In the Simlipal Tiger Reserve in India, everyday life and culture are deeply intertwined with the surrounding environment, which is reflected in local knowledge of the area’s vegetation and biodiversity.
My several-hour journey into the heart of the Simlipal Tiger Reserve in Odisha began in Jashipur, a small but bustling town on the edge of the park. Bouncing on the back of a motorcycle, we quickly abandoned asphalt and set out on dirt roads.
Traversing into the jungle revealed a spectrum of color: neon green fields, bright red paths, and a flicker of sunlight filtering through the branches above. Whenever the track turned to mud, I would quickly hop off to allow my guide to maneuver the bike through the mire on his own. As we finally crossed through the barriers that indicated the boundaries of the park, stillness enveloped us. The raucous din of the town outside was now far behind.
Inside Simlipal, a new feeling of restored dignity rustling through the forest
Amidst the dense jungle and verdant rice fields, tribal communities subsist on the collection of non-timber forest products such as mushrooms, honey, and various plants and leaves that are utilized for food, medicine, and livelihoods. Minor forest produce constitutes more than half of household income and firewood makes up 100% of the energy source for tribal families in Simlipal.
The establishment of Simlipal Tiger Reserve as a wildlife sanctuary in 1979 and a national park in 1980 left local communities unable to collect forest produce, as their traditional livelihoods were curtailed, and at times criminalized. For decades, they lived under threat of eviction and the authority of the Forest and Wildlife departments. Villagers recall an existence of fear and uncertainty, where they were often prevented from collecting timber for houses, firewood for fuel, and the flora that is integral to the tribal economy.
The situation officially changed on 9 April 2015, when titles granting Community Forest Resource (CFR) rights were distributed to 43 villages for nearly 25,000 hectares of land under India’s Forest Rights Act (FRA) – a law that was passed in 2006, but has taken years to implement.
A Shift in Power in the Forests
Today, the recognition of resource rights has catalyzed local communities to protect the forests that define their lifestyle with a renewed vitality. This shift in power has not only caused reverberations in the forests of Simlipal, but could have greater implications for a new paradigm of community-led conservation in India.
I arrived in Simlipal on a Sunday to find nearly every home empty. Villagers from all corners of the park had congregated at the weekly market to sell their wares. I wove through the stalls that carry everything from grains and spices to hand-woven baskets and plastic slippers, to find Maheshwar Naik, president of the Forest Rights Committee in Bilapaka, a village inside Simlipal.
“We have received the independence to conserve and protect our forests. Before receiving titles for our land, the forest was under the jurisdiction of the Forest Department. Now, we are responsible for what happens in the forest,” he explained.
A Work in Progress
Despite strides made in the recognition of communities’ self-determination, challenges persist that continue to hinder the ability of villagers to enjoy these newly-won rights. Next week we will discuss points of contention in environmental and wildlife conservation in Simlipal, and how longstanding forces of oppression are being addressed.
Gaurav Madan is Senior Associate, Asia Program at the Rights and Resources Initiative, an international coalition advocating for local communities and Indigenous People’s land and forest rights across the world, including India.