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Indigenous Peoples

new internationalist
issue 321 - March 2000

Sweat and sorrow
Mari Marcel Thekaekara appeals for NI readers’ help to protect the threatened
livelihoods of tribal peoples living in the forests of southern India.

Chembakolly village is an idyllic little adivasi (tribal) settlement in the heart of the Mudumalai forest, in the Nilgiri mountains of Tamil Nadu, South India. In the last week of September last year a posse of Forest Department officials des-cended on the tiny hamlet and unleashed a reign of terror. They ripped up precious pepper vines, cut down the host dadop trees and hacked wildly at everything around.

Soman, a young adivasi, was devastated. ‘I wept at his [the forest ranger’s] feet and pleaded: “Please don’t cut my pepper. These plants are like my children. I have looked after them for years.”’ The ranger was unmoved. Another adivasi, Marigan, pleaded: ‘We have lived here all our lives. Our ancestors are all buried in this place.’

‘Dogs! Encroachers of government land!’ was the ranger’s response. ‘In a month I’ll be back to raze your huts to the ground. This is a warning. As long as I’m around I’ll make sure not one of you gets water or electricity.’

About 50 years ago the entire forest had belonged to the adivasis. They were free to come and go as they pleased, planting roots and tubers, little patches of ragi, a few vegetables. When someone died they burnt down all their huts and moved on – a sensible precaution when you considered that they had little with which to fight infectious diseases.

In the last 15 years, however, things had become tougher. Increasingly, the adivasis (who came from a number of different tribal groups) encountered hostility and aggression from the Forest Department. The forest was declared ‘reserved’ and they were forbidden to fish, hunt, gather forest produce – activities that had always been their birthright.

So a group of them decided to end the migratory habits of centuries and to stay in one place. Some of them were Bettakurumbas – who’d been promised relocation by the forest department from the touristy part of the ‘reserve’ to a more remote area. The others were Kattunaickens – who’d always occupied some part of the Chembakolly forest. Their entire way of life was intimately linked with the forest and a life outside was absolutely unthinkable.

Realization dawned late, but it hit them suddenly that if they wanted to hold on to their ancestral lands they would have to prove possession. This was like Australian aboriginal people being told they were on Terra Nullius, ‘empty’ land, and the Crown was in possession of it all.

The year the adivasis planted permanent crops I visited Chembakolly. The people were huddled in little huts in the merciless monsoon rain. They worked all day, drinking black tea to stave off the pangs of hunger. To plant the land they had to stay away from work, so they received no wages. And they subsisted on a starvation diet of one meal of rice gruel (kanji) at night, saving a bit for the kids in the morning. They had to watch out for bear attacks and angry elephants and wild boar and leopard. But they braved all this because they were tired of being moved on, pushed around. They wanted stability and a safe haven for their children.

For years the people of Chembakolly watched their crops grow with pride. The hard work in the cold wet monsoon had paid off. For the first time in their lives they had food for their children three times a day. It had been worth the struggle.

Then, suddenly, more than a decade down the line and out of the blue, the Forest Department arrived. The people were still stunned when I visited a few days later. ‘Why do they only pick on us?’ Marigan, an elderly adivasi, asked us totally bewildered.

Though the adivasis had not cut down a single tree, and had planted their crops respecting the ambience of the forest, their pepper, coffee and food plants were hacked to the ground. An adjacent plot owned by a rich man, where the forest had been razed and rows of neat plantation-like crops flourished, was left untouched – evidence of the bribes that have changed hands over the years.

The adivasis have begun their fight for justice. A decent District Collector has promised them protection and the Deputy Superintendent of Police visited their village after their complaint was registered with the police. But it’s a bitter victory for Soman and his friends who planted their land with blood, sweat and tears and now are unable to reap a harvest when the fruit is almost ready to pick. The solidarity offered to the village by thousands of other adivasis has been some comfort nonetheless.

This is an appeal to NI readers – and also to the schoolchildren of Britain who learned about this village from an education pack created by ActionAid – to send your protests to the Government of India. I believe that this kind of solidarity helps. The perpetrators of human-rights violations are forced to think twice when they know their victims are not totally defenceless and have people all over the world supporting them in their fight for justice. So let’s show them!

Mari Marcel Thekaekara is a regular contributor to the NI.

Send your expressions of concern to:
The Honourable Prime Minister,
South Block, New Delhi 110011, India.

The Chembakolli pack for schools is available from:
Hamlyn House, Archway, London N19 5PG.
Tel: (+44) 171 281 4101.
E-mail: [email protected]

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