By Esti Redondo / Resumen Latinoamericano / The Dawn News / March, 2017
India’s indigenous peoples are scattered across the country, have their own languages and often live in the forests; traditionally they are food gatherers, and they call themselves adivasi. The Gudalur valley is located on the border of three states: Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. It belongs to the Tamil Nadu state, but it’s also located inside of a huge National Park that spans over the three estates.
To explain their current situation, indigenous people say it’s very important to understand the last 200 years of history. A history based on territory invasions that brought them to fight today in defense of their rights, to try to fight back two centuries injustices.
Before the British colonization, this valley was a great forest, where the tribes lived in small communities, scattered in the woods. They were food gatherers who employed rotary harvesting, and they lived in communion with nature. The name given to this type of forest is “semi-evergreen” and it’s a mid-point between moist and dry ecosystems.
Nowadays, five different adivasi groups live in the valley: the Bettakurumbar, the Mullakurumbar, the Kattunakar, the Irular and the Paniyar peoples. Paniyar people were brought from Africa and used as slaves—they don’t even have a name of their own since “paniy” means “those who work” in the local language.
Gudalur was first colonized in the early 19th century. Until then, these tribes had been animistic, they believed in the power of nature. Their productive system was based on crop rotation and they were largely self-sufficient. They set up their own political organization and global fluctuations in the country did not affect them much.
But the arrival of Hinduism, brought religion and beliefs changes, and even social and political structure began to change. Caste appeared, the place, position and power of each family was established by the caste. This means that the upper castes denied the rights of the sub castes and these last ones were supposed to serve. Adivasi families became lower caste.
Hindus and their temples were built and they need “the chief priests” to come to run the temples. Because lower caste can not be high priest, they ask upper caste person to come for this purpose. This holy person came to Gudalur and became the local lord, shortly the lord of the Hindu community and then also of the Adivasi.
East India Company
At that time, India was divided into kingdoms and Tamil Nadu had a king, who lived on the coast. He used to go to Gudalur only to hunt and had little contact with the local population. But after Great Britain’s invasion, the East India Company was founded and he got into great debt with the company owners. And in a process similar to the industrialization of the Basque Country, in order to pay for the debt, private companies were given public land. Gudalur in Tamil Nadu was handed over as payment, so the company and the whole valley fell into the hands of twelve owners.
At that time, the laws were very contradictory: on one hand India had new laws, including the forest laws; but on the other hand, Tamil Nadu was still under the laws of the kingdom. To be able to give Gudalur to twelve outsiders, the king had to invent a new law. According to this law, he couldn’t give away the forest forever but he could transfer it for 100 years, during that period, the outsiders had to protect the forest and its wildlife. And when a hundred years had passed, the forest had to be transferred to state again.
Once they obtained the forest, however, the businessmen began a process of deforestation to plant coffee, tea, cardamom, black pepper and other spices. As they went through the woods they met Adivasi tribes and started evicting them from their villages. Many were killed and the others were enslaved. Some communities survived but had to move deeper and deeper into the woods, because they were repeatedly displaced.
Indigenous people were not accustomed to work in the harvest, because their agricultural techniques were very different, so they were used for other tasks. And agricultural workers were brought to work from other states. The company built “estates”, or “plantations”, huge new settlements for workers with schools, health centers, shops… so they wouldn’t ever go outside.
These workers were also given the opportunity to occupy a portion of land themselves, so they became settlers, and started new deforestation process, they cut down the forest and started their own tea plantations. The population was growing, while the indigenous people and forest disappeared.
Colonization entered the XX century. In the 30s, the international crisis began and United Kingdom companies began to leave the area. The deadline of the hundred-year transfer was about to expire and the land had to return to the hands state, but that never happened. The land did change hands though: from the hands of British businessmen into the hands of the Indian bourgeoisie. And again, instead of protecting the forest and the people living there, the new landlords sprawled, cut more forest, grabbed more land and displaced communities. These new private landowners took plots and increased them every year, eating away at the surrounding forest, and the plantation system continued. Also, new workers or settlers came and continued deforestation.
In the 60s, after India became independent, the autonomous government of Tamil Nadu was formed. The President of the Government visited Gudalur and he saw how the woods were disappearing. The case was brought to the Court, and there was a confrontation between the old king family, the powerful landowners and the settlers.
After a long trial, the court decided that the lands didn’t belong to the king’s family, but to the state government; it also also ruled that since the 100-year period had already expired, the lands had to return to public use. Thus, at the end of the decade, the Janma Abolition Act was issued—a law for forest protection and land public property.
That year one part of the land was transferred to the state, a small part that still was kept as forest. The rest of it, never mind what law says, remained intact. In accordance with Janma Abolition Act, plantations are illegal and all the forest have to be public, there is none even one legal private owner. But the two political parties in the government have economical interests in the region and therefore they will not do anything to implement the law.
The forest area that remained in the hands of the state became India’s first National Park, called Madumakai, and it’s run by the Forest Department. This has brought new changes to Adivasi communities who live within the limits of the park. As a protected area, new laws and restrictions were implemented, which prevent them to carry out their usual work of seasonal crops, rotation, limit the use of the forest, the interaction with wildlife and the exercise of their culture… in the name of defense of the forest.
The Forest Department decides what can be done and what not, and also who can do it. The areas for tourism and forest guards are adapted with energy, schools, roads… but not for the indigenous communities. Those making “ecotourism” in the indigenous territory carry out their business, and even though the money was meant to be invested on the communities, it is now in their pockets.
According to the Adivasi people, forest guards have exploited, raped, murdered, and falsely accused community members. They use people for their own benefit, sometimes for work, sometimes as exhibits. The forest department has managed forest resources—including the use of forest people as a resource—; as indigenous said: “here there is wildlife, there are wild animals, and they treat Adivasis like wild people. We became outsiders, poor, cheap labor, and landless”.
The situation in the communities is very difficult, the park is an “animal reserve” and the forest department is trying to evict people from the area. And on the other hand, those who live outside the reserve, are continuously displaced by plantations owners and settlers. That happened to the members of one of the communities, where as the plantations grow annually, they were forced to move from the spot, and suddenly were forced to cross the border into park; and then the park wanted them to move out, but where?. Despite the protests and resistance, the situation has not been solved yet, they are in “no one’s land” and their community is fenced.
The Second Colonization
Also in the 60s, a new process of colonization came on top of the plantations and settlers. During the 16th and 17th centuries, many workers were brought from Tamil Nadu to Sri Lanka to work in plantations. In the 60s, those plantations were in crisis and the owners asked India to take these people again, because he had nothing to offer them. The agreement was signed between the two governments and the repatriation process began, and people were transported to Gudalur plantations. There was not enough space nor employment so the government decided to create a new 4,000-hectare plantation. That meant another 4,000-hectare deforestation.
In the beginning, these new migrants had a good relationship with the Adivasi, but soon they began to take Adivasi land, like the other settlers, displacing more and more indigenous people.
NGOs: The Third Colonization
In the 80s, these communities suffered another colonization and invasion, this time by NGOs. Adivasi were not organized and didn’t fight for all these years, they were assimilated by the system. Even now voices are lifted up, saying “we are treated like animals and live like this and we have to react”. In that situation is was very easy for the NGOs to take over; workers in other organizations came and found themselves new groups, today there are more than 200.
At the beginning some progress were achieved: school, health centers, government support … but soon they began to control the Adivasi people and the money received from abroad was used for their personal promotion. According to the indigenous leaders “if the money received for forty years was invested in our welfare and development, why are we in the same horrible situation? The NGO owners are settlers themselves and they don’t want the adivasis to get their land back, that is against their own interests, so instead of helping, they are using indigenous people as a resource. There has been no structural change, land, decent work and others haven’t improve”.
Organize and fight
Nowadays young people are getting organized, and they define the current state as: “We are surrounded by threats; we have a serious land crisis, we are landless and we are being increasingly displaced from our birthplaces. The government has no effective policy, nor has it made any attempt to solve the problem. Sri Lankan people continue to steal Adivasi land instead of asking the government to relocate them somewhere else. Political parties also steal land for themselves. Settlers continue to grab land. Forest department use Adivasis as cheap labour, as a resource, and imposes very strict rules on us. Plantation owners are still in power. And NGOs do their part in demobilizing people so that they don’t actively struggle for their land, and when they get land, they rule it instead of giving it to Adivasis.”
The situation is similar in different parts of India. The Adivasi Defense Platform was created in 2006 at the national level, and thanks to their mobilization a new public policy was passed: the Forest Rights Act. According to this public policy, indigenous communities are entitled to manage the forests they live in. In some small parts of India, communities got their land back thanks to this law; but after 10 years, it hasn’t been implemented in Tamil Nadu.
Young people are now getting organized and learning their history to understand the situation and explain it to others. This new group (which still doesn’t have a name) intends to start working on two issues, taking advantage of the legislation. On one hand, within the reserve they want to implement the Forest Right Act to give the land back to the communities, so that they can deciding for themselves how to manage the forest and tourism.
On the other hand, for lands that are outside the natural reserve areas and are currently being occupied by plantation owners and settlers, they demand an agrarian reform to achieve food sovereignty. The Janma Abolition Act can be used for this purpose; first demanding the return of land to the State and then asking to the state to give it to the Adivasi people to produce local food and stop the exportation of local species. The first goal is land, to get the forest back to the Adivasi, and pave the way to self-sufficiency and self-government.