GIR SANCTUARY, India (Reuters) - Daya Rakha, 36, was born in the jungles of the Gir wildlife sanctuary in western India and knows little else except how to live off the forest’s resources.
Just as his ancestors did generations ago, Daya ekes out a meager living mainly by tending to his cattle which relentlessly graze in Gir’s lush forests.
But Daya -- like millions of India’s forest dwellers -- has never been able to call the forest his home. Instead he has been treated as a criminal by authorities as he has no legal right to stay in the forests where his forefathers lived and died.
“It is the eviction notices from the government and rules made to uproot us by the forest officials that give us sleepless nights,” said Daya, who belongs to the 8,400-strong Maldhari tribe of Gir.
Over 40 million of India’s most impoverished and marginalized people live in the country’s forests -- including tiger reserves, wildlife sanctuaries and national parks -- but for years have been neglected by the government and left to fend for themselves.
The Maldharis have long lived with eviction threats, alleged harassment and extortion by officials who say they are guilty of environmental destruction and endangering wildlife in the sanctuary -- one of the last bastions of the rare Asiatic lion.
But a new law will for the first time enshrine their right to live in the forests and national parks. Conservationists are worried this could hamper efforts to save India’s endangered wildlife such as lions and tigers.
In Gir, the pastoral Maldhari community live a simple life in small mud houses hidden deep in the forests, with no electricity, running water, schools or access to healthcare.
They earn a living by producing milk from their cattle, growing vegetables, collecting honey and trading their produce in the local market for items like food grains. Most are illiterate and unable to count or use money.
Activists say these forgotten forest people lead a primitive life and face many hardships.
“The pastoral communities do not figure in the electoral rolls,” said Shekla Rakha from Setu -- a charity promoting the rights of forest dwellers. “They have become non-entities, left to fend for themselves for generations.”
As a result, activists say these communities are vulnerable to exploitation allegedly by forest officials who forcefully evict them or compel them to pay bribes to enter and exit sanctuaries.
“Two months ago when my mother died, the forest officials did not allow my relatives from nearby villages to enter the forest for the last rites,” Amra Suba, a shepherd said as he tended to his flock of sheep.
“I had to pay to get permission for their entry to my own house.”
But the Recognition of Forest Rights Bill 2006, passed by parliament in December, could help end the suffering of many of India’s forest people by giving them rights over forest land.
The law, which will apply to those who have lived in the forests for at least three generations, will allow dwellers to use non-timber forest produce such as bamboo, stumps, cane and to collect honey. But it prohibits them from hunting animals.
While this is seen as a landmark law by social activists, environmentalists and forestry officials who hold forest dwellers responsible for damaging the environment and poaching wild animals, are concerned.
“If allowed to live in the forest, they will degrade the habitat as their cattle graze in direct competition with prey like deer,” said Bharat Pathak, conservator of Gir’s forests, referring to how a fall in prey would hurt numbers of predators.
Livestock are also prone to epidemics and could infect Gir’s wildlife which includes the rare Asiatic lion whose numbers have recovered to around 360 from less than 15 in the mid-20th century due to a successful breeding project, he added.
Conservationists are also concerned that the law will allow more encroachers into the forests and push wildlife out of protected areas, leaving them more vulnerable to hunters.
Some wildlife activists say it is essential that forest dwellers be involved in conservation efforts and given a sense of ownership and responsibility over the forests, perhaps by employing them as tourist guides or forest guards.
Forest dwellers say they are not responsible for the loss of wildlife and regularly report poaching to authorities and monitor illegal activities such as mining and tree felling. “Officials say we are eating up the forest but in reality we are helping in protecting the lions and the jungle,” says Lali Rudha, a mother of seven children.