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Not guilty for lost generations

Dec 15, 2008

Indigenous people worldwide have been denied peaceful coexistence with mother nature. According to conservationist Tarsh Thekaekara, India figures among countries that have trampled upon the rights of their tribal populations and yet remains unapologetic.

Once upon a time there lived a happy people who coexisted peacefully with the plants, trees and animals for centuries. They depended on the forests to live, so they did their best to respect it and all the creatures that lived in it.

These simple people did not know of concepts like conservation, but neither did they know of destruction. They had harmony in their lives, and without destruction there was no need for conservation. They killed animals to eat, but animals also killed them from time to time. It was a balanced world.

Tribal Women.jpg

Unfortunately these were not the only people in the world. Far away there were some enlightened kings who knew of their presence, but luckily respected their way of life and the role they played in the forest. So they did not bother them.

But, further away, there lived some other pioneering and ambitious white people who did not know or respect these people and the forests they lived in. They believed that forests were valuable natural resources that could be exploited - but only after they had been destroyed.

Then one day, in 1886, in another faraway place, some white people decided to have an Imperial Forest Service to best manage and exploit this valuable natural resource. And one German gentleman became the expert on Indian forests. But still the quiet forest people continued to live peacefully without the German gentleman or anyone else knowing about them.

Conquering the ‘savages’

Over time, however, these ambitious people who were busy conquering nature came into contact with what they called “savages” - stupid people who did not recognise the wealth of the forests around them, and continued to live in their own uncivilised society. They were very lazy, and did only a little work everyday to get whatever food they needed; they did not try to hoard things to sell to others so they could develop and progress.

The pioneers were easily able to trick and enslave many of these savages. But the remaining savages were not happy with the outside contact or the concept of exploiting natural resources. They retreated further into the forests where they continued to live, though a little less peacefully.

The pioneers continued to exploit the natural resources, and the indigenous people kept retreating deeper into the forest. Ships were built and wars were won. Beautiful tea estates were planted, agriculture became scientific, and great progress was made. The pioneers were honoured and statues put up.

The white men became a shade browner, and the Imperial Forest Service became the Indian Forest Service. Brown sahibs continued to be pioneers and bring “wasted” forestland under cultivation. They trapped more of the indigenous people and forced them to work on the lands to make them productive.

A Green Revolution converted red, brown, yellow, orange, green and a multitude of other natural colours into a standard shade of urea-induced green. And the indigenous people retreated further.

Just about the time when they could retreat no further, some people in that same faraway place finally woke up to the fact that something was going wrong. Maybe the forest was not an unlimited source of wealth they could indefinitely exploit. They realised there was not much forest left anyway.

They talked about conservation to balance all the destruction. They thought of what they could do, and decided that all people should have nothing more to do with forests. No distinction was made between the destructive pioneers and the indigenous people who kept running from progress. The pioneers were dead and gone (there was no point talking ill of them) and so they targeted the indigenous people. They were the problem and needed to be dealt with.

From then on, the Forest Department that was set up to exploit the forests made it a point to hound these people and try to move them out of the forests. They were no longer welcome in their traditional home, the forests they had lived in for centuries. They were not even allowed to cut grass to put a roof over their heads, or dig up tubers for their daily meal.

So the community began to weaken. They could not all live collectively, as every individual had to struggle to survive. Their values slowly got eroded with more and more contact with the outsiders. Some of them were even convinced of the concept of natural resources and how the forests could be exploited. They could not exploit it themselves though, so they sometimes helped others with the exploitation in order to survive.

Now, after a few decades of this department and the government doing their very best to sever all links the adivasis had with the forests, they decide that they have made another mistake. The adivasis were not the problem; their rights in the forests had to be recognised. They have been living in harmony with nature for centuries and have not caused any destruction at all. And so we now have a Forest Rights Act.

Respecting their rights

The government though fails to identify the cause of the problem. And they don’t in any way want to apologise for what they have been doing to these people.

This is not something that is limited to our country. Most countries have ill treated and persecuted their indigenous people, often in much worse ways than us. But some are starting to apologise.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd gave an excellent speech saying sorry to the aboriginal people for the ‘stolen generations’.

“Today we honour the indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history. We reflect on their past mistreatment. We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were Stolen Generations - this blemished chapter in our nation’s history. We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians. For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.

“To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry. And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.”

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper followed suit. He apologises for forcibly moving a huge number of indigenous children away from their homes and into residential schools in an attempt to ‘civilise’ them, and “kill the Indian in the child”.

“We now recognise that it was wrong to separate children from rich and vibrant cultures and traditions. That it created a void in many lives and communities, and we apologise for having done this. We now recognise that, far too often, these institutions gave rise to abuse or neglect and were inadequately controlled, and we apologise for failing to protect you.”

And so what do we do about it?

Various retired gentlemen across the country, all hailing from very senior posts in the same organisation that has “scientifically managed” our forests for the last century, go to courts in the public interest, asking that the Forest Rights Act be withdrawn. They go so far as to suggest it is unconstitutional.

Their objections are similar: The Act will facilitate huge land grabs all across the country, and will destroy our forests. All this from the comfort of their urban, airconditioned cars and homes of course.  
What a great democratic country we live in.

Tarsh Thekaekara is a young conservationist based in Gudalur, Nilgiris.

Source : InfoChange
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