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What are the lawscapes of Indigenous community forests?

​~ by Prameek Kannan 

The paper explores the legal system of indigenous, forest dependent, tribal communities in Central India, and the multiple factors that influence its production. Forest dependent communities are not only an integral part of their ecosystems, but are a crucial ally for conservation initiatives as well. There have been few studies on the legal systems of indigenous tribes in India; this study looks to understand the same using a post-humanism approach. Posthumanism is a philosophy that considers humans in relation to ecology and technology, as opposed to in isolation, and therefore is an appropriate lens with which to view the environmental entities that influence tribal law in these communities. Here, the author looks to look at the role played by non-human entities in the production of the legal systems of these tribes.

Photo Credits: Tikli Loivaranta (Kundpur Forests)

Three Adivasi or tribal villages in eastern Madhya Pradesh were selected for this study, referred to as, “Kundpur,” “Ghaaspur,” and “Jharnapur,” by the author. Here all the respondents identified themselves as either Gonds or Baiga tribals. The villages consist of tribal hamlets between 40 and 125 households, with farmlands adjacent to them. Additionally, each of these villages have also legally registered around 4000 hectares of CFR (Community Forest Rights) area, wherein they can legally collect forest produce. The author conducted interview surveys to collect the data for this study, wherein 46 interviews were either audio or video recorded, and noted were taken on 10 short, single topic interviews. Additionally, the author stayed in each village for three to six days, and developed a rapport with several villagers informally as well, which helped build a more wholesome perspective of the local ecosystem and the communities. For additional assistance with data collection, the author hired translators, well versed with the local dialect. The author evenly sampled interviewees across the age and gender spectrum, so as not to incur any biases in the same. Following data collection, and transcription, the researchers used qualitative content analysis, with the help of NVivo 12 software to analyze the data.

The lives of the members of these tribal societies’ centers on the forest, and collecting produce for their sustenance. They have strong emotional associations with many parts of the forest, and describe the event of visiting the various places like visiting members of their family. However, they do not consider themselves as “owners” of the forest, but instead part of its ecosystem, whose well-being is integral to their own. They associate the “deep forest,” which are often considered no go areas for the people, and the abode of potentially dangerous wildlife such as big cats and bears. Conversely, the reverse applies for their agricultural fields, but at the same time, any wildlife that does enter is not harmed. They are usually allowed to pass through, and if particularly destructive, they are aggressively shooed away, as wildlife are considered essential parts of the forest ecosystems, just like the people themselves. The forest ecosystem is central to the structuring of their legal system too. Since, they consider the forest as an essential; they consider protecting it as essential too. Their primary means of protecting parts of the forest are being declaring them as sacred sites, wherein they consider it inauspicious to collect produce or venture to these sites at inauspicious times. Protection of the forest is a key element of their legal system, as it is important to protect it from damage by natural events such as fire, and against, ‘outsiders.’ The tribals consider entities that engage in logging activities and other projects that result in the destruction of a large number of trees or swatches of habitat as dangerous outsiders. Due to their emotional association with trees and many parts of the forest, the loss of forests to outsiders causes them a lot of pain, and they expressed feeling powerless to protect the forest against these. Granting of CFRs has been a huge coup for these communities, and they feel it allows them to protect these forests better.

This study does an excellent job of highlighting how the forest ecosystem and its well-being is central to the lives of these tribal communities. It is imperative that the lifestyles, cultures, and beliefs of local tribal communities are considered when designing conservation and development related policies. Incorporating indigenous elements and beliefs into conservation policy may not only facilitate their own well-being better, by not alienating them, but may increase the scope of conservation initiatives as well.

Original Paper: ​Loivaranta, T. Post‐human lawscapes of Indigenous community forests in Central India. Geogr J. 2020; 186: 288– 299.

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