MUMBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Advocacy group Survival International has asked tourists to boycott India’s tiger reserves until the rights of indigenous people living in them are respected, drawing attention to growing tensions over land as the holiday season kicks off.
India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority earlier this year ordered 17 states to suspend granting of rights to indigenous people and other forest dwellers under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) in critical tiger habitats.
The 2006 law aimed to improve the lives of impoverished tribes by recognizing their right to inhabit and live off forests where their forefathers settled.
“Tens of thousands of Indian tribal people have been illegally evicted from villages inside tiger reserves, and forced into lives of poverty and misery on the fringes of mainstream society,” Survival International said Monday.
“The authorities need to realize that only by complying with the law and recognizing tribes’ rights can the tiger be saved,” director Stephen Corry said in a statement.
An official at the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) said there were no forced evictions from the reserves.
In India and across the globe, efforts to protect wildlife and their habitats are pitting conservationists, trying to save endangered species, against tribal people, unable to secure rights to land they have depended on for centuries.
Wildlife tourism is a growing money spinner for India, and activists have warned that moves to protect habitats of tigers, elephants and rhinoceros are hurting vulnerable communities and will also endanger wildlife.
India has about half the world’s estimated 3,200 tigers in dozens of reserves established since the 1970s, and has extensively promoted tiger safaris as a highlight for tourists.
The tiger conservation authority has guidelines for the “voluntary relocation” of people who live within critical tiger habitats, although activists say forced evictions are common.
“We are only relocating those people from core tiger habitats who are willing to move; there are no evictions,” said Debabrata Swain, an additional director general at the NTCA.
“We care about the wildlife, but we also care about the tribals,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The FRA was expected to benefit more than a fifth of India’s 1.2 billion population, covering vast areas of forest land roughly the size of Germany. But implementation has been slow, with rights to only about 3 percent of land recorded so far.
The conservation order has been challenged by the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes, which oversees protection of rights of tribal people, saying it is not in line with the 2006 forest law.
“Tribal people living within wildlife reserves help protect and conserve wildlife, including tigers,” said S.K. Ratho, joint secretary of the commission.
In the first reserve in southern India where tribal people won the right to stay, tiger numbers almost doubled between 2010 and 2014, according to Survival International.