Magazine article New Internationalist

Sweat and Sorrow

Magazine article New Internationalist

Sweat and Sorrow

Article excerpt

Marl Marcel Thekaekara appeals for NI readers' help to protect the threatened livelihoods of tribal peoples living in the forests of southern India

Chembakolly village is an idyllic little adivasi (tribal) settlement in the heart of the Mudumalai forest, in the Nilgiri mountains of Tamil Nadu, South India. In the last week of September last year a posse of Forest Department officials descended on the tiny hamlet and unleashed a reign of terror. They ripped up precious pepper vines, cut down the host dadop trees and hacked wildly at everything around.

Soman, a young adivasi, was devastated. 'I wept at his [the forest ranger's] feet and pleaded: "Please don't cut my pepper. These plants are like my children. I have looked after them for years.'" The ranger was unmoved. Another adivasi, Marigan, pleaded: 'We have lived here all our lives. Our ancestors are all buried in this place.'

'Dogs! Encroachers of government land!' was the ranger's response. 'In a month I'll be back to raze your huts to the ground. This is a warning. As long as I'm around I'll make sure not one of you gets water or electricity.'

About 50 years ago the entire forest had belonged to the adivasis, They were free to come and go as they pleased, planting roots and tubers, little patches of ragi, a few vegetables. When someone died they burnt down all their huts and moved on -- a sensible precaution when you considered that they had little with which to fight infectious diseases.

In the last 15 years, however, things had become tougher. Increasingly, the adivasis (who came from a number of different tribal groups) encountered hostility and aggression from the Forest Department. The forest was declared 'reserved' and they were forbidden to fish, hunt, gather forest produce -- activities that had always been their birthright.

So a group of them decided to end the migratory habits of centuries and to stay in one place. Some of them were Bettakurumbas -- who'd been promised relocation by the forest department from the touristy part of the 'reserve' to a more remote area. The others were Kattunaickens -- who'd always occupied some part of the Chembakolly forest. Their entire way of life was intimately linked with the forest and a life outside was absolutely unthinkable.

Realization dawned late, but it hit them suddenly that if they wanted to hold on to their ancestral lands they would have to prove possession. This was like Australian aboriginal people being told they were on Terra Nullius, 'empty' land, and the Crown was in possession of it all. …

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