Photo Essay: When People Must Make Way for Nature

by |July 17, 2017

The forested Kanha Tiger Reserve, in the highlands of central India, is home to an abundance of rare wildlife. It also used to be home to thousands of people—that is, until they were moved out by the government to make way for endangered creatures. Much research has assessed the outcomes for wildlife; almost none has looked into what happens to the people. Researchers affiliated with Columbia University’s Earth Institute are bringing data this question by studying hundreds of recently resettled families now living near the reserve. All photos: Kevin Krajick  CLICK TO READ THE FULL STORY or SEE A VIDEO

The Kanha Tiger Preserve is surrounded by a sea of farmland, to which many former forest dwellers have moved. Outside the village of Sayal Tikratola, many work small rice paddies and gardens for daily sustenance. Dussri Bai (right) and her daughter Susheela Bai were moved out in the 1970s. They and neighbors were resettled en masse from the namesake village of Kanha to the newly created village of Botalbehra, just outside the park. Their families once relied on hunting and gathering; many now work in tourism.  “Even girls can do everything now,” said Dussri. “They can leave and go to the city if they want!” In Botalbehra, we met Geeta Dhurve (right) with her son and some young neighbors. Like many, she is a member of the once-nomadic Baiga forest people. Now everyone has a house and garden, and kids attend the village school. “We don’t know anything about what comes out of the jungle,” she said. Near the village of Khirgitola, a pollster (left) interviews Jaani Bai and her husband, Nazar Singh Markam. Relocated three years ago, they own a substantial family compound and 2 acres. In line with recently instated legal protections, they were paid the equivalent of $15,000 each and allowed to move wherever they wanted. When asked why they moved, they replied only: “The government told us to.” Preliminary study results suggest that resettled people are generally no poorer or richer than longer-established neighbors—but they often have to work harder to make ends meet. Some are quite poor. Meena Bai (right) said she often has to borrow food, or go hungry. Of the six people in her family, no one has an education, and they lack basic modern assets such as a cell phone. One potential problem in resettling people to already densely populated places: more strain on natural resources. That includes firewood, used for cooking. Some resettled people have to walk miles to get it. Food, and the quality of land to produce it, are paramount.  Resettled a few years ago, Suresh Kumar (with pan) and Jamni Bai separate rice from chaff with the help of a homemade fan. Satanti Bai (left) and Chait Singh look happy together in the village of Thurremetta, where they recently resettled with the help of her relatives. Here in their kitchen garden, they grow onions, eggplant, tomatoes and cauliflower. After a life in the forest, a resettled Baiga couple, Bajari (left) and Chaeti Bai, sit for a portrait in their family compound.   Bajari and Chaeti’s family front door. Like many, they brought with them everything that could be moved, including, probably, the beams to their house, and the carved doorframe. Access to markets seems to be one factor in whether resettled people prosper; the closer you are, the easier it is to sell produce. Here, the weekly market in the town of Mocha, just outside the park gate. Better access to health care is one potential upside of resettlement, though many still can’t afford it. A one-day free clinic in the Mocha elementary school was mobbed; here, cardiologist Kashif Syed examines a young patient. No one lives in the Kanha Tiger Reserve, but it is not deserted.  In the predawn chill, visitors line up to register for a half-day drive-through safari, in hopes of seeing wildlife. When the sun comes up, tourists charge in. Conservation is big business here; the daily allotment of visitors is usually sold out. Inside the reserve, spotted deer browse in roadside woods. Also commonly seen: wild boars, jungle cats, monkeys and numerous bird species. On the former site of the village of Kanha, an endangered barasingha deer grazes. Alongside a dirt-road tire track, a fresh paw print: Bengal tiger. Weighing as much as 650 pounds and measuring 10 feet, they once routinely killed human forest dwellers and their animals. They sometimes still attack livestock or people on the outskirts. The closest most tourists will get to a tiger is a selfie with the plaster ones at the park visitor center. Poachers are still a grave threat to tigers and other wildlife. Rangers like this one are constantly on the lookout. Countless deer antlers form an arch at the visitors’ center. Forest dwellers used to collect them to sell for traditional medicines and other uses, but now they are off-limits. With population and economy booming, development is closing in on the park. Here, not far from the border, National Highway 30 is being radically widened, and giant power lines have sprouted. Forest dwellers have been scattered, but ancient rituals persist. On January 14, Kanha-area residents reunite just outside the park at the Banjar River to celebrate the festival of Makar Sankranti, marking the end of winter. The tradition is said to go back at least 2,000 years. Celebrants bathe in the river. By late afternoon, people are starting to go back to civilization, until the next year.
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Dussri Bai (right) and her daughter Susheela Bai were moved out in the 1970s. They and neighbors were resettled en masse from the namesake village of Kanha to the newly created village of Botalbehra, just outside the park. Their families once relied on hunting and gathering; many now work in tourism. “Even girls can do everything now,” said Dussri. “They can leave and go to the city if they want!”

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