The long-term psychological trauma of being torn from the land which your community has cherished for countless generations is something very difficult for us, those who have lived our lives surrounded by cities and technology, to understand. Shakti Baiga lives in a village in the Core Zone of Achankmar National Park in Chhattisgarh, central India. His village has been given notice of their upcoming eviction, and the villagers (all members of the Baiga community, one of the most vulnerable tribes) are united in their refusal to leave their village.
It is a commonly held opinion that indigenous communities are ignorant about life outside the forest, and that they just don´t know yet that it is better. But this is far from the case; Shakti and his community have seen what happens to villages when they are evicted from the jungle, and they are making a conscious decision when they say that this is not what they want for their family and their community. "He tells us we will have a bright future. But city people don’t even have a bright future so how will we? We’ve been to the relocated villages, we’ve seen the land there and the tiny crops that they yield. The land is full of rocks, nothing will grow there. If we go there then how can our children’s futures possibly be bright?"
In fact, indigenous communities are often fully self sufficient when they retain control over their land and resources. Their knowledge about edible plants in the forest has been passed down for generations, and without access to these plants which their diet is dependant on communities can become impoverished. "Our jungle gives us everything we need. We take Beheri, Kanda, Lorengi (minor forest produce, small plants, roots, flowers, which adivasis eat), everything. There is so much life force in the food that our ancestors ate, that we still eat today. It´s impossible to find that kind of food anywhere but here!
If we go to the city then we get so ill, but if city people come to our jungle then they get pure food, air and water. Eat our rice and see how it is so much better than the city rice. Good nutritious food like that which we get from our jungle keeps us strong and healthy and protects us from illnesses. City food and water, on the other hand, is full of pesticides and other chemicals. The natural fertiliser that we take from the jungle fertilises both us and our food, and we can´t possibly survive without this."
Evictions of indigenous communities in this part of India are justified by conservation agencies such as WWF as necessary for the preservation of the environment. But this justification is misleading and incorrect and often serves to hide alterior motives, such as building a tourist industry around a National Park. Multiple studies show that indigenous communities are the best guardians of the forest, and deforestation and other forms of environmental degradation actually increase when the indigenous communities are evicted.
"The Forest Department tells everyone that we harm the jungle. But how could we possibly harm the jungle? Only we are capable of protecting the jungle, the jungle only thrives because we are here. If we are sent away the jungle will surely perish, because if we don’t protect the jungle then nobody can. The Forest Department come here in cars; if there’s a fire in the jungle then how will they reach it in their cars? See for yourself – try and take a car into this jungle and see how far you get. Does a car have the right to go into the jungle? No, cars belong on roads."
"Of course tigers and people can live together. How can we be scared of tigers when we are so connected that the tiger lives because of us and we live because of the tiger? But we are scared of cities. Or ancestors couldn’t survive in the city and neither can we. How can we possibly flourish in the city? If someone forces us to leave here and go to the city then they are basically killing us.”
Originally published here. Photography by Harshit Charles of Humans of Gondwana