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Written by Runar Myrnes Balto and Nicolai Steineger

SITA MATA/ RAJASTHAN: The iron gates of Sita Mata close behind us. We are inside the core area of a wildlife sanctuary, where no human beings are allowed to live. Our jeep makes its way through the rough terrain, and monkeys are occasionally watching us from the treetops. But soon we catch a glimpse of cultivated fields through the trees. Children are waving from the side of the bumpy road, and an old man is working the earth. Who are they, and why do they live inside the protected forest?

Rumor has it that this area has some of the most diverse wildlife in India, and several travel agencies arrange eco-tourism trips to the sanctuary. The Rajasthan Forest Department claims that the area has a myriad of endangered species, including jackals, hyenas, wolves, panthers and flying squirrels. The sanctuary seems like a conservationists dream. But this dream may be far from reality.

Mogiamba lies in the core area of a protected forest. Photo: Julie Ness

The villagers

We stop in the village of Mogiamba, and are led to a big tree on the outskirts of the fields. It is the warmest time of the day and the shadow of the Mahua tree provides a natural meeting ground for the villagers. Fresh remains from a big bonfire in the middle of the clearing give the impression that it is used frequently when the community comes together to discuss common issues and problems. It is the dry season and the landscape is distinctly different from the lush, green scenery one would have imagined.

Mogiamba is one of the 24 villages inside the core area of Sita Mata. Mogiamba literally means the place of mango groves. The village comprises 118 families, with approximately 700 people, dispersed over a large land area. The villagers grow maize, rice and two varieties of lentils. They sell the surplus in the market.

Sita Mata lies at the heart of the conflict between the tribal people living inside protected areas and the Forest Department. - The Rajasthan Forest Department is on the warpath, trying to empty the sanctuary’s core area of people, explains Jawahar Singh Dagur of Prayas, a local NGO. If so happens, that will be the second time this community will be forced to pack up and leave. The first people to settle in Sita Mata were those displaced from two dams, among them the large Mahi River Dam. The village of Mogiamba was established in 1966, 13 years before the area was declared a wildlife sanctuary. Mohan, a village elder, describes how this affected them: - We had fields then and we have fields now. But the timber trade we used to profit from is now illegal and the area has become more lawless. You can now see cattle grazing the forest without shepherds. Outsiders send their cattle into Sita Mata, without sanctions from the Forest Department.

The villagers have an uncertain future in Sita Mata. In front: Ramesh Chandra to the left and Mohan to the right. Photo: Julie Ness

Mogiamba’s people do not have access to electricity or motorized vehicles. Ramesh Chandra, who acts as our local guide, explains that it is illegal to install electricity poles within the wildlife sanctuary. – We are not allowed to make proper roads to our households and villages either. The children in Mogiamba go to school, but because building is prohibited, they have not got any school facilities.

The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, entitles the Forest Department to declare any forestland a wildlife sanctuary for the purpose of ‘protecting’ or developing wildlife. The law prohibits people living in the sanctuary, with the result that those settled inside cannot claim their rights. - The problem is that we don’t have pattas for this land, Chandra explains. A patta, or land deed, is proof of ownership over land, which in the eyes of the forest department, these ‘illegal encroachers’ simply cannot have. Ironically, there are eight ‘revenue villages’ inside the wildlife sanctuary, and at least some of the inhabitants do indeed have pattas. A patta can dramatically change destinies, reduce constant harassment, and legalize a community or family’s existence inside forest areas.

Because the people of Mogiamba were earlier displaced in 1966, and because they chose to settle inside a similar landscape, they remain illegal in the eyes of the all-powerful forest bureaucracy. They cannot get pattas for the land they inhabit now.

If the village had at least eight pattas, they could have formed a forest protection committee, making them partners with the forest department in managing forests and conserving wildlife.

Meanwhile, across India, the forest bureaucracy is in a hurry to relocate forest-based communities living inside wildlife reserves and national parks – before the Forest Rights Act is implemented.

The people living in Mogiamba have been offered five alternative sites for relocation, together with one million rupees per family. Still, no villagers have relocated yet; the group we met seems determined to stay. - Where will we go? I am an old man and have lived here half of my life. I don’t want to start all over again, says Mohan.

The villagers consider the offers inadequate. They see three of the lands as unsuitable for agriculture. At the other two places, the local people are not willing to receive the Mogiamba villagers. But why is the Forest Department so determined to relocate the people? Mohan replies without a second thought: - The forest department prefers animals to people.

The Tendu leaf contractor

Gopal Paliwal is a Tendu leaf contractor, working the entire Sita Mata area. Photo: Nicolai Steineger

The Sita Mata sanctuary closely supports the area’s local economy. Tendu leaves for instance, are a crucial source of income for the villagers within the forest.

Gopal Paliwal is the big man in the Pratapgarh-area. Paliwal is a second-generation Tendu leaf trader, and his family has made big money from the business. He has a contract with the forest department to work the entire Sita Mata area. Paliwal is thus an important source of income to many Sita Mata inhabitants.

The Tendu trees are highly sought after for various sorts of carpentry, and their leaves are used for making beedies. Beedies are small cigarettes consisting of tobacco rolled in Tendu leaves. About 850 billion are smoked annually only in India, and the industry employs about 4.4 million people. The majority of the workers belong to scheduled tribes and castes.

His fingers are decorated with expensive rings and play with a pricey cellphone. It rings at least six times during our ten-minute interview. Gopal owns 20 jeeps, a warehouse, and a petrol pump, as well as his own beedi brand. – I bought the ex-king’s palace and rebuilt it into what is now my house, he boasts, lighting up an American brand cigarette.

Another phone call is hastily rejected. – I employ 6,000-7,000 people for Tendu leaf extraction. They all get about 70 rupees for a days work, he continues. Most of the people Paliwal employs are locals, but he also brings in people from outside when needed.

The future of Sita Mata

India has a total of 441 wildlife sanctuaries and 80 national parks, which constitutes five percent of its land area. Almost all of these areas are prone to conflicts. Sita Mata provides ample proof that wildlife is more than pretty trees and tigers. The sanctuary is both the home of people and an important source of income.

However, the future of the villagers and the Tendu leaf contractor is uncertain. There has been talk about upgrading the sanctuary to a national park, which would outlaw all economic activity and human interference in the park. Adding to the pressure on the villagers are the recurrent rumors of a plan to move a population of the endangered Asiatic Lion into the sanctuary.

Paliwal downplays his dependence on the protected forest, and seems to have little concern about the future: - Sita Mata constitutes a fracture of my income. But for the villagers the forest is everything. Although fear of moving is not a popular subject with the villagers, they are determined to uphold their lives in the park. An old man in the back of the group raises his voice for the first and only time: - We wish to stay, and will fight if necessary!

Photo: Julie Ness