Having bundled up the day’s gathering that typically consists of fallen tree branches, leaves, wild tubers and berries, Rijuti Kherkatari was about to settle down on an earthen mound to rest for a while. All of a sudden, she recalls, she spotted an adult water buffalo standing just a few feet away staring at her. The animal slowly ambled towards her, mooed, and walked past her harmlessly.
Had the animal charged, it would have been futile for her to run. Given her life-long experience of navigating the shared space—the forest—with the animals, she knew it would not. In a way, she could read how the animal thought. Or as Eduardo Kohn, the anthropologist author of How Forests Think, would have seen it: she recognized the animal as a ‘thinking being’, interpreted its gestures as representing her own thoughts of it (as not going to be harmful), and thus rendering it a selfhood. In the process, she was actually acting as part of an ‘ecology of selves’—consisting of both human and non-human—that shapes the ways of being in the forest.
For women like Rijuti living in the fringes of protected forests like the Manas National Park in Assam, challenges are many, two among them being prominent. First, they need to align their actions according to the demands of the ‘ecology of selves’ of the forest–that is choosing their actions keeping in mind the animals’ perspective of the scheme of things—for their own good: to keep themselves safe from any harm. Second, they negotiate the tentacles of a legal regime that leaves things blurred with conflicting provisions, and vests decisive power in the hands of forest officials.
The Forest: An Ecology of Selves
Kasema Khatun lives in a village that abuts Orang National Park, a critical tiger habitat (CTH) in Assam. Every day she enters the forest to collect fallen tree branches and leaves and other minor forest produces (MFP). Roaming in the forest also means encountering life in the wild. ‘One morning, a friend and I were collecting firewood in the Kathoni (woodlands) just a few meters west of the Silbori forest camp in the park. Suddenly, a full-grown rhino appeared before of us. For a while, it looked like it would charge at us but finally walked past us peacefully. I knew the animal wouldn’t harm,’ she recalls one such encounter.
Only a few months ago, a man was mauled to death by a leopard in Nislamari, a village that fringes the park’s eastern borders. The forest range officer of the park Chakrapani Rai had said: ‘Orang is a ‘critical tiger habitat’, and its buffer zone needs to remain intact. An advancing agrarian frontier in the buffer area means more of such fatal confrontations’.
But Kasema, brought up with her grandfather’s stories of Banbibi, a guardian spirit of the forest, doesn’t fear the forest—and its beasts. Her family lore has it that the family’s roots lie somewhere in colonial Bengal’s mangroves. ‘My grandfather told me our forefathers lived near the forest. They knew of no harm from the forest. I’ve also grown up by this forest. My life is connected to the forest’.
Kasema’s claim that she is connected to the forest and that she knows the forest and its wild inhabitants stem not just from her inherited intimacy to the wild, but from her experiences of being part of a web of living relations that structures life in and around the forest.
Kohn elucidates his conceptualisation of the ‘ecology of selves’ in the context of the forest-dwellers of Avila, Equador. But how does this ‘ecology of selves’ operate in the lives of women firewood collectors in Assam’s protected forests?
In Kasema’s own words: ‘The best firewood is available in the western part of the Kathoni where it is divided by a stream. But the forest guards don’t allow us to go to that part of the forest as tigers often come down to drink water there. We, sometimes sneak in. But it could be dangerous, and we have to be very careful’.
She, apparently, has to evade a web of gazes in appropriate time to successfully collect the best firewood. The forest guards are on the look-out to prevent firewood collectors from sneaking in; some aging big cat might be similarly be on the look-out for easy prey; or other firewood collectors may have already grabbed the booty. Kasema’s livelihood and life depends upon how successfully she responds to these challenges.
The Women: Puppets of a Waffling Legal Regime
The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act or the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006 is the legal instrument that recognises the rights of Rijuti and Kasema to carry out their traditional activities of collecting minor forest produces (MFP) in the protected forests.
The FRA is a historic act in that it tried to restore the traditional and customary rights of the tribals and other forest dwelling communities which they were denied in the top-down approach of colonial and postcolonial forest governance practices. Prior to the FRA, entire communities who continued to exercise their traditional practices within the boundaries of protected areas and reserved forests were criminalised. The hunter-gatherer communities were made to live as settlers and their farming was sedentarised. Landholdings were fragmented. Other forest entitlements such as firewood and grazing were denied. The women, being more closely entwined with forest-dependent livelihoods, were the worst sufferers. Thus, the FRA restoring these rights was a welcome piece of legislation for the forest-dependent women.
But a recent circular issued by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) blocks any human activity inside the critical tiger habitats (CTH) to keep the tiger habitats ‘inviolate’. This means once again revoking the rights of forest-dependent livelihoods of women like Rijuti and Kasema that they were conferred under FRA, 2006.
The park authorities in Orang haven’t yet hindered the locals’ customary practice of collecting minor forest produces (MFP) from the park. They believe in a more inclusive approach to conservation, emphasizing cooperation and building mutual trust and understanding with the fringe communities.
‘We haven’t prevented the village women from collecting firewood near the fencing. It does no harm to the forest ecosystem. We just keep a watch on them so that they don’t traverse towards the core of the park,’ said Lankeshwar Deka, a forest guard who has been working in the park for ten years. ‘But we keep tight vigil when men move in looking for firewood. Because they are prone to engaging in activities other than mere MFP collection, leading to potential wildlife offences of any sort’.
Kasema can still access the forest, but not her sisters in Kaziranga. The women living in the fringes of Assam’s Kaziranga National Park have far more complex stories to tell, stories of their stake in the political economy of conservation, their agency and empowerment or lack thereof.
‘When my husband and I settled here, in the 1960s, we could rush to the forest whenever we needed something—be it food, fodder or firewood,’ Kamini Doley, a septuagenarian from Dhoba-ati Belguri village that abuts KNP, said. ‘But now we live on the whims of the forest officials. We can no longer freely access the forest. My livelihood was based on the forest. What you call conservation has hindered my livelihood’.
Mired in a recent controversy over a BBC documentary that alleged that the park had an aggressive protection policy, the Kaziranga National Park has hardly implemented the Forest Rights Act 2006. Most of the villagers in Dhoba-ati Belguri haven’t heard of the FRA. ‘They have never told us about these rights. We don’t know what rules are there in paper’.
Lily Karmakar, a resident of Sildubivillage that edges KNP, said, ‘Rhinos generate huge income for the forest department, for the tourism industry: the lodge owners, hotels and restaurants in and around Kaziranga. But our lives have changed little for the better’.
Karmakar rears pigs and raises livestock. But, she said, it’s increasingly getting tougher to find grazing grounds—and fodder—as park authorities put stringent measures to check livestock and humans from entering the forest.
Grazing rights in Kaziranga have been a contentious issue since the inception of the protected area in the colonial era. In 1900, Berthold Ribbentrop, a German forester who worked in Kaziranga, wrote in his book Forestry in British India, ‘The extension of our forest reserves [in Kaziranga] absorbed too large a portion of the customary grazing grounds of the country’. As a result of the denial of entitlements of grazing, face-offs between grazers and forest officials were reported immediately after the creation of the Kaziranga Reserve Forest in 1905.
For marginal female livestock raisers like Karmakar in the fringes of KNP, life is becoming tougher. Given an aggressive approach to conservation, stemming from exclusionary attitudes to forest-dependent communities and backed by a waffling legal framework, it seems, the situation is not going to get any better for them any time soon.
Text by Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya
Photos by M Kundal Bora