We use cookies for site personalization and analytics. You can opt out of third party cookies. More info in our privacy policy.   Got it


Indigenous Peoples

new internationalist
issue 220 - June 1991



Grey greens
Indian forestry project raises doubts

Britain’s Overseas Development Administration (ODA) seems to have hit on a curious, if colourful, new way of designing aid projects. The multi-million Western Ghats Tropical Forestry Project, a conservation package destined for South India’s Karnataka State, is a shining example of the new ‘process planning’.

In 1988 the first project proposal emerged as the Red Book. Everyone agreed that planting more trees would be a good idea. Then, naturally enough, came the environment-friendly Green Book (two volumes) – conservation ecology writ large, and all on recycled paper. Then, last year, as the designers retreated to the Oxford Forestry Institute, came the Brown Book.

The project is now divided into five forest zones: Zone One a protected ecological area, Zone Two set aside for commercial exploitation and Zones Three to Five for joint management by local people and the Karnataka Forest Department (KFD). Zones One and Two form the biggest tracts of land and will receive the lion’s share of the funds. According to the KFD few if any people live there now and in future the area will be ‘without dwellers’.

Dr Kabbur, a leading community spokesperson in Karnataka, is alarmed: ‘There’s not a square kilometre in the Western Ghats where tribal people don’t live’, he says. Even in the remotest interior tribal people collect fruit, cane and other produce on which their livelihoods depend. The danger is that their rights will be ignored in the name of ecology and commercial necessity – worse still, thousands could face eviction from the forest.

The KFD have a well-earned reputation for trampling over people’s rights. They recently evicted tribal families from the Western Ghats by driving elephants through their huts. ‘There is no question of resettlement plans’, they say. ‘But when there is an ecologically sensitive area then there is some kind of protection to be done ... It’s a kind of voluntary thing.’

The ODA does not rule out voluntary resettlement. Yet in project after project in India the misery of resettlement has been intense. Indian groups are now insisting that people must be seen as part of the forest.

The Western Ghats Tropical Forestry Project seems to have lush green credentials. There is no disagreement that forest conservation and regeneration is crucial to an area where unique tropical forests are fast disappearing.

The finishing touches are now being put to the project. Having burnt its fingers with an earlier forestry scheme, which promised to meet the fuel and fodder crisis of the rural poor but lined the pockets of the pulp-wood industry and big farmers instead, the ODA is keen not to flunk it this time.

Clearly the move to give people a stake in managing and sharing the fruits of their own forest is a good one. But just how they will come to trust a Forest Department that sometimes behaves like a rogue elephant is not clear. Perhaps this uncertainty, and the unhappy experience of ‘voluntary resettlement’, help to explain the colour code of the latest project document – the Grey Book.

Steve Percy



Aborigines’ plight concerns churches

Continuing injustices to indigenous peoples, particularly Australia’s Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, were uppermost on the agenda of the seventh Assembly of the World Council of Churches meeting in Canberra in February.

Two teams met with women and men of the two Aboriginal communities before the Assembly. They reported that social conditions were deplorable and accused the Australian government of failing to make a meaningful response to the Aborigines’ plight. The Aborigines were ‘demoralized by exclusion and lack of participation in decision-making processes in virtually every area that determines their lives’.

The symptoms of such demoralization, the teams said, were evident in the loss of language and culture, alcohol abuse, high rates of detention by the police, physical abuse of Aboriginal women and children, high drop-out rates and absenteeism in schools, inadequate employment and training opportunities. The impact of racism by Australians on the Aboriginal people was not just horrific but genocidal.

During the Assembly Anne Jiagge, a retired judge of the Ghana High Court, said that the ecumenical movement’s involvement with indigenous people’s concerns, which began formally in Barbados 20 years ago, had produced few tangible results in the intervening years.

Aboriginal Djiniyini Gondarra said: ‘The Aborigines were chosen by God to be caretakers of this land. To be given back title to our land officially and legally would help to heal us as a people’.

Anne Pattel-Gray of the Aboriginal and Islander Commission said that Aborigines ‘have had to struggle for survival against the churches as well as against society’. Arthur Malcolm, an Anglican Aboriginal bishop, spoke of how he had been raised by a mission but had little knowledge of his language and culture until a few years ago. ‘I have no bitterness’, he said, ‘but much sadness’.

In its final report the WCC strongly endorsed the self-determination and self-management of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people and their right to define sovereignty for themselves. The WCC report also called on Australian churches to return land unjustly taken from their indigenous peoples.

George Fisher



Good fun
Uncle Feng leads the way to virtue on demand

Hundreds of thousands of Chinese people took to the streets recently not to demonstrate against the Government but to do ‘good deeds’ in memory of an exemplary socialist hero, Lei Feng. Children sweeping pavements, students repairing bicycles for free and army men offering hair cuts and shaves were all part of the ‘Study from Lei Feng’ campaign initiated by the Communist Party.

A year after his death in 1963, Lei Feng was first praised by Chairman Mao. The image of this legendary Peoples Liberation Army mechanic has since been frequently revived by China’s leaders in an attempt to inspire patriotism and socialistic zeal among the population. His usefulness was beginning to flag even before the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre – now, with support for the Communist Party at an all-time low, the propaganda experts are trying to revive his spirit.

New books about his life and times have been published; concerts in his honour, with some of China’s favourite singers, have been televised together with special children’s programmes with stories of ‘Uncle Lei Feng’.

For someone with such a brief life (he was run over by a truck in his early twenties) filled with army duties, doing good deeds and reading communist works, he left behind remarkably copious diaries. According to the official version of events, the Lei Feng legend began when Mao Zedong read the diaries and was moved by his love of the Party and the People.

But the simple, stoic life of Lei Feng, as documented in the diaries and by former comrades who are constantly called upon to talk about him, is far removed from the experience of modern China. The spoiled children of China’s one-child-only policy are known as ‘little emperors’ – for them studying Lei Feng is ‘good fun’ and gets them out of the classroom for half a day. Parents often stand by, waiting with packets of sweets to reward their little darlings for doing public works.

More senior students with experience of previous Lei Feng campaigns are cynical about the value of what amounts to an unpaid ‘bob-a-job’ week. And, with capitalist incentives and concern for financial rewards now widespread, it no longer makes sense to offer free services outside the weeks designated for the study of Lei Feng.

Some young people may accept the desirability of Lei Feng’s objectives, but it is by no means clear where fact becomes fiction about his life. He seems ‘too good to be true’ and they dislike the attempt to bolster the image of the Army which lies behind his revival. The Army, as well as the Communist Party, suffered a great loss of respect after Tiananmen Square.

The aim of the 1991 campaign was to reinvigorate socialism and give the army a more caring image. It is doubtful whether a mass campaign with compulsory participation amidst loud publicity achieved either of these objectives.

Ruth Cherrington



Early learning
Girls in Nepal favour informal classes

Sita rises in the early hours of the dawn. Stumbling out of the house she makes her way through the village. Shawl wrapped around her, carrying a basket by the woven jute strap placed across her forehead, she reaches the icy waters flowing from the village spring. Waiting her turn with the other girls and women she eventually fills the brass pot with cool water. Carefully picking her way between the muddied stones of the village path she eventually manages to haul her heavy, dripping load back to the family home. She lowers it onto the floor – the first task of the day is completed.

Sita and thousands of ten- year-old girls like her in Nepal are too busy to go to school. The household chores, looking after younger brothers and sisters, grazing goats and cattle, helping to collect firewood from the forest several hours’ walk away, all take time.

Sita’s brother, meanwhile, is free to attend school. He is an investment for the family. It will be his duty to take care of his parents in their old age. Sita will probably be married off by the time she is 14. Her husband’s home, where she will live, will probably be several hours’ walk away. The attitude at her home is: why send her to school and lose valuable farm labour?

Official figures show that 33 per cent of Nepal’s schoolchildren are female – but in the mountainous area of Karnali the figure is just 17 per cent.

To motivate girls and provide basic education early-morning classes were set up. They run for two hours daily over a six-month period as part of the Seti Project supported by UN agencies and the Nepali government. They were so successful that non-formal classes for girls sprang up in almost all the 75 districts of the country.

But the provision of funds and materials by the Seti Project was for just six months. At the end of that time many girls were unable to progress to the formal day school – the chores facing Sita did not disappear. So what was gained?

The children learnt basic primary-health-care principles, as well as literacy and numeracy, and the courses proved to be extremely popular. Parents as well as girls favour them. Self-sufficiency is all important to any rural community and work in the fields needs to be carried out during daylight hours. The success of the non-formal classes has shown, however, that two hours early in the morning can be spared. If this is acceptable for six months then why not six years?

The gap between the enrolment of boys and girls in remote mountainous areas implies that new initiatives are needed. The tokenistic gestures of development agencies do not really address the problem of inequality. Girls will not go into formal education in rural areas tomorrow, but if the Seti Project has proved successful and accepted by rural communities it could become the foundation of an extended course. The aim of good education for girls such as Sita can remain. But a more realistic approach, taking into consideration the local circumstances and traditional roles, should be adopted.

Kathy Saunders

previous page choose a different magazine go to the contents page go to the NI home page next page

Subscribe   Ethical Shop