The tribals especially were confronted with the vagaries of forest management that continuously eroded their life-styles and simultaneously the assertion of State primacy over natural resources deprived them of an important means of subsistence. Forests play a vital role in sustaining the life supporting systems of a country’s environment and the quality of its people.
The livelihood activities of tribals centre on the forests in which they live. The tribals get food from the forests by shifting cultivation, apart from picking varieties of edible and herbal roots, tubers, creepers, fruits, leaves. Besides this, tribals collect varieties of minor forest produce (MFP), which includes fodder and grasses, raw materials like bamboo, canes and leaves, gums, waxes, dyes and resins and several forms of food including nuts, wild fruits, and honey.
National Commission on has MFP as (i) fibres and flosses, (ii) grasses (other than oil producing), bamboo, reeds, and canes, (iii) oil seeds, (iv) tams and dyes, (v) gums, resins and oleo-resins, and (vi) leaves. These often play a critical part in the livelihood of the tribal.
Most of the MFP come from forests although some trees yielding MFP are found on private fields and also provide valuable assets, and subsistence and cash. Seventy per cent of the MFP are collected from the five states – Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, where 65 per cent of the tribal population.
On a rough estimation it has been revealed that between per cent of income of an average tribal family is obtained from the collection of MFP. The tribals collect MFP in the seasons when these were ready. For instance, leaves are collected during April-May, seeds fall with the pre-monsoon showers and collected from under the tree and pine trees are trapped for resin during warm and hot weather. Thus, the activities concerning MFP are carried out almost all the year around.
Thus, tribals have a certain specific relationship with forests. They always interact for their sustenance and try to recreate the forests with their traditional conservation systems. But the progressive assertion of State monopoly rights over large areas of forests turning them into ‘reserves’, has resulted in large-scale eviction and uprooting of traditional tribal villages.
The relationship that existed between tribal social organisation and the forest was completely upset as a result of these policies. The reservation of tracts, which denied the tribals access to forest produce on which they had depended for many of their necessities for centuries, cut them off from their life-support system.
When an area was declared a reserve forest, all the rights of tribals were extinguished, except those explicitly mentioned.
For instance, in a recent study on the effects on tribals of the loss of forest areas in Orissa and of Chhattisgarh in Madhya Pradesh, observed that in these areas the distance required to collect forest products is reported to have multiplied several fold. Numerous forestry projects have also succeeded in changing the forest itself in such a way that it served exclusively commercial interests and no longer benefited original forest-dwellers.
Natural mixed forests on which the tribals depended for their livelihood are being cleared and replaced by plantations of teak, eucalyptus and various coniferous trees for commercial purposes. This large scale commercial exploitation of forests not only destroyed the source of livelihood for tribals but also adversely affected the ecology of the area.
The major source of food production for them is shifting cultivation, which is an integral part of the economy in tribal culture. About 25 per cent of India’s tribals (70 million) practice shifting cultivation.
The Report on Forest and Tribals indicates shifting cultivation is practised by at least 109 tribal communities in 233 blocks in 62 districts spread over 16 states. In Andhra Pradesh it covers nearly 17,000 hectares in 9 blocks, 92,000 hectares in Arunachal Pradesh, 69,000 hectares in Assam, 83,000 hectares in Manipur and 72,000 hectares in Meghalaya are under swidden cultivation.