Writer and National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk is a storytelling odyssey across the world in the footsteps of our human forebears. This is his latest dispatch from India.
We are walking across northern India.
It is a cosmos of villages. How many villages?
According to the last census, exactly 649,481 rural communities, hamlets, and burghs sprinkle India. They are home to two-thirds of the nation’s 1.3 billion people. Day after day, week after week, for more than a year, we have inched past these settlements on foot—outposts of humanity so numerous that they huddle within sight of each other. Then, in a remote corner of Uttar Pradesh: open space. Rare wilderness. The Chandraprabha Wildlife Sanctuary.
The fields of wheat and rice vanish. Roads shrivel to dusty trails. We begin yo-yoing over the lumpy Kaimur Range and into dry forest. Thorns tear our clothes. We spot nilgai—cow-size antelope the beautiful grey-blue color of campfire smoke. And then later, near the park headquarters, a burly forest ranger. He blocks the path. Not to us—but to a group of short, thin, watchful women and men balancing cooking pots on their heads. Local villagers. They have come to picnic beside a river. They have entered the sanctuary without permission.
Who are these trespassers?
Adivasi: a general term for the original tribal inhabitants of India. In this case, members of the Kol ethnic group, the indigenous residents of the Kaimur hills. Traditional hunters. Gatherers of firewood and wild honey. Collectors of largely forgotten medicinal herbs. The forest’s original landlords. The ranger—a city man—berates the Adivasi for sneaking into the sanctuary to avoid paying a 30 rupee (43 cent) entrance fee.
“They leave trash everywhere,” he mutters to us, before grudgingly allowing the Adivasi to pass into their former lands.
How old are such confrontations? Very old. They date from the beginning of sanctuaries, parks, preserves—conservation.
At least 26 different Native American groups were banned from their hunting grounds when the world’s first national park, Yellowstone, was created in 1872. A Wyoming sheriff and his posse shot dead a member of the Bannock people—an elderly elk hunter—to serve as a warning to other “poachers.” Removing native peoples from ecological parks and preserves has since become standard practice. It happens even today, across the globe, if less violently than in the Western frontier. Batwa hunter-gatherers are forcibly trucked out of their rain forests in Uganda to make space for endangered mountain gorillas. The Tharu people, once itinerant cultivators, are relocated for an expanding national park in Nepal. At many of the 100,000 or more reserves across the world, the story is the same: The hidden price of an admission ticket often includes painful evictions of the native inhabitants.
In sprawling India, where just 5 percent of the land has been set aside to protect natural habitats—in Venezuela the conserved area tops 50 percent, while in the United States it is 14 percent—the plight of such “green refugees” has erupted into a national scandal.
A supreme court lawsuit brought by a coalition of conservation groups threatens to evict as many as seven million Adivasi from their forest homes. Why? Because hundreds of thousands of indigenous rights claims, the conservationists argue, were bogus and promoted land invasions.
“Satellite imagery has shown tribal encroachments into protected forests,” Debi Goenka, a plaintiff with the Conservation Action Trust, explained to The Guardian newspaper. Indigenous activists blasted the ruling as “eco-colonialism.” Goenka was undeterred. “What they don’t realize is that, barring two, all of India’s rivers are forest-dependent. Can a country survive without forests? If they think India can survive without forests and without water, so be it.”
Public outcry has forced a review of the case. But the controversy is only the latest salvo in an ongoing battle over how to balance human and wildlife needs in India’s increasingly fragmented 177 million acres of forests, most of which lie inside Adivasi areas.
My walking partner, the journalist Bhavita Bhatia, and I hike across the battle lines at Chandraprabha Wildlife Sanctuary.
Inside the reserve: 30 square miles of hills, caves, and valleys shaded by mixed forests of tendu, mahua, and saagun trees. Leopards, bears, and blackbucks lurk in the dense thickets. Wild boars nose the drying waterholes. Today, a VIP guesthouse caters to visiting bureaucrats. Tourists park their SUVs to snap selfies beside beautiful waterfalls.
Outside the reserve: tired wheat fields, cracked earth, and a maze of footpaths grooved by cheap plastic shoes. The Adivasi village of Jamsoti stews under the sun across a road from the reserve’s entrance. Its huts are stuccoed with cow dung. The wells always run dry after the rains. (The Adivasi haul buckets of water from tanker trucks plying the paved road.) To escape hunger, destitute villagers to must travel to cities to rent their muscles for $2 to $3 a day. Everything is scarce here except time.
“We have lived in this forest before anybody else,” says Ramjatan Prasad, an Adivasi who farms next to Chandraprabha sanctuary. “But the tourists are treated better than us.”
Prasad: short, sun-wizened, wiry. No longer young. Guiding us outside the reserve, he bounds lithely from boulder to boulder like a cat. We see similar quick-footedness among a crew of Kol woodcutters in the thorn forest. Compact as dancers, they ghost through the thorn scrub without misstep or noise.
There are 270,000 Kol Adivasi in surrounding Uttar Pradesh state. In previous times they practiced polygamy. Today, most have converted to Hinduism or Christianity, though their old nature gods are not forgotten: Marang Buru, a mountain deity who controls the rains, is placated with animal sacrifices. Their language is Austroasiatic, suggesting ancient migrations from Southeast Asia or southern China. Their DNA carries gene markers dating from the first Stone Age colonization of Asia.
The Kol number among some 100 million other tribal people in India—a bogglingly diverse population that ranges from tiny holdouts of “uncontacted” islanders in the Indian Ocean to widely dispersed groups of farmers and herders who eke out marginal incomes in the river plain forests of the Ganges or the jungled foothills of the Himalayas. Most are bystanders to India’s story of modernization: its tech booms, its growing middle class. The Adivasi occupy the lowest rungs of the social ladder in India, alongside the Dalits, or so-called “untouchables.” They are largely invisible to India’s majority population. And roughly 10 million have been displaced from their forests and other traditional lands by development projects: dams, mines, industrial agricultural schemes—and conservation areas.
A typical case: In central Madhya Pradesh state, 1,545 Adivasi families lost their farms to a habitat buffer zone for eight endangered Asiatic lions. Shipped by the government to a new village in an arid wasteland, the Adivasi now break rocks into gravel to survive.
At the remote Chandraprabha Wildlife Sanctuary, relations between the forest department and the local Kol minorities don’t seem much better. Common environmental practices like “community conservation”—involving indigenous people in wildlife programs or reserve management—aren’t in evidence. Instead, there is resentment.
“We had lions introduced here, in the 1960s,” recalls Mohalal Gupta, a retired ranger at the sanctuary. “The last one was killed many years ago, probably poisoned by Adivasi because it was eating their cattle.”
A sanctuary official noted plans to build adventure sports facilities in the isolated reserve—“a zipline, things like that.” An ecotourism plan is also vaguely in the works. But the surrounding Kol communities know nothing of those ideas. Apart from wood gathering privileges, they remain exiles from their forests. They speak of sanctuary officials with a hostile deference that might have been familiar to the maharajas of Benares, who in the 18th century stole the Adivasi’s forests for a royal hunting ground.
“We’ve begged so many times for a road, for a water reservoir, for many things,” Kaloo Prasad, an Adivasi farmer, says with a shrug. “They keep saying, ‘It will happen.’ It never does.”
Bhatia and I walk on.
We pass dramatic foaming cataracts. There, forest rangers shout at tourists who clamber foolishly close to ledges. (“We lose about one visitor a year.”) We trudge through Kol villages sunk into a form of demoralization that is deeper than poverty, that speaks of the utter disorientation and inertia of homelessness. We traverse little used footpaths through rounded tan hills. Down to green river valleys that look like capsule Edens: lush grasslands shaded by peepul trees, rare Kol farmsteads, and trails along which no car in history has ever moved. Bhatia says she has never seen such a primordial India. It is the beauty of utter neglect. Take the people away, and it could be a national park.
Bhavita Bhatia and Siddharth Agarwal contributed to this story, which was originally published on the National Geographic Society’s website devoted to the Out of Eden Walk project. Explore the site here.
Paul Salopek won two Pulitzer Prizes for his journalism while a foreign correspondent with the Chicago Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @paulsalopek.