Forest Society and Colonialism
Diversity in forests has been disappearing very quickly. During the period of industrialization (between 1700 and 1995), 13.9 million square km of forest was cleared for industrial uses, cultivation, pasture and fuelwood. This turns out to be 9.3% of the total area of the world. Disappearance of forests is called deforestation. The process of deforestation began many centuries ago, but became more systematic and extensive during the colonial period.
Land to be Improved
About one-sixth of India’s landmass was under cultivation in 1600. At present, almost half of the landmass in India has come under cultivation.
Effect of Colonial Rule on Forest Cover
Colonizers all over the world thought that uncultivated land should be taken over so that that could be used for more commercial purposes. The production of commercial crops like jute, sugar, wheat and cotton increased during this period. This happened because of increasing demand from a growing population in Europe. Foodgrain was required to feed the growing population and raw materials were needed for the growing industries. the cultivated area increased by 6.7 million hectares between 1880 and 1920 in India.
The oak forests were disappearing in England by the early twentieth century. This created scarcity for the ship building industry in Britain. Ships were quite important for military power of the British. They found good source of wood for shipbuilding in the Indian forests. This began cutting of trees on a large scale in the Indian forests.
The spread of railways from the 1850s created new demand for timber. Timber was required for making sleepers for the railway line. Each mile of railway track needed 1,760 to 2,000 sleepers. About 25,500 km of track had been laid by 1890. It is obvious that a large number of trees were felled to meet this demand.
The British also introduced large plantations for growing tea, coffee and rubber. European planters were given vast areas of land at cheap rates so that they could develop plantations. The area was cleared of forests to make way for tea or coffee.
To properly control and manage the forest resources in India, the British appointed a German expert, Dietrich Brandis, as the first Inspector General of Forests in India. Brandis introduced a new system and began to train people in conservation of forest resources. The Indian Forest Service was set up in 1864 and the Indian Forest Act was introduced in 1865.
Grazing, felling of trees and any use of forest produce was made illegal and punishable offence. In the name of scientific forestry, they replaced natural vegetation with single type of trees like sal or eucalyptus. The modern conservationists tell this system as monoculture and argue that it is not good for the environment.
The Indian Forest Act was amended twice, once in 1878 and then in 1927. The 1878 Act divided forests into three categories: reserved, protected and village forests. They used to take food, medicines, firewood and many other raw materials from forests. The new laws made their life miserable. They could not longer take their herds for grazing nor collect firewood. They were now forced to steal wood from the forests. But there always was the risk of being caught and harassed by the forest guards.
How did Forest Rules Affect Cultivation?
Shifting cultivation has been prevalent among many tribal communities in India. This is a type of subsistence farming in which a small patch of land is cleared by slashing and burning the vegetation. Ash is then mixed with the soil and crops are grown. The patch of land is utilised for a couple of years and is then left fallow for 10 to 12 years.
The colonial officials regarded this practice as harmful for the forests. They were afraid that an accidental fire could destroy valuable timber. Moreover, the shifting cultivators were difficult to control in revenue collection. The government hence banned shifting cultivation.
This affected many families. Many people were forced to work in low paying jobs, some were forced to migrate to cities in search of job. However, some people tried to resist the new laws through small and large rebellions.
Who could Hunt?
Many tribal people used to hunt some animals; like deer and partridges; for food. Hunting was banned and anyone caught hunting was punished. But the Indian Rajas and the British officials continue to hunt large and ferocious animals. They thought that killing the ferocious animals would help in making the life much safer. Moreover, hunting of tiger or lion was considered to be a sign of bravery and valour. Many rajas and British officials used to display the skin and heads of animals as prized possession.
New Trades, New Employments and New Services
The new trade was mainly controlled by the British people with some participation of Indian merchants. For the forest dwellers no significant opportunities emerged. Many people from Jharkhand, Orissa, and Chhattisgarh were forced to work in tea gardens of Assam and West Bengal. But the working condition in the tea gardens was very bad. People were given low wages and there was no permission to come back to their home villages in between. Many nomadic tribes who had earlier been engaged in trade of forest produce continued to do so.
The People of Bastar
Bastar is located in the southernmost part of Chhattisgarh and borders Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Maharashtra. Many tribal communities; like Maria and Muria Gonds, Dhruwas, Bhatras and Halbas; live in this area. They speak different languages but share common customs and beliefs. These tribal people had always been dependent on forests and had developed the practice of keeping the forest in high reverence.
The Fears of the People
When about two-thirds of the forest was made into reserve forest and shifting cultivation, hunting and collection of forest produce was stopped, it disturbed the people of Bastar. Some villagers were allowed to stay in the reserved forests. But they had to work for free for the forest department. The work included cutting and transporting trees and protecting the forest from fires. Such villages came to be known as ‘forest villages’.
But most of the people were forced to leave their villages. Their problem was further aggravated by the famines of 1899-1900 and 1907-08. People began to group together. The Dhurwas were the people to take initiative. There was no single leader but Gunda Dhur from village Nethanar was an important figure in that rebellion. The rebellion began in 1910 and every village contributed towards the rebellion expenses. The rebels looted the bazaars, houses of officials and traders. They burnt schools and police stations.
The British sent troops to suppress the rebellion. Negotiations by adivasi leaders failed and the British surrounded their camps and fired upon them. Most of the villages became deserted as people too refuge in the jungles. It took three months (February-May) to control the rebellion.
Work on reservation of forest was suspended for the time being. The area to be reserved to reduced to about half of what was earlier planned. This was a major victory for the rebels.
FOREST TRANSFORMATION IN JAVA
Java is in Indonesia and it used to be a Dutch colony. This was the place where the new forest management policy was initiated by the colonial rulers.
The Woodcutters of Java
The Kalangs of Java were a community of skilled forest cutters and shifting cultivators. Their expertise was valuable for the kings; for building palaces. Their importance can be gauged from the fact that when the Mataram kingdom of Java split in 1755, the 6,000 Kalang families were equally divided between the two kingdoms.
When the Dutch began to gain control over the forests in the eighteenth century, they also tried to take the Kalangs under their control. They resisted by attacking the Dutch fort in 1770 but their rebellion was suppressed.
Dutch Scientific Forestry
New forest laws were introduced by the Dutch. Villagers’ access to the forests was restricted. Permission was given to cut wood only for specific purposes; like making boats and houses. Grazing was banned in young stands. Wood could not be transported and travelling on forest road by horse cart or cattle was also banned.
Wood was cut on large scale to meet the demand for railways and shipping. In 1882 the number of sleepers exported from Java alone was 280,000.
Rent was introduced on villagers who cultivated in the forest. Some villages were exempted in lieu of providing free labour and buffalo for cutting and transporting the wood. This was known as the blandongdiensten system.
Around 1890, Surontiko Samin of Randublatung village, a teak forest village, began questioning state ownership of the forest. He began to convince his folks about the wrong policies of the colonial rulers. Many families joined that rebellion. People protested by lying down on their land when the Dutch came to survey it. Many others refused to pay taxes or fines or do work.
War and Deforestation
The two World Wars had major impacts on forests. More trees were cut to meet the wartime needs of Britain.
In Java, the Dutch followed ‘scorched earth’ policy just before the Japanese occupation of the region. They destroyed sawmills and burnt huge piles of giant teak logs. The Japanese continued the exploitation of forests. They forced forest villagers to cut down forests. For many villagers, it was an opportunity to expand cultivated area.