BHUBANESWAR, India, Feb 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) -
T he tigers that roam the dense forests of eastern India have
more clout than the people they live alongside, tribal activists
say, as a drive to boost lucrative wildlife tourism trumps the
rights of poor indigenous villagers.
Tiger and man both exist in dwindling numbers in Similipal
forests, with a race now on to see which mammal will win
priority in the place both call home.
"Why are indigenous people being asked outright to leave
without even attempting to explore reasonable options of
co-existence with wildlife?" asked Sanghamitra Dubey who works
with an informal Indian advocacy group for forestry rights.
Dubey said families had been stripped of their ancestral
lands to protect the shrinking tiger stock and traditional ways
of life - such as ancient rope plaiting - had been decimated.
India has about half the world's estimated 3,200 tigers in
dozens of reserves established since the 1970s, with some of the
designated land shared with ancient tribal villagers.
Wildlife tourism is a growing money maker for India though
conservationists are divided as to whether travellers help
protect threatened species or encroach on their habitat.
NOTICE TO QUIT
Last November, hundreds of families from 44 tribal villages
were asked to leave their homes to ensure the security of a
local tiger habitat.
The villages, spread over hills and valleys around Odisha's
Similipal Tiger reserve, had secured rights to the area - nearly
25,000 hectares of woodlands - just months before.
Under India's Forest Rights Act of 2006, tribal households
can harvest and use forest resources to maintain their ancestral
Anup Kumar Nayak, a senior forest officer in Bhubaneswar,
told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that wildlife protection
laws forbid humans from living within critical wildlife habitat
or what is deemed the 'core zone' of a national park.
He said relocations are voluntary but a number of villages
around Similipal were in the 'core' habitat zone or so close
they were "as good as inside it" and would need to move.
"(Only) the buffer zone is for human-animal co-existence"
Yet activists say Indian wildlife protection laws stipulate
there must be scientific evidence that human activity is
irretrievably destroying tiger habitat before any relocations.
Villagers reported a visit in November by parks officials
who offered them a one-off payment to leave their homes and
lands under a plan to clear forest lands of human activity.
Tribandha Barja, a member of a 144-tribal household in
Khejuri village on the outskirts of the reserve, said most
people refused the payment.
"(They told us) take one million rupees ($14,960) keep it in
the bank and live better with the bank interest," Barja told the
Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Dubey, of advocacy group CFR, said 50 families in the
neighbouring village of Kiajhari were also targeted for
re-location. "It is not even close to the core zone," Dubey
Official figures show the tiger reserve covers about 2,750
square kilometers (1,062 square miles) of dense forest and rich,
bio-diverse land and adjoining forest that is used by other
wildlife as a corridor.
Authorities estimate that 10,000 people live within the park
and in buffer-zone areas, while half a million people in 1,200
villages live in a 10-km radius around the park.
Odisha's 10-year tiger conservation plan suggests that a
population of 80 to 100 tigers need an inviolate space of
between 800 and 1,000 sq km.
Nayak said the relocation programme follows this plan.
However after 43 years as a protected area, the official
Odisha government tiger count last year found just 26 Royal
Bengal tigers in the Similipal reserve.
END OF THE ROPE
In the village of Jamunagarh, in the park's 'core', just
three families of more than 35 families have decided to stay on
and continue to use the land they won in 2015. The others chose
to take the compensation and move away.
Telenga Hasa, one of the holdouts, told the Thomson Reuters
Foundation that neighbouring families had been paid one million
rupees ($14,960) via bank deposit in September 2015 - of which
30,000 rupees ($449) was paid in cash.
All are still waiting to be allocated the two acres of
farmland they were promised.
"Now they have no forests, no farm land and no livelihood
…how can they live with dignity?" Hasa said, adding that another
25 families who live in the hillside village of Bakua have
decided to stay on, too.
Deepak Pani, a spokesman for the activist group Gram Swaraj,
says the Mankidia and Khadia - two nomadic forager groups - are
the worst affected. He said the Forest Rights Act is supposed to
protect their ancient cultural and livelihood traditions, but
had not been enforced.
Arun Mankidia, whose family live in Dengam village on the
outskirts of the tiger reserve, said his people have been forced
to abandon their ancient rope-making traditions.
The rope, plaited from a sacred grove creeper known as
'siali', which grows in abundance in the park, is very strong
and in high demand among farmers in rural areas.
Now, local families have been forced to buy plastic potato
sacks at three rupees ($0.04) each so they can painstakingly
unravel the strands and re-plait them into ropes, which are sold
for little more than their cost.
($1 = 66.8450 Indian rupees)
(Reporting by Manipadma Jena, Editing by Paola Totaro and
Lyndsay Griffiths.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters
Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers
humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights
and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)