The Western Ghats rise up behind the coastal belt of northern Karnataka in South India. The sunlight has a purity and density in this upland area that you can almost touch. It etches shadows on the dry dark earth. Here the meaning of ‘biodiversity’ is immediately visible – over 80 species of trees are easily identifiable, traditionally used for medicine, fodder, fruit, fuel and construction.
With the felling and commercialization of this natural forest, the Appiko movement rose: a popular people’s response against deforestation and the ruin of ancient livelihoods. The movement succeeded beyond its wildest dreams, only to find itself confronted by the even more violent forces of globalization.
Pandurang Hegde, whose home is in the heart of the Western Ghats, started working with Appiko 25 years ago. ‘In the early 1980s the Forestry Department were still clear-felling trees and planting monocultures (single crops) of teak. Appiko quickly spread all over the Ghats. By that time – in our area around Sirsi – 30 per cent of forest cover had been destroyed. We had a great impact on government. By 1985 monoculture had ceased, and by 1987 concessions to industrial plywood concerns had also been stopped. When the government acknowledged that traditional forest harvesting was the only way to conserve biodiversity and livelihoods, they said so. [But] this didn’t eliminate illegal felling by the Forest Department and their political friends.’
Then in the early 1990s the British Overseas Development Agency (the ODA, now known as DiFID) was invited by the Karnataka Government to implement a programme for reforestation of the Western Ghats. ‘The ODA initially mixed acacia with teak and about 10 per cent of indigenous species. Pressure from the people forced them to set up an independent inquiry, which found in favour of people’s forest management. The report said the ODA was continuing commercial forestry by another name. To our amazement, the ODA was convinced. The Government terminated the programme: the bureaucracy could see it meant the end of its illegal felling activities.’
From this victory rose a more powerful threat. ‘An arrangement was agreed with the Japanese Government for a sum [of aid] 10 times the amount offered by the ODA. There was no participation and no planning. There was a reversion to monoculture. They planted mostly acacia for the pulp and paper industries. The Government has stated the outcome is a great success but it has not published any reports. The Japanese aid is in the form of a loan at three per cent interest. Many NGOs have been given money, which they have accepted.’
Appiko, too, was offered funds but refused. As Pandurang says: ‘Our role now is to remain as watchdogs over development. Many NGOs have been co-opted by money. They go to the villagers and seduce them with promises of earnings. In fact, if the villagers get five per cent, the NGO gets two per cent, the bureaucracy gets the rest.
‘We reject the industrialization of aid: turning aid into a kind of business, where returns are expected and cost-recovery is part of the conditions on which it is provided. It is increasingly mechanistic – target groups and beneficiaries; indicators that tell you nothing of how people’s lives are affected. You cannot blame the NGOs for going along with this. It is the contemporary context. NGOs provide charity to disaffected intellectuals of globalization – call them consultants and professionals and they are happy.
‘Appiko as it existed 25 years ago no longer exists; now its work not only informs all today’s resistance movements in the Ghats, but is more vital than ever. Its concerns live on, absorbed into a monitoring of the wider development process. Developmental destruction invades the whole environment. We can no longer remain in one specialized sector. We are working on the beautiful Kali River, the natural flow of which has been reduced to a mere 8 kilometres of its 184-kilometre length. It is essentially a dead river. Pollution by the paper mill includes waste water which, when it irrigates fields, dries as a film of paper. The waste – including mercury – has also polluted drinking water. In the paper mill 4,000 people are employed, but 400,000 people depend upon the river valley for their livelihood. There are seven dams, a paper and pulp mill and a nuclear power station. The whole wealth of natural forest is in jeopardy. The non-timber forest produce that has sustained our people for centuries is under threat – honey, wax, mushrooms, wild pepper and nutmeg, medicinal plants, bamboo shoot for eating, cane and rattan, all these grow only in the natural forest. Even the removal of dead and dry trees undermines the capacity of non-timber forest produce to regenerate.
‘We can no longer just work in the forests. Activism has to change if it is to be equal to the global forces bearing down on our localities. NGOs must detach themselves from attacking just one symptom of a wider structure. Have NGOs become archaic, just as the Marxists became archaic? New forces of resistance are coming from elsewhere, from the evictees of “development”. We have to use their energies in the wider struggle.’
Hear an audio interview with Pandurang Hegde at Baobab Connections’ website: http://www.baobabconnections.org
Pandurang Hegde talked with Jeremy Seabrook