When People Must Make Way for Nature

It is the black before dawn at the gate to the Kanha Tiger Reserve, in the highlands of central India. The still air carries a dank, penetrating chill. But it is hardly quiet. A buzzing line of tourists is forming at the ticket booth, peddlers are pouring steaming cups of tea.  Groups of green-uniformed rangers chat at the entrance. Across the street, dozens of drivers are forming up a military-type vehicle convoy, ready for the visitors to board for the daily sunrise invasion of drive-through safaris.

It was Kanha’s lushly forested hills and ravines that inspired Rudyard Kipling’s famous story collection The Jungle Book, and it is a must-do tourist stop. Unlike much of rapidly developing India, it abounds in wildlife; it is home not only to Bengal tigers, but leopards, sloth bears, unique deer species and other rare and endangered creatures. The 360-square-mile park used to be home also to at least 1,500 extended families, but not anymore. The government started moving them out in the 1970s, and nudged out the last stragglers in 2015. This, theoretically, has been good for the fauna and flora. Whether it has been good for the people is a separate question.

Governments have relocated millions of people worldwide to preserve rare ecosystems. These children and their family resettled from the Kanha Tiger Reserve in the highlands of central India to a small plot of farm land three years ago. Columbia University researchers are studying their fate and those of hundreds of other such families in this area. All photos: Kevin Krajick.

Kanha is a prominent example in a long-running global trend to exclude people from wild areas and move them out to the sea of development where most of the rest of us live. Starting mainly in the 1970s, governments have declared about 12 percent of earth’s land surface protected, and, often, forbidden to human habitation. By one estimate, this has displaced as many as 16 million people in Africa alone. In India, where 5 percent of the land is protected in some way, some 600,000 people were displaced by the 1990s; the figure is surely higher now. Everywhere, indigenous ethnic groups and the poor are the most likely affected.

Such resettlements have long been controversial. Many early ones were done by force. In Kanha and other areas, holdouts more recently have been coaxed out with offers of money, land or jobs. Studies indicate that wildlife often does benefit, but this is not always the case; for one thing, evacuating inhabitants can make it easier for outside poachers—often a worse threat than habitat loss—to operate. In recent years, critics of the “fortress” theory of protected areas have argued that dwellers of remote areas are the best guardians of their resources, and should be incorporated into conservation plans. There are plenty of studies of protected wildlife, but very few of the displaced humans. What there is suggests that the results of moving people often include deterioration of indigenous cultures, reductions in nutrition and health, and conflicts with residents of the often already crowded areas where many relocate. On the other hand, relocated people in some cases get obviously better access to education, health care and the modern economy.

Food security is the No. 1 concern for resettled people. In the village of Ramtila, Suresh Kumar and Jamni Bai separate rice from chaff.

To bring more data to the human question, researchers at Columbia University’s Earth Institute are studying Kanha-area residents who were recently resettled. Graduate student Amrita Neelakantan and a team of pollsters are following some 500 households moved out since 2009 to surrounding areas. Going door to door, they concentrate on asking about diets and use of natural resources—probably the best overall indicators of well-being, says Neelakantan.

Neelakantan’s advisor, Earth Institute professor Ruth deFries, says that the moral question of whether people were better off in the forest is moot; resettlement is an accomplished fact. “We tend to romanticize the lives of forest dwellers. But can you keep people preserved inside a park as museum pieces? Cultures are always changing,” she said. “It’s better to ask: Are people now getting a healthy diet? Health care? Are their kids going to school? We want to know how people are doing, so we can figure out how to make this work.”

What is now Kanha was inhabited for centuries by the Baiga and Gond people, indigenous ethnic groups who traditionally lived off hunting, gathering and small-scale nomadic slash-and-burn agriculture. The Baiga in particular were intimately tied to the landscape. They viewed settled farming in any one spot as disrespectful scratching at the breast of the earth. The dangers of the forest were part of life and death; a person killed by a tiger received a special funeral ceremony.

The family of Geeta Dhurve, here with her son, was told to leave Kanha in the 1970s, before she was born. “If you want to know anything about the jungle, you would have to ask my father-in-law,” she said.

Bengal tigers weigh up to 650 pounds and can measure 10 feet from nose to tail. During Kipling’s era, in the early 20th century, India had as many as 40,000. By the 1970s they were down to 1,800, victims of poaching and habitat loss. (Worldwide, tigers have now lost over 90 percent of their original ranges, and are endangered pretty much everywhere.) To protect them and other endangered flora and fauna, the Indian government carried out largely forced relocations at Kanha and other reserves in the 1970s and 1990s. In 2005, national legislation forbade forced resettlement, but stories have continued to emerge of authorities in the neighboring state of Chhattisgarh and other places demolishing villages, beating people or otherwise forcing them out—in some cases not to preserve the land, but rather to open it to loggers and miners.

Around Kanha, things have gone relatively peaceably. Since 2009, each adult in a resettled family has signed consent papers and received the equivalent of $15,000—a sizable sum here. People can move wherever they want, but many have stayed close to their old homes and bought land in or near the park’s 390-square mile buffer zone. Here, farming and gathering of forest resources is permitted, though regulated. Hunting is forbidden. Many cultivate small plots and hire out as day labor.

Overall in India, tigers are still struggling to make a comeback, but the Kanha population, once down to as few as 50, is now up to about 100. Other species have multiplied, too. As for the displaced people, Neelakantan says the data so far suggest that they are not exerting undue pressure on most of the outlying lands to which they have moved. But it does appear that they often have to work harder to feed themselves than do their longer-established neighbors. Also, she says, the poorest resettled people tend to cluster in hot spots where established neighbors are equally poor. This clustering may have to do with factors including the quality of the land, how far people must travel to get firewood, the distance to markets where they can sell their produce, and how well they invested their payouts, she says.

The day before one recent survey sweep, Neelankatan strolled around Botalbehra, a small, dusty village just outside the park, where inhabitants of the eponymous village of Kanha were resettled en masse in the 1970s. Neelakantan struck up random conversations, asking about people’s experiences. Some elders seemed to retain the lore and ways of the forest. Dussri Bai and her daughter Susheela Bai held forth about collecting mushrooms and honey nearby. They also discussed the copious tattoos that people of this area are fond of; among other things, the ladies sported images of scorpions and flowers. For younger people, though, traditional life seems a distant memory. Everyone here has a permanent plot of land. Kids go to the village school. Many adults work in tourism. “Even girls can do everything now,” said Dussri airily. “They can leave and go to the city if they want!”

Satanti Bai (left) and Chait Singh seem happy together in their new home in the village of Thurremetta, to which they moved three years ago. Their garden supplies vegetables daily. But life here is different, says Chait. “In the forest, if you see a tree with fruit, you just take it—it’s not considered stealing,” he said. “Not here.”

Next day, Neelakantan and her 12-member polling team fanned out into surrounding areas to do formal surveys. In the morning, she sat in on an interview with a Gond farmer named Darshan Markam, at his house near the village of Sayal Tikratola. He said his family had relocated from the now-demolished village of Sukhri three years ago. Like many others, they hired a truck and brought everything they could move, including the beams from their old house, now installed in their new one. He did not seem to have many complaints; they have four acres from which they feed themselves rice, with a bit left over to sell. From a nearby market, in the last week the family bought eggplants, taro, guava, soy oil. They own a TV, a cell phone, a motorcycle and a tractor. “No one is hungry here,” he said. When asked why his family left the forest, his answer was concise: “The government told us to.”

Down the road and across a series of diked rice paddies, the survey team met another family from Sukhri, headed by Nazar Singh Markam and his wife, Janni Bai. Their story was similar. They had a couple acres, and a handsome compound of houses. Their belongings were simpler—no tractor, just a homemade, hand-drawn cart—but they have enough to eat. They even have meat once a week, a rarity for poorer neighbors. Their answer to why they moved was identical to the one that everyone else would give: The government told us to.

Not everyone was doing so well. Later that afternoon, the team visited Meena Bai, an older woman living in a small village. She said she survived mostly off rice, and got vegetables only once a week. Some days she had to go hungry, or borrow something from a neighbor. She claimed to have no phone or any other assets to speak of. In her six-person household, she is the eldest. None of them has any education to speak of. “I’m tired of this interview,” she said suddenly, and got up to go inside. The survey person gently talked her into finishing.

One day, Neelakantan declared a holiday for the survey team and rewarded members with tickets to a half-day safari in the park, compliments of friendly forest-service authorities. Shortly after the sun came up, they took off with guides in a couple of open-air vehicles into the network of narrow dirt roads that wind through parts of the forest. It was easy to see why the place was so popular. Right along the roads in fields and woods were sambar deer, spotted deer, jackals, wild boars. A couple of rangers came by, riding elephants. A small jungle cat trotted by. A riot of bird calls came from the bush.

Project leader Amrita Neelakantan (left) shares a joke with Jaani Bai, whose family moved to the edge of this rice paddy three years ago. They have plenty to eat. When asked why they moved here, the answer is short: “The government told us to.”

The guide told the driver to stop, and pointed to a giant paw print in the sandy road surface: tiger. At another spot, he recognized alarm calls of langur monkeys signaling that a tiger was nearby. Everyone froze, hoping to catch a glimpse. The wait went on for a while, but the great predator did not show itself. The car soon emerged into an expansive meadow—former site of Kanha village, where Dussri Bai and her family had lived so long ago. Nothing remains. The guide said that the park staff regularly burns the meadows to keep trees from taking over, as the occupants once did so their livestock could graze. Wildlife also took advantage. Far off, a majestic barasingha, a rare species of deer, lowered his great-antlered head to munch on some of the grass. It was a sign, said the ranger, that the deer are in fact connected to humans, and remain so.

Related Photo Essay: When People Must Make Way for Nature

—By Kevin Krajick, Earth Institute

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