India Should Preserve Forest Animals Or Forest Peoples?

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It’s easy enough to just confirm priors here over whether India should be preserving forest dwelling peoples or forest dwelling animals. Unfortunately, such knee jerk prejudices don’t really give us all that good a guide to what we should actually do. For we’ve a simple conflict here, between those people and those areas and animals.

If we’re the sort of misanthrope, humanophobic, that populates the environmental movements the answer is obvious. Just clear all those poor people out so that I can bask in the luxury of knowing there’s unadulterated wilderness out there. Very much a rich world desire that. Equally, among the more dyspeptic, level the forests for really, who needs those other 500,000 types of bug?

The actual answer being let’s industrialise India and fast. So that no one is trying to make a living out of farming – or hunter gathering – on an acre or two of marginal land. We then being able to leave that marginal land to the animals.

Canada’s nicely industrialised and they’ve plenty of forest to go round really, don’t they? US forest cover has been increasing since the 1920s on exactly that same basis. Farming the Mid-West in those vast latifundia has meant that New England returns to primary forest. For the first time in what, 300 years? Industrial agriculture, industrialisation all round actually, that’s the way to do it.

In the interim though we’ve this problem:

Millions will be evicted in India after the supreme court ruled that indigenous people illegally living on forest land should move. Campaigners for the rights of tribal and forest-dwelling people have called the court’s decision on Wednesday “an unprecedented disaster,” and “the biggest mass eviction in the name of conservation, ever”. The ruling came in response to petitions filed by various wildlife conservation groups, which wanted the court to declare the 2006 Forest Rights Act invalid. The act gives forest dwelling people the right to their ancestral lands, including those in specially “protected” areas that contain sanctuaries and wildlife parks to conserve wild life. The groups told the court that “tribal” people in 17 states had encroached illegally on these protected areas, jeopardising efforts to protect wildlife and forests. The conservation groups said state governments should see if families could prove their claim under the act and, if they could, they should be allowed to live and work on the land. If they failed to prove their claim, they should be evicted by the state government.

It’s worth noting that it is this process which is the great danger to forests worldwide. It’s not big bad capitalism coming in to plough it all up for soybeans – that’s the Cerrado, the savannah perhaps but not the forests – it’s poor people trying to slash and burn for a crop or two. The longer term solution being to make people not poor through development.

In the short term though, well, sadly, what’s your prejudice here?