti) – an organisation fighting for Adivasi rights led a march or padyatra from 15 March to 21 March inside the forest. The march ended in front of the Range Forest Office in Nagarahole.
For the Adivasi communities of Nagarahole – Jenu Kuruba, Betta Kuruba, and Yerava – the forest sustains their lives. They have for generations relied on the forest for food and medicine.
However, ever since Nagarahole was declared a tiger reserve in 1999, hundreds of Adivasi residents have been displaced, as per Shivu, a 27-year-old from the Jenu Kuruba community, who is one of the members leading the movement.
The youth among the indigenous communities have now joined to form Community Networks Against Protected Areas (CNAPA), which includes activists from communities that reside in Tiger Reserves like Kaziranga (Assam), Nagarahole (Karnataka), Rajaji (Rishikesh), Mudumalai (Tamil Nadu), Gir (Gujarat), among others.
The residents believe that as original habitants of the forest lands they should have community ownership and that they should be allowed to live in their villages without threat or coercion.
'A Way to Destroy Our Way of Life'
Speaking to The Quint, Shivu said, “We have lived in the forest with the trees and animals as one. We have historically protected these forests because of the way of our culture. But the agenda of the government and wildlife conservation organisations like World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) is to destroy our way of life.”
Giving the example of Nagarahole, he said, “Instead of intervening in areas where forests are actually being destroyed, they come to our areas where we have kept our forests safe, and want to then claim that they are the ones protecting it.”
CNAPA activists claim that there is a nexus between coffee-estate owners, forest officials, and wildlife conservation organisations.
Nearly one-third of the 2,785 Adivasi families in Nagarahole have been relocated over the past two decades.
More importantly, as per the residents who were relocated to camps outside the forest, they are not allowed to enter the forest to offer prayers to their deities or collect forest produce on which their livelihood depended.
JR Lakshmi, a 45-year-old gram panchayat member from Nalkeri village told The News Minute, “We were forced to hunt for government documents from before 2005 to prove we cultivated or used the land we were staking claim to."
While the residents have been filing claims under the Scheduled Tribes And Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition Of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, which recognises the Adivasis’ relation with the forest and provides a set of community, and individual rights to use the forest produce, statewide figures as of November 2022, indicate that nearly 84 percent of claims filed under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) had been rejected in Karnataka.
"They fooled us so now we want to go back. We were made to sign papers but we did not know what they meant," a resident said on 22 March at a two-day seminar organised by CNAPA at the Indian Social Institute, Bengaluru.
Meanwhile, Shivu added:
“Even the little land given to us is unfertile. We can't grow anything there. And because residents had to develop new eating habits (since forest access was prohibited), diseases have now taken root. Our youth is dying in this environment."
He added, "Our identity as tribals is vanishing. Forest officials are violating our rights and are continuing to evict us, calling it ‘voluntary relocation’."
'Forceful Eviction, Not Relocation'
Soudamma, 39, a member of the Jenu Kuruba tribe, had relocated from her village in Nagarahole National Park in 2011. She was resettled nearly 70 km in another village on the edge of the forest.
Speaking to The Quint, she says, “Only 20 out of the 42 families in our village were ready for resettlement. I was not prepared to leave. Our family was forcibly evicted from the land by threats of home demolition. The forest department officials threatened us with the release of tigers and elephants in our region. They promised us Rs 10 lakh per family but deducted Rs 7 lakh for the new land and house. Some people have received as little as Rs 1.5 lakh.”
She added, “We were told that we would be allowed to visit our sacred sites and burial grounds. Now they stop us from entering the forest."
She further claimed that the previous year, when they managed to enter the forest, forest department officials on finding them out, destroyed their food and beat them up.
The community now continues to resist eviction attempts, and those relocated earlier continue to enter the forest every year to claim their land ownership rights.