Synopsis: Indigenous people are in a state of unrest ever since the ministry of environment and forests started identifying potential heritage sites. The dilemma of tribal rights and forest conservation requires an urgent solution.
- The indigenous people of the Western Ghats, including the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups, constitute 44.2% of the tribal population of 6.95% of Karnataka.
- The Western Ghats are also home to a substantial population of communities like Gowlis, Kunbis, Halakki Vakkala, Kare Vakkala, Kunbi, and Kulvadi Marathi.
- In the context of the Forest Rights Act, they are treated as ‘other traditional forest dwellers’ since they have been living there for at least three generations prior to December 13, 2005 and depend on the forest or forest land for their livelihood needs.
However, these tribal are facing an uncertain future, ever since the World Heritage Site recognition to the 39 areas in western ghats including national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, and reserved forests.
How the Declaration of heritage sites will impact the indigenous tribes?
2012, UNESCO recognition of World Heritage Site to areas of Western Ghats is critical for due to their biodiversity value. Ten of them are in Karnataka. But it will have consequences for indigenous tribes;
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- These tribal depend on the forest or forest land for their livelihood needs by collecting ‘minor forest produce’ such as cinnamon and kokum from the forest.
- The record of Karnataka is dismal in providing recognition to tribal claims. Govt. recognized only 5.7% of the total claims made and disposed of 70% of the claims.
- The majority of the claims rejected were of other traditional forest dwellers that were not backed by evidences.
- Indigenous people fear for their existence in lands that they had inhabited for decades. The restrictions on movement following the declaration of these territories as ecologically sensitive areas distressed them further.
- An approach adopted to isolate the indigenous people from their natural habitats to protect biodiversity could emerge as the root cause of conflict between them and conservationists.
- The Global Environment Outlook Report 5 mentions that there is decreased biodiversity across the globe even as ‘protected areas’ have been expanding.
- As per the government, until 1980, 43 lakh hectares of forestland encroached both legally and illegally. But nothing concrete has been done on this behalf.
- Whereas, the combined stretch of land claimed by OTD is smaller than the land which is used for building dams, mining, laying railway lines and roads, power plants, etc.
The way forward
- First, the rights of the people who depend on the forest are equally important as is the declaration of the Western Ghats as a World Heritage Site.
- Second, as confirmed internationally, preserving biodiversity requires the legal empowerment of the people living in those areas.
- Third, the government must make an effort to build trust between its agencies in the area and the people who depend on these forests by treating them as equal citizens like everyone else in the country.
People living in nature’s surroundings are integral to conservation as they relate with it in a more integrated and spiritual way.