World Rainforest Movement

India: A Story of Non-Participatory Conservation in the Buxa Tiger Reserve

Buxa was one of those forests which the British foresters boasted of. Originally grassland and Sal forests in stony highlands, the area was irreversibly altered when the colonial foresters moved in around 1865 and banished the indigenous swidden agriculturists like the Rava, the Mech, the Dukpa and the Garo. Evergreen trees colonised the empty spaces rapidly as the forest fires got “controlled”, and the foresters came to realize that they could not have new Sal plantations unless the fire motif was re-introduced.

Thus came the famous Taungya system of plantation, and the banished “fire-setters” were brought back to the forests as forest villagers. It was they who toiled, cut and burnt forests, and planted and protected new trees for nearly 150 years, and many many days without any wage, up to the point the “independent” foresters of India decided that they need to save the Tigers of Buxa. Buxa forests were declared as a Tiger Reserve in 1983. The forests already had 33 recorded forest villages and 4 Fixed Demand Holdings (leasehold lands under control of the Forest Department).

From 1990 onwards, forestry activities dwindled and came to almost a halt in many parts of the Reserve. The old dolomite mines inside the Reserve were closed down. In many areas, Non Timber Forest Produce collection was banned, and cattle-grazing was declared an offence. Living inside the forests became a nightmare as foresters started to plan relocation strategies that implied that thousands and thousands of people suddenly found themselves bereft of livelihood. One after another, the old Sal trees (known as the Pride of Buxa) started to disappear, as jobless and hungry people were forced to take to forests.

The tiger conservation mechanism in Buxa swung into motion, and money from various sources like the World Bank –Buxa was one of the seven Global Environment Facility funded India Eco Development Projects in India– came and went. But both wild life and their habitat continue to disappear. Tigers became a rarity, so much so that no one knows exactly how many tigers are there in Buxa now…4-5 will be an optimist estimate.

The “conservation”-oriented new regime foresters of Buxa continued to persecute the forest villagers of the area, especially the indigenous Rava community. A 2005 Public hearing organised by National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers (NFFPFW) and others recorded innumerable cases of torture, harassment and murders of the forest-dwellers by the Forest Personnel. People, many of them children and youth, were killed in cold blood inside and outside the forest. The most recent incident was the killing of Samuel Rava of Poro village in 2008 February, after the Forest Rights Act with its package of rights had formally been notified. None of the killers has ever been brought to justice.

In Jayanti, very few people of this once-thriving and now a ghost settlement situated inside the so-called core area of Buxa Tiger Reserve know about the Forest Rights Act –that, among other things, recognize rights of tribal and traditional forest dwellers in areas declared as protected areas (see WRM Bulletin Nº 115).  This settlement has apparently been identified as to-be-relocated village, and the State Forest Department has started the relocation proceedings. In Jayanti, the Range Officer can still forbid people to undertake renovation work in their own homes without permission from the Department on the grounds that it violates the Wild Life Protection Act, 1972. No one seems to know that under the Wild Life Protection Act, 2006 and the Forest Rights Act, 2006, the concept of core/buffer has changed so much that any demarcation of such areas need mandatory endorsement by the community.

Instead, the Range Officer and his staff threatened the people to leave their land. Notices of relocation got many people angry: “Why should we who raised and protected these forests all these years be asked to leave?” said an old man. Another old woman waived her frail fists: “I won’t, won’t, won’t go…before we go we’ll kill you all. If we cannot stay, we will not let you stay either”.

Forest officers have also offered the people wads of money if they leave voluntarily knowing that the lure is too strong.

Almost the same happens in Buxa Road (a remote forest village, constantly threatened both by wild elephants and soil erosion) and the uphill village of Santarabari, another two villages targeted to relocation by the State Forest Department ignoring the new 2006 legislation.

The way the Forest Department tries to conserve wild life in the Buxa Tiger Reserve seems far from being participatory.

By Soumitra Ghosh, from notes of the visit of a 4-member team on behalf of National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers (NFFPFW), North Bengal Regional Committee, to the area. The full document is available at: