Animal attacks, failing livelihoods force Kerala tribals to leave their forest hamlets

The parting is painful, the compensation meagre, but there are little options left for the residents of 107 hamlets.
Animal attacks, failing livelihoods force Kerala tribals to leave their forest hamlets
Animal attacks, failing livelihoods force Kerala tribals to leave their forest hamlets
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Until even a few years ago, it would have seemed an unimaginable choice for the residents of Chettiyalathoor hamlet in Kerala’s Wayanad district. Indeed, although the government first approached them and residents of other tribal hamlets to relocate out of Wayanad’s forest zones in 2012, they resisted the move for nearly three years.  

However, circumstances have forced these residents give up the land of their ancestors and relocate to panchayat areas outside the forest zones, as life has been growing increasingly unlivable within these zones.  

The tribal families of Chettiyalathoor hamlet who are moving to other parts of the Noolpuzha panchayat or even to the Edakkal panchayat, are only the latest participants in a major tribal relocation project by the state government. Before them, families from the hamlets of Gothur, Amavayal, Pottangara, Arakutty and Vallakode have already been relocated out of forest areas in last three years.

According to data from the wildlife department, there are a total of 57 enclosure areas containing 107 hamlets. In all, these house 2,591 families, totaling 10,588 residents. Of these 14 hamlets were selected as the first priority, with the government sanctioning Rs 7.2 crore for the relocation and rehabilitation of their residents.

Dhaneshkumar, Chief Wildlife Warden of the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary explains that the government has sanctioned compensation of Rs 10 lakh per family, with provisions made to compensate unmarried women, disabled persons and so on, additionally. “As per the project, the land of each family will be taken over by the forest department will be provided a compensation of Rs 10 lakh each to relocate out of the sanctuary,” Dhaneshkumar says.

For these tribal families, who have to suddenly shift their lives after generations of living within these hamlets, the government’s compensation is a poor offer. As Rajan, who relocated from the Vallakode hamlet, says, “We get just Rs 10 lakh. After building a new house most of the amount will be finished. We have basically lived by farming, and for this small amount we were not able to buy any land for farming. So now we will have to go for daily wage work.”

However, these families have little other choice. The Wayanad sanctuary is a tiger habitat, as well as a prominent elephant corridor, and for these families has becomes a zone of repeated man-animal conflict. Between increasing attacks from wild animals and failing livelihood options within forest zones, their lives have grown increasingly precarious in their traditional hamlets.

“When the wild animal menace increased, they had no other option. Apart from that, these communities can no more live with their traditional occupations. Earlier, they were earning a living through hunting and collecting forest goods, but now this has become difficult due to non-availability of forest produce. They also wanted to educate their children and find other work. All these factors have forced them to come out of the forest,” Dhaneshkumar told TNM.

Residents of the hamlets explain that the lack of effective medical care nearby made their lives doubly precarious in case of animal attacks. “We have to travel a long way to hospitals. In the case of casualties, by the time patients reach the hospital, their conditions could turn critical. Earlier we were self-sustainable in hamlets, but things have changed now,” says Sreedharan, a resident of Chettiyalathoor.

Not only is there a risk to their persons from animals, but farming has become an increasingly difficult proposition, with their fields regularly raided and their crops destroyed.

“It is painful to leave a place where we were born and brought up and our ancestors lived. We had got fertilised soil here, whatever we cultivated here was very successful. But now we have to leave here or we might be killed by animals or our farm lands destroyed by them,” Sreedharan adds.

As tribal activist Dhanya Raman explains, the intensity of man-animal conflict in the region has grown due to multiple conditions including deforestation, drought and a general increase in heat levels in the region. This has made animals more aggressive in their search for water and food, and more likely to come to the hamlets on the edges of forests where both water and food are more easily available. “Too much heat and dried up water sources make the animals come out. Deforestation and attack on animal habitat is another major reason,” she said.

Dhaneshkumar agrees, pointing out that with the drought and rising heat levels, animals move closer to inhabited areas, towards water sources that cannot be monitored by the forest department.

Rajan explains that it is this force of circumstances that has led them to accept the meagre compensation from the government. “We are forced to relocate because of the problems we face here inside the forest. Otherwise, who will agree to shift out for such a low amount of Rs 10 lakh? Irrespective of how much land is owned by families, all receive the same amount of compensation.”

Edited by Rakesh Mehar 

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