A single letter shot off by the Karnataka government to the Bilirangan Temple Wildlife Sanctuary (brt) has brought 25,000 Soliga tribals subsisting on non timber forest produce (ntfp) to the brink of destitution. The government notification, in adherence to the recently legislated Wild Life (Protection) Amendment Act, 2002, has banned collection of ntfp for commercial use. More than 7,500 Soliga families, living in and around the protected area that is also home to the infamous sandalwood smuggler Veerappan, are now preparing for a siege to protect their rights.
The amendment to the Act was notified by the Union government in January 2003. The state government’s notice informing the various state departments concerned came in early February 2004. Following this, deputy conservator of forests (wildlife wing), Chamrajnagar, B K Dixit, sent a letter towards the end of February banning the sale of ntfp through the Large Adivasi Multipurpose Society (lamps). The government had created lamps under the state forest department to collect and sell ntfp, besides managing other activities for the state’s tribals.
In a reiteration of the government’s intent, a notice was sent to all the states on July 2, 2004 by the Centrally Empowered Committee (cec) on forests set up by the Supreme Court (sc) asking all states to adhere to the rulings of the sc and the provisions of the Wild Life (Protection) Amendment Act, 2002. The cec is empowered to ensure implementation of sc’s orders in a particular forestry case with which many wide-ranging issues on forestry and wildlife have also been clubbed. While the cec took a mere ‘legal’ stand, its letter has precipitated the matter as the governments always wish to stay on the right side of an active higher judiciary.
The earlier Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 took a different approach: it allowed collection of ntfp from sanctuaries with the permission of the chief wildlife warden of the state. Even then, very few chief wildlife wardens across the country had the pluck to allow collection and sale of ntfp against the unwritten convention of the forest bureaucracy to deny all such rights to the people (traditional or not). In many sanctuaries, the collection continued unabated, though illegally.
But brt was an exception. It has been perhaps the biggest and the best experiment in sustainable use of ntfp
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