“When animals stray into human habitat, they call it conflict. When humans encroach wildlife areas, it supposedly becomes co-existence…” remarked Shekar in a tone that barely hid his anger and frustration stemming from years of fighting the uphill battle for wildlife preservation. A wildlife and conservation film-maker by profession, Shekar moved away from making television documentaries, despite being at the peak of his career, and instead began working with NGOs to make critical advocacy films on conservation issues. He said, “I could not continue filming wildlife for idyllic viewing, while witnessing the rapid destruction of their habitat first-hand.” After all, most broadcasting companies don’t want to fund anything that might rattle the viewers, even if that is exactly what is needed.
As someone working in the field of environmental education, and feeling increasingly disillusioned by the lukewarm efforts or lip service done in the name of sustainability by academics, I felt instantly drawn towards his comments; hard-hitting and grounded in solid experience. In mainstream literature, ‘Conservationists’ have come to be painted as some antique breed of idealists, who are being unreasonable and selfish in wanting to preserve forests and wildlife. They are charged at two levels by different groups. The first group belongs to pro-development people who view forests as resources that need to be mined sustainably, even if that spells a death knell for its non-human inhabitants. The ‘sustainable’ here refers only to extraction, not ecology. These arguments are relatively easy to dismiss. The second kind of opposition is more damning as it comes from within the environmentalist community itself. Under the purview of ‘environmental justice’, this group claims that conservationists display what is called ‘full-stomach environmentalism’, by ‘trampling’ (through imposing restrictions on use/habitation of forest areas) over the rights communities which have historically lived in/near forest areas. According to them, conservationists can afford to feel empathy towards wildlife because their livelihood doesn’t depend on the forest. Additionally, they claim that such forest dwellers can actually benefit the local area, and help in forest preservation, having lived in such areas for generations.
To an extent, I believed that there is some merit to this argument, since a part of me wanted to believe that forest dwelling communities can act as stewards of forested areas since the health of those spaces would be integral to their own well-being. However, Shekar was quick to point out that the arrangement might have worked in a subsistence economy where such communities would use forest resources for their own survival. The bottomless demand of markets ranging from local to global has instead made perverse use of the intimate knowledge that locals have of the flora and fauna. He explained (and has also written elsewhere):
“When snake skins were in demand for the international fashion industry in the 1960s, snake-catching tribes (Irula) in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere slaughtered millions of snakes without any restraint. Between 2004 and 2009, in response to Chinese demand for tiger skins and bones, skilled hunters belonging to tribes from Central and North India completely wiped out the big cats from two Tiger Reserves, Sariska and Panna. In 2012, tribal hunters in Nagaland were found trapping over 120,000 Amur falcons every migratory season for sale to bush meat consumers. The truth is, in many parts of India, hunting by local communities is so pervasive that it has led to what scientists describe as the ‘empty forest syndrome’.”
This is not to say that all forest dwellers have an adverse impact on their surroundings. Nor it is a judgement on their value systems, given that they are being forced to participate in a capitalist economy with the skills they possess. However, to romanticize the notion of ‘harmonious forest life’, and turn a blind eye towards how they might be exploiting the place due to market forces, is also another kind of injustice. Shekar’s words reminded me of Wendell Berry’s warning regarding our increased engagement with abstractions, while losing sight of particular contexts. With regards to the idea of ‘justice’ for instance, Berry comments,
“The thing that worries me very much is how much language we’re using now that is so abstract as to require no thought at all. I mean very important words. Justice, for instance. I had a list, I think, of eleven kinds of justice. Restorative justice, climate justice, economic justice, social justice, and so on. The historian John Lukacs, whose work I greatly respect, said that ‘the indiscriminate pursuit of justice . . . may lay the world to waste.’ And he invoked modern war, which kills indiscriminately for the sake of some ‘justice.’ He thought the pursuit of truth, small “t,” much safer. I want to remember—and this comes to me from my dad, to some extent—that our system of justice requires a finding of truth, and it labors to see that justice is never done by one person … the effort to discover the truth that goes ahead of judgment is extremely important. It requires us to think about the process and what’s involved.”
Under an abstract banner of justice, policies such as the ‘Forests Rights Act’ implemented in 2005, originally meant to correct historical injustice meted out tribal communities, can be misused to facilitate land grabs within forest areas. Given the insatiable greed of neoliberal forces, such maneuvers don’t require any stretch in imagination. Meanwhile, many communities voluntarily want to be resettled in arable areas, since increasing population within forest areas is a sure recipe for conflict with the wildlife. Yet, such pleas have taken a long time to be heard, and many more are being ignored because these would upset the ideas of romantic harmony. After all, no one wants to be pulled up for having good intentions. Also, animals don’t give interviews, nor do they have ‘cultures’ that need preservation and protection.
I don’t intend to insinuate ideas of Human/ Nature dichotomy or that humans can only have adverse impacts on the planet. In fact, I have seen and experienced barren lands being reforested through human efforts. However, universalising such actions is a harmful idea. It requires a deep love and empathy for the natural places to understand when and where Nature needs some space to thrive without human intervention. It requires us to ‘rewild’ ourselves in order to appreciate the beauty of the wild places for what they are and truly co-exist with our non-human kin. This doesn’t entail having lesser respect of civilisation, but it does emphasize an ardent love for the living planet.
In the current socio-political discourse, this would be a highly unpopular idea. However, if this the last stand for the more-than-human species, I can see why Shekar continues to fight. After all, as George Monbiot writes, “Perhaps there is no remaining moral space for the exercise of physical courage. Wherever you might seek to swing your fist, someone’s nose is in the way.”