Insights from a tribal stakeholder engagement workshop in the Moyar-Bhavani in India
By Divya Solomon, Milind Bunyan and Johny Stephen
At first glance the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve is a scene of picturesque serenity with its teeming wildlife and varied landscape; from thorny scrub in the plains to lush deciduous forests in the hills. Despite the large expanses of areas invaded by the exotic Prosopis (locally known as 'dili mullu'), a short drive through the region would lead to encounters with spotted deer, black buck - and if you are lucky, elephants - that appear hardly perturbed by the human intrusion. The region is largely seen as a success story for conservation; with a healthy tiger population and a favourable prey base, it seemed apt for the government to declare this region as a tiger reserve. Conservationists seemed largely pleased with this development; however they seem to have ignored the presence of another large population of long-term resident mammals in the region, humans.
A male blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra) in Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve ponders our intentions as we drive toward him. Note the profuse growth of Prosopis (Prosopis julifora), an exotic invasive that covers large expanses of the reserve, in the background (Photo: Jagdish Krishnaswamy, ATREE).
The history of human settlements in this region is almost as old as their wild co-inhabitants. Indigenous tribes, primarily the Irulas and the Kurumbas, have historically inhabited the region. These tribes were hunter-gatherers who later moved into agriculture and have traditionally collected forest produce for household and medicinal purposes. With changing needs and evolving traditions, the forest produce collection is now a source of revenue and is aimed at markets in large towns and cities. Traditions of collecting forest produce seem to have hardly changed over generations with communities banding together to harvest produce from informally allocated areas. The produce from each area is collected and sold together by the community.
The announcement of the tiger reserve was looked upon with suspicion by these forest communities and rumours regarding relocation and decreased forest access were spread. The communities felt that their ancestral land would be taken away from them and their livelihoods were under threat. Fortunately, this threat seemed to dissipate as there were no attempts to coerce relocation and some tribes were given leases or ownership to their agricultural land, despite the declaration of the tiger reserve. Other issues have emerged; access to the area is strictly controlled by the forest department and this has affected the tribal access to forest produce and the sale of these goods. Additionally, essential services such as electricity and infrastructure projects, especially all-weather roads, are severely limited. Consequently, some tribal families have voluntarily chosen to relocate from the area with the hopes of a better future.
ATREE conducted a stakeholder engagement event that targeted these tribal communities, with an attempt to understand local livelihoods and gain a sense of the emerging problems in the region. Although the region is a hotbed for research on conservation, apart from a few popular articles regarding relocation, studies on the communities in this region are largely non-existent. Having completed the Regional Diagnostic Phase of our work, we were also keen to advance our existing insights of the vulnerabilities of these communities and share our insights from our characterisation of the climate system of the area.
Our field coordinator Revathy, who belongs to the Irula community, contacted leaders from self-help groups and communities located in the northern fringe of the Moyar region and 30 individuals were expected to attend. These hamlets and villages are located deep within the reserve and are inaccessible with the exception of the twice-a-day public bus. Our attempts to circumvent this issue by providing a minivan to transport our participants, were frustrated by uncooperative forest guards who delayed the minivan. The venue for the workshop at Bhavanisagar too was plagued with an unprecedented, yet total blackout of electricity; a snake falling out of the air-conditioner added to the excitement of the day. Despite this stuttering start to the event, the arrival of the minivan with sixteen workshop participants from four villages put us in high gear.
Johny Stephen provided an overview of our institution and ASSAR , and then introduced the research team. With no sign of the electricity returning, we quickly adapted our plans and synchronised a broadcast of the ASSAR Climate messages animation across four laptops, and added a live transcript of the video in Tamil. Having shared these, we were keen to hear the communities perceptions of these changes. In response to our observations on the changes in the climate system, Suresh from Kali Dhimbam poignantly observed that “the earth is aging, the rains are tired and the soil is old”. Suresh, an outspoken village elder who has spent his entire life in the forest of Sathyamangalam also commented that generations of his family have depended on agriculture and forest produce in this region for their sustenance, he expressed doubts regarding the future of their livelihoods. This was a sentiment shared by most of the participants, they shared similar experiences of changes in the forest, “thickening” of the forest canopy and an increasing predominance of invasive species were common observations. Locals expressed their dissatisfaction with current labour-intensive livelihoods with low remunerations. From the discussions, the evolving roles of the ecosystem within increasingly monetised livelihoods for indigenous forest communities was evident. With increasing aspirations, the newer generations prefer blue-collared jobs and increasingly urbanised lifestyles. This generation earmarks an intergenerational transition phase, with communities attempting to embrace these developments within their traditional mores. The significance of these changes is reflected in a changing way of life as well as changing perceptions towards natural resources.
ATREE‘s research in the region focuses on the linkages between environment, livelihoods and the impacts on vulnerability of indigenous communities in the region. The research will study the region as a dynamic socio-ecological system and build linkages between the biophysical environment, the key ecosystem services (water and non-timber forest produce) and the social aspects of the region. The climatic impacts on these ecosystem services will be traced in order to postulate future vulnerability of communities in the region.We will engage closely with the community in order to understand their cultural and traditional ties to the environment and how these relationships are evolving with the rapid development of these regions. Case studies will be employed to study how vulnerability manifests and moves from the household level to the community, which is especially pertinent in the case of these indigenous communities; with strong community and cultural ties. We will also explore the gender roles and relations within households and communities in order to understand how risk will be differently experienced by members of the community. Through our research we aim to build a holistic understanding of the livelihoods of indigenous tribes and make significant contributions towards the discourse regarding the impacts of socioeconomic and environmental transitions on the vulnerability of tribes towards climatic and non-climatic risk.