Deserting the Adivasis

Nearly five million members of the Adivasis tribe in India's Bihar State may be threatened with extinction if commercial forestry, mining and heavy industry continues to expand in their homelands.

The undulating tree-covered plains of the Chotanagpur plateau have been the home of the traditionally hunting and gathering Adivasis for centuries. The tropical forests provide vital resources for both themselves and the animals they hunt.

Since the early 1950s large tracts of jungle have been harvested under government contract by outside companies. Over a million hectares of forest have been degraded to scrubland and two million more are threatened.

With the Adivasis' habitat reduced by a third over the last 30 years and their population doubled even more pressure is being put on the forest resources. Many have turned to agriculture, but the badly eroded soil is too poor and thin to support their attempts. Thousands of others have joined the interminable flow to the cities in search of work.

Those who remain have lost faith in their abilities to save the jungle, and have themselves become one of its main despoilers. A common attitude is that they may as well get the trees before outsiders do. Although prom­ised jobs and cash compensation they have secured little of either. But the Adivasis are fighting back. They've warned against any further expansion until compensation has been paid: Clashes with police and forestry officials are commonplace. Armed with bows and arrows Adivasis have swarmed into Ranchi, the local capital, for huge demonstrations.

Part of the problem is the government reforestation programme which has proceeded without Adivasis partici­pation. The forestry department insists on replanting with teak - a tree good for commercial lumber but useless for the Adivasis' needs. They've responded by uprooting large areas of government­planted seedlings.

A 'social forestry' programme has been established recently on an experimental basis to try and respond to the Adivasis demands. The danger is that without a massive turnaround of government policy another two million hectares of jungle will end up as useless desert in the next 20 years. That would be an ecological disaster of major proportions. It would be an even greater disaster for the Adivasis.

New Internationalist issue 088 magazine cover This article is from the June 1980 issue of New Internationalist.
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