A report on a local TV channel of “destruction” in the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary has kicked up a storm, so to speak, in the activist world. The report shows fresh tyre marks of trucks used to transport sand illegally mined in the sanctuary.
It shows a portion of sparse vegetation burnt to be reclaimed for growing cashew and areca nut trees. It also points a finger at a roadside board warning the Forest Department officers not to enter the area.
The board was allegedly erected by villagers who live within the sanctuary. That this “destruction” or “economic activity”, call it what you may, has been going on for years, and was known to the government and the Forest Department, activists and perhaps even the media (vernacular).
There is no doubt that it is illegal, but the real story is not so straightforward. The sanctuary was notified in June 1999 when Goa was under President’s Rule. So, in a way, it was foisted on Goa in the absence of a popular government.
For many, it seemed like a blessing because it ensured that a large swathe of the Western Ghats in Goa was now protected from economic interests. However, the flip side is that it impinged on the life of nearly 50,000 people or more living in the 25 villages or so within the sanctuary.
Their ties to the forest are probably as old as the trees themselves, but they were not consulted. In one stroke of the pen, they were deemed expendable in the larger interest of the environment. The plan was to rehabilitate them, but it never happened.
Hence, today, they continue to do what they have been doing for ages — living off the forest or clearing parts of it for agriculture or horticulture. The TV crew stumbled on this delicate relationship between forest dwellers and the forest.
And they were, naturally shocked. It happens when you live in an urban area and suddenly encounter a forest economy. All along you have been told that forests need to be protected. What you have never been told is that vulnerable forest communities also need similar protection.
It is no wonder that former chief minister Pratapsingh Rane, who represented that area in the Goa Legislative Assembly, in 2011, rooted for de-notification of the sanctuary on grounds that it was done without consulting the affected people.
Later his son Vishwajit Rane challenged the notification in the High Court. Nothing came out of this effort because once a sanctuary is notified, the procedure to denotify it is cumbersome and the legal hurdles impossible to surmount.
Nonetheless, the conflict between the affected people and greens continues to this day. In January 2021, the state government issued a proclamation intending to settle the land rights of people living within the sanctuary.
The proclamation listed a series of activities that were prohibited. This kicked up a row, and four days later the proclamation was withdrawn. Another sword that hangs over the heads of the people in the sanctuary is the possibility of the area being declared a tiger reserve.
To date, the government has succeeded in blocking the proposal. This is basically a conflict between urban and tribal Goa, and for now, urban Goa appears to have won thanks to the generosity of former governor J F R Jacob. But, tribal Goa is reasserting itself. This conflict will continue until a balance is established.