Tucked away in a dense and ecologically diverse tiger reserve in Southern India, tribes-people and wildlife defenders are locked in a battle of indigenous peoples’ rights versus wildlife rights. Earlier this year the Soligas – a tribe hailing from the Billigiri Ranga Temple Hills tiger reserve (BRT) – won the rights to their ancestral land, following a thorny legal encounter with the state forest department, which had earlier threatened to displace 1,500 indigenous families in order to protect 30 endangered tigers. Tribal representatives insist that the Soligas’ presence on the reserve is not detrimental to the tigers, claiming back in December, “We have been the ones who looked out for the tigers. Give us poison rather than move us from our home.” Last month the tribe secured access to 60 percent of the forest that they claim is their ‘birthright’ and rejected a relocation package outside the tiger reserve, which is situated at the confluence of the Eastern and Western Ghats in Chamrajnagar district in India’s southern state of Karnataka.
A press release by the UK-based tribal advocacy group Survival International said last year, “This unprecedented move brings an end to (the tribe’s) fears of eviction and the ban on their right to hunt and cultivate.” But wildlife conservationists across India are deeply alarmed by the tribe’s decision to stay in the BRT, since it does not appear to take into account the irreversible impact of human settlement on wildlife populations and complex ecologies. Many experts believe that continued human presence in the small, bio-diverse forest could be detrimental to the wildlife, particularly pyramid species like tigers. The BRT was officially declared a protected reserve last year, when scientists discovered it was home to a huge variety of wildlife including endangered tigers, leopards, elephants, wild dogs, bears, 270 species of endemic birds, scores of snake varieties and other reptiles, as well as turtles and monitor lizards, all in a 541 square kilometre forest….
The Soligas’ transition from a subsistence community into increased participation in the formal market economy through trade in forest products has increased their environmental impact on the reserve. [However] Still, experts point out that the Soligas are only marginally responsible for deforestation when compared to the scale of deforestation perpetuated by the state forest department itself. Industrial farming in the BRT, including huge coffee estates owned by the biggest industrial houses in India, has seriously impinged on the protected land, pushing wildlife further into a concentrated space with tribes.
Excerpts, Malini Shankar, Indigenous Rights Versus Wildlife Rights?, IPS, Jan. 13, 2012
See also Biodiversity and Human Rights