World Rainforest Movement

India: Settling Down and Out; the sedentarisation of the Malapantaram in Kerala

The Malapantaram are a nomadic community numbering about 2000 people who live in the high forests of the Ghat Mountains of south India. Early writers described them as “wild jungle people” and as “wandering hillmen of sorts”, and tended to see them as social isolates, as a survival of some pristine forest culture. But from earliest times the Malapantaram have a history of contact and intercourse with surrounding caste communities of the plains and have been a part of a wider mercantile economy, and are still primarily collectors of important forest products such as sandalwood, ginger, cardamom, dammar resin, honey and various medicinal plants. The Malapantaram thus combine subsistence food gathering, especially of yams, the hunting of small game – monkey, squirrel, hornbills, chevrotain deer – by means of muzzle loaders or the help of dogs, and the collection of what is termed locally as “minor forest produce”. During the main honey season, March to May, honey collecting becomes their primary economic activity.

The majority of the Malapantaram are nomadic forest people, spending most of their life living in forest encampments occupied by one to four families. These encampments consist of two to four leaf shelters, made from palm fronds or the leaves of wild plantains. These camps are temporary; people reside in a particular locality only for about a week, before moving elsewhere.

The Malapantaram see themselves and are described by outsiders as kattumanushyar – “forest people” – for they closely identify with the forest, which is not only a source of livelihood, but also an environment where they can sustain a degree of cultural autonomy and social independence. They thus tend to live and constantly move at the margins of the forest, enabling them to engage easily in market transactions – usually involving a kind of contractual barter – while at the same time being able to avoid the control, harassment and disparagement – even violence – which they generally experience from government officials, traders and local peasant communities. The forest for the Malapantaram is thus not only a home: it is a place where they can always retreat to avoid the imposition of outsiders.

With the establishment of colonial rule and the Travancore state, the forested hills of the Ghats became forest reserves under the jurisdiction of the forest department. In 1911 rules were drawn up for the “Treatment and Management of Hillmen” and these stipulated that tribal people like the Malapantaram were to be under the control of the forestry department and to be located in permanent settlements. The Malapantaram were thus seen as essentially “wards” of the forestry department and denied any land rights – the forests being seen as essentially belonging to the state. After independence the Malapantaram came under the jurisdiction of the Harijan Welfare Department, and efforts have been made to promote the welfare of the community through the establishment of schools and health centres, and through efforts to “settle” them and induce them to adopt agriculture. As elsewhere, a “nomadic” life style and a foraging existence was derogated by the state officials, and efforts to “uplift” the Malapantaram have centred on the establishment of “settlements” – it was described as a “colonization scheme” – and its primary aim was to transform the Malapantaram economy into one of permanent agriculture. The scheme proved to be a singular failure, for the land allotted to the Malapantaram was largely taken over by local traders from a nearby village. It seems that the Malapantaram were extremely reluctant to take up agriculture, and thus sever the links that bind them to the forest – the environment with which they so powerfully identify and know is their only really safe haven.

By: Brian Morris, Goldsmith College, E-mail: