Print edition : December 31, 2010

With the BRT Wildlife Sanctuary in Karnataka going to get a tiger reserve status, the Soligas living there face imminent eviction.

in Chamarajanagar

Soligas protest in Chamarajanagar against granting the BRT Wildlife Sanctuary tiger reserve status.-DIVYA GANDHI

NEVER before have the tigers of the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple (BRT) Wildlife Sanctuary burned so bright, either in popular imagination or in administrative priority. With the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests approving in principle the status of a tiger reserve for the BRT sanctuary, the endangered cat has taken centre stage in all future plans for this uniquely diverse forest in southern Karnataka.

Many conservationists see the Ministry's move as vital for the future of the estimated 35 tigers that inhabit the sanctuary. A research paper published in PLoS Biology recently established that the BRT sanctuary, an important corridor between the Eastern and Western Ghats, nurtures one of Asia's 42 important source, or breeding, populations of tigers. The move will also guarantee a boost in revenue from wildlife tourism for the Karnataka Forest Department as well as a substantial increase in the allocation from the Centre for the forest's protection from Rs.80-90 lakh now to Rs.2.5 crore annually.

Soliga woes

But the news of the upgraded protection status was received first with incredulity and later with concern by the 16,204 Soliga tribal people whose lives have for centuries been inextricably linked to this forest. It was a disconcerting throwback to the waves of displacement the community has experienced for decades, the most significant of them being the one in 1974 when BRT was declared a wildlife sanctuary. Thousands of Soligas were then evicted from the forests, often with violence. They then made the difficult transition from shifting agriculture in these ranges to sedentarised cultivation in the peripheral plains where they were resettled.

Now again, life is about to change dramatically for at least 1,500 Soligas who will have to make way for a critical tiger habitat or inviolate zone as prescribed by the National Tiger Conservation Authority. In mid-November, the Forest Department chalked out a proposal earmarking a 373sq-km zone in the heart of the forest for a critical tiger habitat. Eight podus (hamlets) that fall within this radius now face imminent relocation to a village outside the forest.

Today 42 podus remain within the forest's boundaries and its residents have reinvented themselves several times over to adapt to ever-tightening environmental laws, a volatile market and an increasingly hostile ecosystem colonised by the tropical flowering plant lantana. A significant part of the Soligas' income comes from the sale of non-timber forest produce (NTFPs) primarily honey, lichen, gooseberry and shikakai. Coffee is fast replacing ragi, maize and banana as the major produce here as it is not targeted by wild boars, which once decimated up to 80 per cent of the food crops.

The Soligas learnt about BRT's changed protection status from newspaper reports, not from the Forest Department. The possibility of eviction was an assumed corollary.

With nothing but an ominous silence from the Forest Department, as many as 1,000 Soligas marched in silent protest in Chamarajanagar town on October 27. With green scarves symbolising the colour of the forest fastened across their faces, the men and women voiced their opposition to BRT's tiger reserve status, which they feared would deny them access to the land and resources upon which their livelihoods were based.

Members of the Soliga Abhivrudhi Sangha, a group that works for the development of the Soligas, said the community was not informed of the decision by either the State Forest Department or the MoEF. This, despite clauses in both the Wildlife Protection Amendment Act, 2006, and the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Act, 2006, that mandate that communities living in forest areas be consulted about the creation of inviolate zones.

Ironically, as recently as in September, almost all Soliga families here had received land rights under the Forest Act. But with the declaration of a tiger reserve, many of them may well have to barter their land rights for a monetary compensation of Rs.10 lakh per family or a rehabilitation package worth the same amount (this includes the cost of building new homes and infrastructure at the rehabilitation site).

If they opt for the latter, they will most likely have to move to Gumballi village outside the protected area, where they will be given a house, five acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare) of gomala (degraded) land and Rs.50,000 as incentive, according to a forest official who did not want to be named.

The question that concerns Soligas most is how this shift will impact their livelihood. A socio-economic survey in 2006 by the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) drew a link between access to diverse livelihood options and income among Soliga podus within the BRT landscape. For instance, the median value of income at Keredimba podu, located in the evergreen forests of BRT's core, is Rs.30,000, which is a substantial Rs.10,000 higher than the income at K. Deverahalli, a village in the plains to which the Soligas were resettled in the 1970s and 1980s.

While Keredimba offers access to NTFPs (most importantly honey) and daily wage labour, and facilitates cultivation of food crops and, increasingly, coffee farming (made possible by the altitude), opportunities in K. Deverahalli are confined to cultivation and agricultural labour.

New Adversary

Keredimba is one of the eight podus slated for relocation. Among those who will have to leave is 65-year-old Siddegowda, who recently received land rights for his three-acre plot where he grows coffee. He is pragmatic about the Rs.10 lakh compensation: I have 10 people in my family. How long will Rs.10 lakh last? Moving out is not an option, he told Frontline. The tiger, never a threat to him in the past, has overnight become an adversary. Why this sudden urge to remove us to make way for the tiger? Siddegowda asks defensively. They have always been here. But so have we.

Madegowda, who lives in the neighbouring Gombegallu podu, is equally bemused by the primacy that tigers have acquired at BRT. If anyone has done the tigers disservice, it is the Forest Department, which has banned shifting agriculture, he says. The government has suppressed fire, and has closed up the forests. They are feeding the wildlife poison, Madegowda says, referring to the single biggest threat to the forest the proliferation of the invasive weed Lantana camara. Lantana suppresses the regeneration of saplings, including NTFPs such as gooseberry, and foraging plants for herbivores.

There is a widely held view among Soligas (and one that scientific research corroborates) that the spread of lantana has coincided with the ban on fire that was once used for shifting agriculture. Repeated attempts by the Forest Department to destroy this aggressive species in the BRT have all but failed. We are the ones who look out for tigers. You remove us, and you remove the tigers, says Madegowda.

A SOLIGA WITH a medicinal herb, Heliotrotium strigosum. Collection of non-timber forest produce for commercial and domestic purposes is an integral part of the local economy.-HARISHA R.P.

The story of his life is one of constant transformation and new challenges, of which the tiger reserve is only the latest. Having escaped the 1970s drive to oust Soligas from BRT, Madegowda has reconciled to life in a podu circumscribed by deep trenches. The trenches, ostensibly to keep elephants out, are in fact designed to contain' the 26 households there within the designated 20-acre area, he believes.

After years of battling wild boars and bison, which devoured 60 to 80 per cent of the food crops he cultivated, Madegowda shifted to coffee cultivation 12 years ago. The crop benefits from the climate and altitude, and the rewards have been substantial, earning him Rs.10,000 a year. But as with all single cash crops, dependence on it is often a gamble.

Precarious his life may be, but moving out of the forest is unthinkable. Only when the world ends we will move, says Basamma, his wife. Madegowda recounts his conversations with Soliga families who were relocated to the plains, many of whom have had no option but to turn to agricultural labour.

Five Tiger Reserves

However, officials in the Forest Department here believe that creating a tiger reserve is essential for tiger conservation. With the notification of the BRT tiger reserve, Karnataka will have five tiger reserves, including Nagarhole, Bandipur, Dandeli-Anshi and Bhadra. This would give the State the second largest number of tiger reserves after Madhya Pradesh, which has six. The country has 39 tiger reserves at present.

Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) B.K. Singh says there will be no forceful eviction, only voluntary relocation. Only people willing to move will do so in due course, he said. Many Soligas in fact want to move out of the forest and reap the fruits of a growing economy, he added.

But why was no one consulted when the tiger reserve was given a thumbs-up, ask activists. According to Nitin Rai, Fellow at ATREE, the Forest Department may claim it will not undertake forceful eviction, but the legal and financial muscle force through the creation of inviolate zones and the lure of compensation will hardly make the relocation voluntary. The very creation of inviolate areas in forest regions that currently have people living within it is clearly unwarranted, unscientific and unjust, he adds.

Conservation should focus on the possibility that landscapes could have tigers along with the presence of indigenous people who might be made full partners in this endeavour to increase tiger numbers. We do not always have to visualise local people as being in conflict' with tigers, he says.

There is evidence in BRT that the presence of local people has not had any adverse impact on wildlife, he adds. Tiger numbers have only increased over the last few years while research has shown that Soligas are harvesting NTFPs sustainably.

Within the Forest Department too, there is a view that tiger reserves appear to use the indiscriminate thumb rule that forests must be free of habitation. A Forest Department official who has been associated with BRT said: The prey base and tiger population in the BRT is good . There is no need for this protected area to be approached from the view that tigers and Soligas are mutually exclusive. The BRT situation can be an opportunity to create a different model.

The Forest Department has been using Soligas for various activities, including anti-poaching and fire awareness camps and ecotourism, the officer said. He added that the department even used the same names that Soligas had given the forest patches, streams, rocks and landmarks.

Coffee estates

In supreme irony, functioning with complete impunity within this proposed 373-sq-km inviolate area are 1,800 acres of coffee estates owned by prominent companies. Coffee farming is pesticide-intensive and highly polluting, but the companies have 99-year leases from the Forest and Revenue Departments. Most of the estates have lease periods extending beyond 2030 and 2060.

A forest official admitted that it would be impossible to revoke the leases: The land has been leased out to powerful companies. The only way to get them out would be through a strike or public interest litigation.

Meanwhile, the future of at least 300 Soliga families hangs in the balance. Several questions remain unaddressed: Is there enough land available for resettlement in Gumballi village? Is the land arable? These are questions for the Revenue Department to answer, a forest official replied. However, what is certain is that the tribal people and the tigers suddenly find themselves pitted against each other for the first time after centuries of co-existence. The man vs beast conflict is about to begin here.

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