As Indians go to the polls, its indigenous people face forest eviction

Global outcry as India’s Supreme Court threatens to evict over a million vulnerable people from forest under the guise of protecting wildlife.

by Nick Meynen and Eleonora Fanari  – more info on the authors below.

The Bengal tiger has been used as a national brand since long before there was India, or nations. Back in the twenty-fifth century BCE, the Pashupati seal of the Indus Valley Civilisation was a tiger.

Today, protection of India’s official animal has become so intertwined with Hindu nationalism that it has turned into a pretext to impose mass-evictions and violence upon mostly non-Hindu forest dwellers.

At least a million people are now facing eviction from the lands on which they are living, often for generations. All in name of protecting little over 1,000 tigers.

Global backlash

On 13 February 2019, India’s Supreme Court ruled in favour of a conservation group that claims that the Forest Rights Act (FRA) that was adopted in 2006 is detrimental for India’s wildlife.

The court assumed that the recognition of forest rights to correct the historical injustice to millions of discriminated indigenous peoples would put wildlife – most notably the Bengal Tiger – at risk.

Experts from all over the world reacted, arguing that the Supreme Court order will not only have devastating human rights implications but also hurt the global struggle to save forests and mitigate climate change.

These experts wrote in a joint letter: “We do not consider this order to be pro-conservation. On the contrary, it is a real setback for conservation in India.

“The rights of local communities are an integral part of any sustainable and just model of conservation, as is now recognized in international law.”

Implementation of the decision has been placed on hold till July, after the elections.

Violent evictions

But some are clearly impatient. The use of violence under the cover of the Supreme Court decision is already on the rise all over India.

A team of ten led by forest guard Vinod Mehta tried to evict Van Gujjars from Kalega Khatta village, near Nandhaur Wildlife Sanctuary, on 10 March.

In a written copy of a complaint filed by Shri Shamsher Ali, he alleges that the guards entered his house when he was not present and destroyed furniture in the presence of his wife Taj bibi, and son Ajan.

When asked the reason of destroying their house, the Forest Guard answered that a Supreme Court order has been issued which states that forest dwellers had to be immediately evicted and forest land had to be reclaimed.

The nationalist-conservationist Hindu’s refuse to acknowledge that criminalising forest-dwellers is helping neither tigers nor India’s forests.

Forest guardians

The Nature Conservation Foundation in India said that:

Apart from devastating their lives, it is likely that the order will ultimately prove highly detrimental to conservation in India by further alienating potential allies and by strengthening the false notion that conservation can be carried out only by excluding forest-dwelling peoples.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Victoria Tauli-Corpuz added:

The basic premise of this ruling, which treats tribal peoples as illegal residents of the forest, is wrong.

For generations, India’s tribal peoples have lived in harmony with the country’s wildlife, protecting and managing vital natural resources. It is because of their sustainable stewardship that India still has forests worth conserving.

To truly protect wildlife, recognizing the rights of forest guardians would be a far more effective strategy than rendering them homeless.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, deforestation rates are lower and carbon storage higher where Indigenous Peoples and local communities have secure rights.

Environmental justice

All this will exacerbate two findings from the researchers behind the global Atlas of Environmental Justice.

The first is that of the 2750 environmental conflicts they mapped, India already has a record number of environmental conflicts.

The second is that while indigenous people are only 4 percent of the world population, they are on the frontlines of 40 percent of all environmental conflicts.

Rather than pushing forest dwellers to the slums, the earth’s protectors need extra protection. That is not just in their interest, but in the interest of India and the global community.



Nick Meynen is policy officer for Environmental and Economic Justice at the European Environmental Bureau. He works on the Atlas of Environmental Justice.

Eleonora Fanari is a researcher currently working with the EnvJustice Group at ICTA, Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona. Her main research interest is on land and forest rights and the governance of ecosystem and biodiversity in India. 

This opinion piece was first published at The Ecologist