In South India, Women Empowerment Groups Fight For Land Rights
For the first four months of 2015, I lived in Bangalore, India, as part of Ramapo College’s “India: Development and Sustainability” program. I learned about sustainable development, British colonization, the caste system, and existing gender norms, focusing on the issues affecting contemporary women. Outside of class, I also followed news coverage of India’s Daughter, a BBC documentary banned by the federal government that examines the country’s toxic rape culture.
I quickly noticed a pattern in Indian media. Women would often make headlines as victims of violence, but were rarely noted for their accomplishments. For my semester’s academic fieldwork project, I wanted to find women doing important work worthy of recognition, using journalism as a lens to speak out against injustice and this disparity in media coverage.
This mission brought me to Nagarhole National Park, nearly a four-hour drive away from Bangalore. Here, the Jenu Karuba tribe has lived in several tightly-knit hamlets, smaller in size than villages, for generations.
“Jenu Kuruba” translates to “honey gather,” and the tribe is best known for the tradition of collecting honey. For centuries, the tribe has co-existed with nature, collecting dead wood to cook and construct homes with. Tribe members forage forest tubers and produce, and practice homeopathy with medicinal plants from the forest.
In one of these hamlets — Mane Moole Hadi — I met a woman named Gange. After her husband died about 13 years ago, she assumed the role as her hamlet’s leader. She has 11 children, and explained to me that she was “about 65 years old.”
Throughout her entire life, Gange has foraged food, medicine, and uncultivated foods from the forest, including 10 types of dead wood and 40 different types of leafy vegetables. As a child, she lived a few kilometers deeper inside the forest; today, she lives much closer to the border and only collects honey in her direct area, as she is forbidden from collecting any natural resources deeper within.
For Gange and those like her, displacement toward the forest’s edge has meant living in dry, open spaces that force long treks by foot to access natural resources. Gange is able to collect honey and food, but is too far away to collect significant natural resources like timber, water, medicine, and different varieties of plants. A government distribution system allocates rice and the ragi, an Asian millet, to tribes.
Like many in the area, Gange has been displaced as a result of a long-simmering battle that’s pitted tribes against conservationists. And increasingly, some of the most vocal champions for improved land rights are the women, like Gange, who exist in a patriarchal system with a history of keeping them silent.
A History Of Displacement
Development-induced displacement is not uncommon in rural India, and happens for a range of reasons, including military installments and urbanization. In Nagarhole National Park, it’s conservation policies that have driven native populations from their homes.
The government and tribes have had a fraught relationship since the passage of the Indian Forest Act of 1878 (and its 1927 amendment), which gave the state strict control over forest resources and stripped away many of the native inhabitants’ privileges and rights. Tensions worsened in 1972 following the passage of the Wildlife Protection Act, which aimed to protect plants and animals in designated areas, including Nagarhole National Park. The act mandated that certain forest areas — including core tiger-breeding grounds — must be human-free, and imposed penalties on anyone violating this legislation, making it difficult for tribes to interact with their native habitats and access natural resources. In 2000, the situation got bleaker still for tribes in Nagarhole when the park was designated as a tiger reservation — a label requiring the Forest Department to relocate tribes out of the Nagarhole to preserve the tiger population, on the grounds that tigers need untouched spaces to breed and grow.
Conservation legislation is predicted on a belief that tribes cannot co-exist sustainably with wildlife, and has sparked controversy and debate even among conservationists — tribes want access to their land in the forest, while the government strives to protect reserves, free of human settlement.
These acts have made it so tribes are allowed only limited “visits” into the forest to acquire food, firewood, and other resources. And while conservationists point to valid claims for protecting wildlife, the acts have been enforced in ways that infringe on the rights of natives.
The Wildlife Protection Act, for instance, includes a section on providing locals with viable resettlement options. Yet as the National Geographic reported, observers on both sides of the debate say that process has been ignored. “It’s been almost as if the local people don’t really matter when setting up a protected area,” Ashish Kothari, co-founder of Kalpavriksh, an environmental research and advocacy group in Pune in Western India, told the magazine.
The Forest Rights Act of 2006, meanwhile, was passed to return land rights to tribes — but has not been implemented as proposed. According to Gange, the Forest Department often persuades tribes to move outside of the forest. Range Forest Officers physically monitor their communities from afar; Gange says government officials in uniform hover around the hamlet, some with guns, others in jeeps, as close as a hundred feet away.
Further, according to Gange, many tribes have false charges against them, filed by officials in the Forest Department. Range Forest Officers will occasionally accuse tribes of trespassing into the forest — and the resulting court cases are a huge expense for families. The courts are located over twenty kilometers away in Heggadadevana Kote, a municipal district outside of Mysore city. Those accused must pay for food and transportation, often for other family members in addition to themselves, for each day they appear in court. Sometimes, families cannot afford to get to court, which immediately incriminates them. Although Gange hasn’t experienced this in her immediate family, her community has.
Resettlement has made survival more challenging for tribes in other ways as well. For instance, it negatively impacts tribal health, as acquiring medicinal resources is more difficult now. “We never sought Western medicine. Even today, I don’t go to the doctor. My children rarely do,” Gange explained to me. She still uses medicinal plants to cure sicknesses, but these days her visits to the forest are extremely limited.
Gange’s community only goes back into the forest twice a year to celebrate festivals in April and September. The Forest Department — for now, at least — permits these celebrations. The tribes offer bananas, coconuts, sandalwood, and wildflowers to their ancestors. “I inherited this tradition from my parents,” Gange told me. The younger generation also practices these traditions with their parents, and is expected to pass them on to their children.
To fight back against land rights infringement, Gange and her female neighbors are involved in what are known as empowerment groups — safe, women-only spaces that provide members the opportunity to share resources and network. In New York City, we know them as feminist brunches and feminist conferences; in rural India, these meetings might be the only opportunity for women to gather without men. Here, they can discuss problems within their families and communities in the hopes of alleviating them. Issues include not only land rights, but everything from poor road conditions to electricity.
As everyone rallies together, there is a sense of camaraderie among women in the hamlet. Gange’s empowerment group, the Foundation for Educational Innovations in Asia (FEDINA), is a nonprofit that provides legal aid to tribes and mediates paperwork between tribes and the government. The organization has helped 2,000 families move into new homes after resettling outside the forest, and occasionally organizes protests in favor of land rights.
Last April, I had the opportunity to meet Mary, an activist for Adivasi women in Heggadadevana Kote who works with FEDINA, a few days before she organized and rallied together women in Mysore city. “Before the empowerment groups, women didn’t come out of their houses,” she explained to me. “Men forbade them from leaving. Now, they collectively come out in large numbers, in solidarity. They’re still fearful of speaking out in public, yet they’ve come a long way.” The silencing is a byproduct of a patriarchal system that dominates conservative rural areas, limiting women’s ability to engage with their communities and even leave their homes.
Gange’s empowerment group also practices microfinance. Every week, a bookkeeper collects money from each member and deposits the funds into a bank. This money is then used for emergencies, such as health care and education.
The groups have helped the children of the community as well. “My children have more confidence and organize themselves,” Gange said. “They’re enthusiastic about the groups and getting involved with their land rights, thankfully. They maintain meeting notes and record what happens. Everyone is interested in doing these things.”
Gange was one of the few tribal women willing to speak out “on the record” against ongoing injustices. Many women still feel anxiety about upsetting men, even though they’re involved with empowerment groups with other women. Gange, however, doesn’t have a husband to upset; she inherited a hamlet to lead on her own. She unapologetically continues to fight for her land rights, no matter the cost. I was struck by her openness to invite me, a foreigner, into her intimate hamlet. Her work — and the work of those like her — may not be recognized beyond one community, but is crucial for securing rights that have been threatened for far too long.
Note on translation: Shalini, an employee for Pipal Tree, helped mediate my conversations with Mary and Gange. She helped translate Kannada dialect to English. Pipal Tree is a sustainable organization based out of Fireflies Intercultural Centre in Bangalore, India. During my semester abroad, I called the Fireflies ashram home.