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The impact of COVID 19 is such that the indigenous people – once “food producers” in their own right – have become “food consumers”. Due to falling food production they are now wholly dependant on food items in markets.
The indigenous people living in the hills and forests of Kanyakumari and Thirunelveli as Kaani, Urali and those in the Gudalur Taluk of Nilgiris as Paniyar, Kurumbar, Kaatunayakkar and Jenu Kurumba are basically forest-based agriculturists. Their produce included tubers (tapioca, yam, pink yam, sweet potato, turnip, arrow root and many other varieties), coconut, spices, coffee, pineapple, sapota and several varieties of banana. They used to collect jackfruit, mango, gooseberry, tamarind, cashew nut and turmeric along with medicinal plants from the forests. During the summer season, which lasts from February to mid-may they gathered wild honey across their native forests and hills. Any surplus they could sell in nearby markets or through agents and thereby earned the cash needed in order to meet some other needs.
But in recent years, they are increasingly prevented from cultivating and harvesting their own food due to human versus animal conflicts. There are a number of reasons for this development.
Drastically increased populations of wild animals have lead to “eco-imbalance” in the sense of “prey versus predator ratio”. This is largely due to the enforcement of conservation measures and other “anthropocentric” interventions. As a result, sloth bears have taken to destroying domestic honey bees hives in higher altitudes preventing tribal communities from keeping honey bees which was meant to replace the customary gathering of wild honey.
Another factor is climate change which already had caused a decrease in honey yields. Tribal people are not only forced to abandon the customary honey gathering due to restrictions imposed by the forest department, but have to seek labor in the plantation sector as a result.
In other areas, like the Nilgiris, communities depending on banana cultivation have been instructed by forest officials to abandon their plantations in the wake of increasingly frequent elephant intrusions. In some areas – including residential areas of adjoining towns and cities – this has led to a complete elimination of banana plants. Tuber plantations are likewise raided by wild elephants, boar, porcupine, deer, Indian gaur, barking deer, sambar and hare, making any cultivation impossible or simply too dangerous to even attempt.
Among the factors leading to this crisis is the spread of “invasive” or “alien” species across many forest areas which increasingly deprives wild animals of basic food such as grass, bamboo and bushes. As a result of this shortage we observe behavioural changes, such as foraging pattern that now includes cultivated crops.
The wild mango, jack, tamarind and gooseberry are raided by monkeys, that after the raids nothing remain for the indigenous people for collection in the form of food and to market them.
As if this was not causing enough hardship indigenous communities have been severely affected by the impact of COVID19, making them jobless in the industrial plantations, private estates and private lands, leaving them totally destitute after already having to live under the poverty line for generations.
Their ancestral habitats are in the deep jungles and hill forests from which they are now banned. Similarly entry is denied to others trying to reach them with food supplies and medical assistance. In Kanyakumari, in order to reach a tribal settlement, one has to cross a dam, take a boat ride of 40 minutes, then trek for 90 minutes on rough trails to reach the affected people, being a risky affair by any standard even for experienced volunteers.
As a result indigenous populations now depend on government rations for their survival. The stark reality of the indigenous people is now: once endowed with rich lands, they are doomed to live as impoverished “consumers”.
Text and photos © courtesy Davidson Sargunam (by email 19 May 2o2oO