ASSAM- For nineteen-year old Rijumoni Pegu, a woman from the indigenous Mising tribe who lives near Agoratuli range of the Kaziranga National Park, foraging wild herbs holds a legacy of a land that belonged to them. Once or twice a week, she joins the village womenfolk to gather edible finds in the woods such as Indian Chestnut vine (Noi-tenga) and Fiddlehead fern (Dhekia) for her traditional fare. The plant parts are preserved to be used in a ritual observed to pacify 'Dobur Uie' or spirits that bring upon natural calamities, she says.
But her inclination to view the wild plants as her own has suffered after an incident last month. On 29th September, when she ventured out into the Kaziranga National Park with her group, they were threatened by forest guards who fired gunshots into the sky.
"We had informed the forest guards about our trip. But it turns out guards from other camps were kept in the oblivion about us. They chased us away by firing 2-3 shots. Now we are scared to go," Rijumoni told BOOM.
Just three days before Rijumoni was chased out of the park, 'Sadhguru' Jaggi Vasudeva of Isha Foundation along with Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sharma made a trip to the UNESCO world heritage site in Assam. They roamed around the premises in a jeep safari followed by a cavalcade of cars on the night of 24th September — even though the protocol prohibits anyone from entering the park after sunset, for the safety of the wildlife.
In the videos tweeted by the Chief Minister, people in the cars are seen waving camera flashlights at animals in their natural surroundings.
"A VVIP can openly violate park rules, it will still be legal. When our people venture in the peripheries of the park after dark, guns are pointed at them by the force with 'shoot-at-sight' orders," says Soneswar Narah, a human rights defender and convenor of Jeepal Krishak Shramik Sangha, a farmers' rights organisation advocating for the rights of indigenous communities in Assam.
"For years, our people had to sacrifice for the sake of animals," Narah says, adding that unlike NGOs or government departments who are paid for engaging in conservation, the indigenous communities intuitively understand the need to co-exist with animals without harming them.
Rijumoni's father, 48-year-old Hemanta Pegu remembers the abuses that were hurled at him last year by a forest guard he was acquainted with. It was past 4 pm and he was cycling back home after turfing an embankment on the bank of Dhansiri river–a few kilometers away from the park premises.
"The forest guard called me a thief ['chor'] on my own land. I told him that I can show him papers that I was working on the embankment but he wouldn't believe it. He even threatened to shoot," says Hemanta, recalling the threats the community living near the park faces from the guards who protect it.
The altercation happened at a time when Hemanta was chasing forest officials to claim compensation for the damages on his farm land caused by elephants.
Conservationists often criticise this sort of wildlife conservation which prioritises the 'powerful' while marginalising the rights of the indigenous people, calling it the "fortress conservation".
'Fortress conservation' includes violently displacing indigenous people from their ancestral homelands to create lands dedicated solely to conserving nature–also called "protected areas".
"In 'fortress conservation', the government removes people from the park with the intention to conserve biodiversity. But for whom? Protecting animals and not caring for humans is a societal failure," Sutirtha Lahiri, a conservation scientist at the University of Minnesota, USA, told BOOM.
Was It Ethical For Jaggi Vasudev To Enter Kaziranga At Night?
Facing flak for conducting a night safari, CM Himanta Biswa Sharma denied allegations of violating the 1972,Wildlife Protection Act rules. He is right if he had permission from the Chief Wildlife Warden.
On 25th September, Soneswar Narah and Probin Pegu, activists from Jeepal Krishak Shramik Sangha had filed police complaints against the chief minister and the yoga guru for violating the law.
The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, empowers the Chief Wildlife Warden to frame laws for tourists entering the park. KNP is also a tiger reserve, which means such rules are also under the purview of the National Tiger Conservation Authority.
Bitupan Chutia, officer in charge at Bokakhat police station, said that within a week of the filing of the FIR, they wrote a letter to the Divisional Forest Officer in Kaziranga and visited the spot as well. As per the enquiry the police had conducted, the Chief Wildlife Warden has the sole authority of managing national parks and sanctuaries including persons who are entering the premises.
The police said that the DFO had secured permission from the Chief Wildlife Warden before the night safari. The FIR has now been closed.
Conservation in Assam, although considered to be highly successful, is rooted in the long-held colonial concept that humans usually engage in destructive anthropogenic activities. The solution then becomes to extricate humans to protect forests and national parks. This assumption is deeply problematic, as it ignores the indigenous communities who have been living in and off the forests.
Rajkamal Goswami, a researcher from ATREE, calls the chief minister's action an "ugly display of power under fortress conservation".
"What happens in most of the protected areas is that the rich and powerful have an open access to natural resources–which do not even belong to them. But indigenous communities whose livelihoods are critically dependent on them are alienated," says Goswami.
What Is The MoU Between 'Sadhguru' And Assam?
Before the night of the safari, the chief minister of Assam had signed a MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) with Jaggi Vasudev, popular as 'Sadhguru' among his followers. The agreement is a part of Vasudev's 'Save the Soil' campaign - that he runs under the non-profit Isha Foundation.
The 'Save The Soil' campaign has got attention from politicians, international authorities, and global celebrities. Assam is the tenth state in the country to sign this memorandum. A similar MoU has been signed by Gujarat, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Goa.
On the website, the campaign notes that the aim is to improve "global soil health" by bringing back at least 3-6 percent of organic content in the soil by planting trees and enriching the soil through plant litter and animal waste.
In an email response to BOOM, Isha Foundation explained their plans in Assam. "The Save Soil team will be working with the state government in developing policies for soil regeneration. The overarching objective is to ensure a minimum 3-6% of organic content for agricultural soil in Assam. The role of save soil movement will be at the level of designing sustainable soil management policies at state level. The government will decide how to transition it into interventions," they said.
Their three-pronged strategy to revive soil includes providing incentives to farmers to adopt sustainable soil management practices like cover cropping, tree based agriculture and integrating crop and animal residue, facilitating carbon credit incentives for farmers, and developing a mark of superior quality for food grown from soils that have a minimum 3–6% organic content level.
It is to be noted that initiatives on soil conservation are not new to India with progress on rejuvenating soil being slow and disparate because of several reasons. At the core, these movements are centred around the participation of elite groups, not addressing the exploitation deteriorating the environment. There are no concerns, whatsoever, on the need to transfer resources back to the indigenous communities who have been protecting the soil and environment.
According to Anuja Malhotra, a policy analyst at the Centre for Policy Design at ATREE (Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment), at least 30 different programmes and schemes have been implemented by the government of India on soil conservation related interventions since the 1920s. All of them lack a baseline date on soil carbon and soil biology thereby posing a hurdle in planning and implementation.
"It takes about 10-15 years to regenerate and restore ecosystems, but programmes are designed without a long-term vision and short-term successes are expected. Moreover, such programmes do not involve local communities and institutions to keep the wheel spinning, and fail once external support is withdrawn," she adds.
Three years back, Jaggi Vasudev's high-budget 'Cauvery Calling' campaign to address the struggles of farmers and water issues in the Cauvery basin regions of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka had recruited the support of profit-hungry politicians and corporations instead of locals.
The campaign's message to save rivers by planting trees didn't bring back rainfall or revive rivers.
In fact, one of the strategies mentioned by the Isha Foundation in an email to BOOM is tree-based agriculture or cover cropping — which only looks sustainable on the outside.
"Misplaced tree-plantation activities can have adverse impacts in terms of total water budget capacity of the plants [the amount of water leaving or entering the plant]. If you plant trees in relatively dry areas like the Cauvery basin where the evaporation rate of shrubs, herbs and grasses are low in the sense that they tend to conserve water, you increase the evaporation rate of these plants creating an imbalance," says Rajkamal Goswami, a conservationist scientist from ATREE.
The conservationist says that the 'Save the Soil' campaign which is an extension of the 'Cauvery Calling' campaign to save soil by planting trees cannot guarantee increased rainfall as precipitation depends on a multitude of factors such as global climatic patterns resulting in some areas receiving lesser rainfall than the others.
It has been three weeks since the guards threatened Rijumoni; she has has not stepped inside the park since then.
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