India’s Jenu Kuruba indigenous tribe protests forced evictions from the forest

Jenu Kuruba, a honey-collecting indigenous tribe of India, accuses the local government of forcefully evicting them from the forest that is their home.

“We’ve been living inside this forest for the past several years,” says JK Thimma, a member of the Jenu Kuruba indigenous tribe of Karnataka state in southern India. “Our ancestors are also buried here. Their spirits continue to roam the forest. Nobody can evict us from our land”.

Members of the Jenu Kuruba tribe who have been living inside Nagarhole National Park and tiger reserve for the past several generations have been fighting a battle against Karnataka’s administration who, they allege, is trying to evict them from the forest. This habitat is home to several wild animals such as tigers, Indian leopards, sloth bears and striped hyenas, among others.

Jenu Kuruba tribe
The Jenu Kuruba tribe has accused the local administration of forcefully evicting them from the land © Survival International

The Jenu Kuruba tribe protests eviction

Nagarhole National Park, also known as Rajiv Gandhi National Park, is spread across the two districts of Mysore and Kodagu. It was originally constituted as a game sanctuary in 1955 and later declared a national park in 1983. In 2007, the whole of area was declared a Critical Tiger Habitat covering a total of over 1,500 square kilometres. There are three major tribal groups, labelled as Particularly vulnerable tribal groups by the Indian government, residing within the limits of the park: Betta Kurumba, Yerava, as well as Jenu Kuruba.

Nearly 4,000 members of the Jenu Kuruba tribe live inside the forest, scattered in 22 hamlets of which 15 are in the so-called core zone, which is also home to the area’s tigers and where tourists aren’t allowed to enter, while the rest live in the buffer area, which can be accessed by tourists. Many are involved in the traditional occupation of collecting honey. Jenu, in fact, means honey in Karnataka’s Kannada dialect.

In Karnataka as well as elsewhere in India, tribal members are being evicted from their land in the name of conserving tigers and other wild animals under the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). They’re being offered compensation in the order of 1 million rupees (almost 14,000 US dollars) to leave their homes but, in doing so, would be losing their livelihoods, which have depended on the forest for generations. Thus, they simply refuse to leave.

On 17th March, around 150 tribe members started a protest outside of the forest ranger’s office alleging that the authorities have been harassing them to try and evict them from their land. “Both the state and central governments, and NTCA have been trying to drive us from our land for eco-tourism and to mint money,” Thimma says.

Jenu Kuruba tribe in India
The Jenu Kuruba community lives inside the forest and is involved in collecting honey for its livelihood © Survival International

Indigenous land right claims in India

India has a population of over 100 million indigenous people, also known as adivasis or “original inhabitants”. They comprise less than 10 per cent of India’s population and mostly live in utter poverty. The Forest Rights Act was adopted in 2006 in an attempt to improve their lives, but its slow implementation coupled with delays in recognising native citizens’ their land rights has worsened their conditions. In 2019, the Indian Supreme Court ruled in favour of the eviction of forest dwellers in states where nearly two million land right claims (each potentially representing one household) were rejected under the act. The apex court later confirmed its ruling.

“We Jenu Kuruba have been fighting for land, community and habitat rights for the past several years but our claims have always been rejected. Over 4,000 claims for land rights have been filed but not one has been granted. Even those who have managed to get their individual land rights recognised aren’t allowed to expand their homes or cultivate the land,” Thimma adds.

In response to the tribe’s most recent protest, the authorities soon intervened and began talks with its members to avoid congregations in the wake of the massive surge in Covid-19 cases in India. “They were protesting the delay in getting permission to construct houses, given that the rainy season would be arriving shortly,” explains Shivkumar C, project coordinator of the Government of Karnataka’s Integrated Tribal Development Project. “We’ve been trying to settle the issue of their land rights and documents have been sought to authenticate their stay inside the forest. Some of the members of the indigenous community, however, share wrong information, which further delays the process”.

“The priority was to shift them inside the forest due to Covid-19 restrictions,” Shivkumar explains. “They’ve moved to inside the forest and the administration has assured them that it will look into their issues within a stipulated time period” – by the end of May.

Tribe members threaten to resume their protest

Protests, however, are still ongoing. “We were assured that the issue of land rights would be looked after and settled soon,” says tribe member Shivu Appu. “We’ll stage a protest after May if our demands aren’t met. Even though we’ve moved inside the forest, the protest is still strong”.

Jenu Kuruba tribe protest
Jenu Kuruba tribe members lament that they’ve been fighting for their land rights for the past several years without a resolution © Survival International

He claims that around 3,000 members of the tribe were already been evicted by the administration in 2000 on false promises of a better life. “We were offered a rehabilitation package of 1 million rupees per household, but this was just a mirage. We hardly get anything as most of the money is spent on moving to a new location, constructing a house, then hardly anything is left to start a new life or profession. We’ve been traditional honey collectors for the past several generations and know nothing about other trades”.

The tribe members even allege that, when attending meetings with government officials, they were tricked into signing eviction documents on the pretext that they were for their attendance. “We’ve faced harrowing conditions and have been forced to sign false documents consenting to eviction. We don’t trust forest or administrative officials. We want everything in writing or will resume our protest if our demands aren’t met,” comments a member of the Jenu Kuruba tribe requesting anonymity.

“Though the protesters have moved inside the forest, they’ve placed symbolic stones and idols in protest sites which they worship,” explains Roy David, chairman of the Coorg Organisation for Rural Development, which works with indigenous people in Karnataka. “They’ve also been also demanding the withdrawal of false cases lodged against them based on allegations that they were causing disturbances or stealing wood. Around 300 families have been evicted in the past two decades,” he adds.

The forest department, however, has made it clear that they’ve adhered to rules in dealing with the community. “Most of them fail to provide the documents to prove that they’ve been staying inside the forest for over seven decades, in order for their land rights to be recognised. We’re evicting those who can’t prove their right to stay inside the forest,” says Sanjay Mohan, Karnataka’s Principal Chief Conservator of Forest.

Jenu Kuruba tribe of India
Activists fighting for indigenous rights claim that worldwide, these communities have been harassed to force them to leave their lands © Survival International

Key to conservation

Describing the conservation model of the tiger reserves as “colonial,” Sophie Grig, Senior Research and Advocacy Officer at Survival International, a human rights organisation campaigning for the rights of indigenous communities, said that the Jenu Kuruba’s situation is quite similar to that of other indigenous communities across the world. “These communities have been facing harassment globally. Evidence has shown that they’re the best conservationists, yet they’re being pressured leave their land. They’re being made to believe that life is difficult inside the forest, which isn’t true”.

“Their ancestors’ graves are inside the forest and they refuse to leave,” Grig further states. “It’s their right to stay inside the forest to protect tiger and other wild animals. It’s really sad that indigenous tribes are harassed to such an extent that they have no alternative but to exit the forest”.

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