Chapter: 4

What are Forest Society and Colonialism ?

Why Deforestation?

The disappearance of forests is referred to as deforestation.

Land to be Improved

  • As population increased over the centuries and the demand for food went up, peasants extended the boundaries of cultivation, clearing forests and breaking new land.
  • In the early nineteenth century, the colonial state thought that forests were unproductive. They were considered to be wilderness that had to be brought under cultivation so that the land could yield agricultural products and revenue, and enhance the income of the state.

Sleepers on the Tracks

  • The spread of railways from the 1850s created a new demand.
  • To run locomotives, wood was needed as fuel, and to lay railway lines sleepers were essential to hold the tracks together. Each mile of railway track required between 1,760 to 2,000 sleepers.

Plantations

Large areas of natural forests were also cleared to make way for tea, coffee and rubber plantations to  meet Europe’s growing need for these commodities.

The Rise Of Commercial Forestry

  • British invited a German expert, Dietrich Brandis, for advice, and made him the first Inspector General of Forests in India.
  • Brandis set up the Indian Forest Service in 1864 and helped formulate the Indian Forest Act of 1865.
  • The Imperial Forest Research Institute was set up at Dehradun in 1906.
  • The system they taught here was called ‘scientific forestry’. Many people now, including ecologists, feel that
    this system is not scientific at all.
  • In scientific forestry, natural forests which had lots of different types of trees were cut down. In their place,
    one type of tree was planted in straight rows, which is called a plantation.
  • They planned how much of the plantation area to cut every year. The area cut was then to be replanted so
    that it was ready to be cut again in some years.
  • After the Forest Act was enacted in 1865, it was amended twice, once in 1878 and then in 1927.
  • 1878 Forest Act divided forests into three categories: reserved, protected and village forests.

How were the Lives of People Affected?

  • The Forest Act meant severe hardship for villagers across the country. After the Act, all their everyday practices – cutting wood for their houses, grazing their cattle, collecting fruits and roots, hunting and fishing – became illegal.
  • People were now forced to steal wood from the forests, and if they were caught, they were at the mercy of the forest guards who would take bribes from them.

How did Forest Rules Affect Cultivation?

  • One of the major impacts of European colonialism was on the practice of shifting cultivation or swidden agriculture.
  • In shifting cultivation, parts of the forest are cut and burnt in rotation. Seeds are sown in the ashes after the first monsoon rains, and the crop is harvested by October-November. Such plots are cultivated for a couple of years and then left fallow for 12 to 18 years for the forest to grow back.
  • European foresters regarded this practice as harmful for the forests. They felt that land which was used for cultivation every few years could not grow trees for railway timber.
  • Shifting cultivation also made it harder for the government to calculate taxes. Therefore, the government decided to ban shifting cultivation.
  • As a result, many communities were forcibly displaced from their homes in the forests. Some had to change occupations, while some resisted through large and small rebellions.

Who could Hunt?

  • This customary practice was prohibited by the forest laws. Those who were caught hunting were now punished for poaching.
  • While the forest laws deprived people of their customary rights to hunt, hunting of big game became a sport.
  • The British saw large animals as signs of a wild, primitive and savage society. They believed that by killing dangerous animals the British would civilise India.

New Trades, New Employments and New Services

  • • While people lost out in many ways after the forest department took control of the forests, some people benefited from the new opportunities that had opened up in trade.
  • • Many communities left their traditional occupations and started trading in forest products.
  • • With the coming of the British, however, trade was completely regulated by the government.
  • • Grazing and hunting by local people were restricted. In the process, many pastoralist and nomadic communities like the Korava, Karacha and Yerukula of the Madras Presidency lost their livelihoods.
  • • New opportunities of work did not always mean improved wellbeing for the people.

Rebellion In The Forest

  • In many parts of India, and across the world, forest communities rebelled against the changes that were being imposed on them.
  • When the colonial government proposed to reserve two-thirds of the forest in 1905, and stop shifting cultivation, hunting and collection of forest produce, the people of Bastar were very worried.
  • People began to gather and discuss these issues in their village councils, in bazaars and at festivals or wherever the headmen and priests of several villages were assembled.
  • The initiative was taken by the Dhurwas of the Kanger forest, where reservation first took place.
  • In 1910, mango boughs, a lump of earth, chillies and arrows, began circulating between villages. These were actually messages inviting villagers to rebel against the British.
  • Every village contributed something to the rebellion expenses. Bazaars were looted, the houses of officials and traders, schools and police stations were burnt and robbed, and grain redistributed.
  • The British sent troops to suppress the rebellion.
  • The adivasi leaders tried to negotiate, but the British surrounded their camps and fired upon them.

Forest Transformations In Java

  • Java in Indonesia is where the Dutch started forest management. Like the British, they wanted timber from Java to build ships.
  • The Kalangs of Java were a community of skilled forest cutters and shifting cultivators.
  • When the Dutch began to gain control over the forests in the eighteenth century, they tried to make the Kalangs work under them. In 1770, the Kalangs resisted by attacking a Dutch fort at Joana, but the uprising was suppressed.
  • Dutch enacted forest laws in Java, restricting villagers’ access to forests.
  • Villagers were punished for grazing cattle in young stands, transporting wood without a permit, or travelling on forest roads with horse carts or cattle.
  • The use ‘blandongdiensten’ system for extracting free labour from villagers. They exempted some villages from these rents if they worked collectively.

Samin’s Challen ge

  • Around 1890, Surontiko Samin of Randublatung village, a teak forest village, began questioning state ownership of the forest.
  • Soon a widespread movement developed. Amongst those who helped organise it were Samin’s sons-in-law.
  • Some of the Saminists protested by lying down on their land when the Dutch came to survey it, while others refused to pay taxes or fines or perform labour.

War and Deforestation

  • The First World War and the Second World War had a major impact on forests.
  • In India, working plans were abandoned at this time, and the forest department cut trees freely to meet British war needs.
  • The Japanese after occupying Indonesia exploited their forests recklessly for their own war industries.

New Developments in Forestry

  • Conservation of forests rather than collecting timber has become a more important goal.
  • The government has recognised that in order to meet this goal, the people who live near the forests must be involved.
  • In many cases, across India, from Mizoram to Kerala, dense forests have survived only because villages protected them in sacred groves known as sarnas, devarakudu, kan, rai, etc.