What do the Forest Dwellers Want to Say?

By SrilaxmionNov. 10, 2023in Environment and Ecology

Parindey: Jenukuruba community
Alivelihood: Tribal Rights Activism & Conservation
Region: Nagarahole, Kodagu district, Karnataka

“Naavu Yaake Horata Maadubeku? Naavu illi namma hirikaradu kaala inda eerthaidhivi, addu sulla? Matte yaake naavu namma haqqugallige horata maadubeku?”

“Why should we protest? We have been living here since our ancestors’ times, is that a lie? Then why should we be fighting for our rights?”

These are just some of the questions that the Jenukuruba community ask with regard to their daily lives. The Jenukuruba are a forest-dwelling tribe that used to primarily practise agriculture and extract ‘jenu’ (honey) from natural combs. The tribe is spread across the forests of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, their habitat extending beyond state borders, much like the forests and wildlife that coexist with them. Until the 1970s, the tribes would live in their respective hamlets in homes built from the earth in forest clearings, growing crops like rice and ragi and fruits and vegetables that would sustain them, and venture out deep into the forests to obtain forest produce and during the latter part of monsoon to obtain honey.

Growing with coexistence: Deers foraging for food grains outside the forest dwellers’ mud huts (Photo: Srilaxmi)

But sometime in the mid-70s, a couple of years after the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 was introduced, the forest department sent a notice to the community to stop farming. Elephants were brought to trample their crops, and a fire was lit across fields to enforce this notice. 70-year-old Thimmanna, a member of the tribe who saw the events unfold, still remembers that there was just one officer who came to their rescue and stopped the department from destroying the fields. But agriculture was brought to a stop. Soon after, came the notification that the tribes had to leave the forests and they’d be compensated in resettlement areas established outside the forests with “money, RCC houses and agricultural fields.” “At first, I was sold. They said they would give us 6 lakh rupees if we agreed to rehabilitate. But I put a condition.” says Thimmanna. He had requested the forest department and partner NGOs heading the resettlement campaign that they give him 5 lakhs instead, but in cash. They agreed but sent him on a wild goose chase that ended with them suggesting how he could instead cheat others in his village to make that money. This made Thimanna realise the corrupt practices and the lies the administration was telling them. It also brought him back to the ground he was born and raised in, and he has since fought for it with valour.

A still from a meeting between community folks at Gadde Adi, Nagarahole. J.K. Thimma, sitting off-centre to the right in a white shirt, spearheads the conversation. (Photo: Srilaxmi)

Although quite a few people left for the resettlement camps or were forcefully evicted, some stayed back and resisted. The latter happened because of one incident that took place in a village called Gaddehaadi located in the Nagarahole forests of Karnataka. Here, J.K. Thimma learnt of the contract people were being made to sign. J.K Thimma is a leader and member of the tribe who was one of the first to start revolting and even today champions the movement. “Not a lot of people knew how to read and write, so they couldn’t know what was actually written on the paper. We just believed what we were told.” But he was one of the few who was literate, so he went through the contract and realised what was in it for them. “We weren’t going to be allowed to come back to the forests even to visit our Gods and temples. We weren’t allowed to come back for anything once we left. We were going to be completely disconnected and detached from our roots, they wanted us to leave for good.” This made Thimma aware of the motive behind and the consequences of the resettlement, and he immediately began campaigning amongst his people, sharing this knowledge. This sowed the seed of resistance among the tribes living in the forests of Nagarahole.

God’s abode: This tree is a spiritual place of worship for the Jenukuruba community (Photo: Srilaxmi)

The series of events that followed resulted in multiple protests, court cases and even the drafting of the FRA law. To begin with, in the 1980s came the massive project of building a Taj resort in the midst of the luxurious forest in Nagarahole. “They are okay with throwing us out, but they don’t mind cutting trees and threatening the very survival of so many endangered species to build a resort,” says Thimma. This move brought all the tribes living here together- the Jenukurubaru, Bettakurubaru and Yeravas- to protest. The police went to the extent of arresting little children protesting in their school clothes to dissuade the people. “My daughter must have been 5 or 6 then, and they had picked her and some other kids up.” The Taj-resort-resistance matter was taken up in the court of law, where the verdict was pronounced in favour of the tribes, thus putting a full stop to the resort. As if all this wasn’t enough, Nagarahole was proposed to be made a national park called ‘Rajiv Gandhi National Park.’ Once again, the tribes were being forced to leave the forests on the basis of fortress conservation- where humans and animals exist separately. The tribes gathered once more, to protect their rights to peacefully live and coexist in their homelands.

The luxurious forests of Nagarahole (Photo: Srilaxmi)

One of the landmark protests that took place in more recent years came after Nagarahole was declared a Tiger Reserve, where no vehicle was allowed to enter the premises from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. “We had just come back from leading a protest in another place. It was about 9 p.m. They wouldn’t let us go to our own homes.” So we sat there, on the road, and said that no other vehicle goes in either, not the forest department vehicle or any other that may come. Word spread, and the hamlets within the forest got news about what was happening at one of the entry points. “It was miraculous, first it was just a few of us, and then children, women and men, ajjis and ajjas, all gathered here on such short notice. We felt hope come alive then,” says J.A. Shivu, a youth leader, who although could not complete his studies beyond 10th standard, can narrate all the laws related to ST and FRA rights off the back of his hand. He goes on to say, “It’s like the trouble doesn’t end, they just want reasons to trouble us.” False cases against members of the tribe are a common thing affecting those who raise their voices.

Male members of the Jenukuruba and Bettakuruba tribes gather for a photo. J.A. Shivu, a youth leader, can be seen sitting on the right in a black checked shirt and white checked lungi (Photo: Srilaxmi)

In December 2005, about 250-300 members mostly hailing from the Kodagu district, got on a train to Delhi without even knowing the language, to join the assembly of tribes from all across India to stage peaceful demonstrations demanding their protection under the law. This resulted in the creation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006, a landmark law for all tribal communities that acknowledges their rights separately and contains a list of provisions to claim rights to live and practice livelihoods within forests and seek redressal for any untoward actions caused to them. Under the FRA, tribes like the Jenukuruba that traditionally practised agriculture are entitled to 10 acres of land per household to cultivate inside the forests. Each locality’s Forest Department is tasked with the responsibility of conducting surveys and making available necessary permissions as stated in the law. But the department has been avoiding conducting this survey that measures the plot of land for each household for a long time now. “We are only demanding 3 acres of land for cultivation. We do not want 10 acres, let that be forest, but they do not even give that,” says Thimma. When he was building a house, that too became an excuse for an FIR to be filed against him. After 7 long years of battling it out in the court, the court ruled in favour of Thimma. Even after this judgement was passed, the department has not allowed it. “We are not going to quiver under oppressive forces, we have our law as a recluse,” Shivu remarked.

Shivu also shared his thoughts on those seeking to return to the forests. His kutumba (family) too live a few kilometres outside the forest in a resettlement area, where people of the community do odd jobs or work in Coorg’s extensive coffee and timber plantations for a living. “Outside, we are not in touch with our culture, our language, our Gods, our food… nothing. We are completely disconnected from our kind and our traditions, and I want that to change. I intend to come back to where I rightfully belong, with my family and the families of other Adivasis whose only home is the forest.” He reiterated this sentiment by saying, “Without our forests, we are no longer Adivasis.”

A day in the life: Women having a discussion while cleaning a pile of hanibe or mushrooms foraged from the forest floors (Photo: Srilaxmi)

“There is a lot of pain, but we fight and we will keep fighting until we succeed,” says Navina, a female youth representative. The community hopes that the forest department eventually comes to support them. In the meanwhile, they are working tirelessly to access opportunities to uplift their lives. “Thimmanna and I are travelling extensively to meet members of the tribe when they need support, to conduct gram sabha meetings and to educate and raise awareness amongst our people about our rights. We also hope to open a library that contains books in Kannada with respect to Adivasi rights,” says Shivu. Funding is a major challenge they face, as coolie jobs do not offer permanent work or enough pay. Since literacy is low amongst the tribe, they also face the issue of not being able to document their work independently. “We want our voices to be heard and we want to be able to write our own story.” They are seeking to reach out to organisations that can conduct training in regional-language journalism to help them overcome this obstacle.

The Jenukurubas along with members of other tribes are working hard to secure their right to livelihood within the forests, such as the right to procure and sell non-timber forest produce and practice subsistence agriculture. 70-year-old Thimanna shares an account of the times when elephants would come to eat the ragi crops that they would grow. “They would take some, but always leave enough for us as well.” He also goes on to mention that instances of human-wildlife conflict have increased over the last couple of decades because there aren’t any food crops or enough indigenous tree varieties in the jungle anymore, forcing the animals to venture out into the plantations. “If we have coexisted in harmony with the jungle for many years, why do we have to exist separately now? If you observe closely, you’ll notice that it’s only the jungles where Adivasis still live that native species thrive,” says he. The community hopes that people will recognise the role they play in conserving our natural ecosystem and fostering coexistence. They aim to preserve and revive the rich traditions that have tied them so closely to the forests for centuries. “Our values are intertwined with beings of the forests, they are the Gods we worship and we, its protectors. We are happy here…”

A smiling and energetic Thimmanna (Photo: Srilaxmi)

Jenukuruba community can be reached via J. A. Shivu: [email protected], [email protected]

First Published by 52 Parindey on 19 Oct 2022.

Story Tags: , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply