Where have all the forests gone? Van Gujjars discover dwindling green cover along traditional migration routes

17, Jun 2021 | Mohammed Meer Hamza

The annual migration of the Van Gujjars in the summer of 2021, one of the hottest seasons many experienced, made them pause and ponder on the impact of climate change. The Van Gujjars, like other Adivasi and forest dwelling communities, have a deep understanding of nature and how the slightest rise in temperature, and a change in traditional flora, is actually a warning of what is to come. For me, an educated Van Gujjar tribesman who has more exposure to the ‘outside’ world and mainstream society, the migration this year was an eye opener. Reading about climate change in journals is one thing, but nothing drives the point home like experiencing it real time.

I followed the migration route this year in segments, travelling with the clan, or on a bike with a friend. I saw the changes in the environment around me, which I fear can lead to natural disasters that have already been occurring in the country. Traveling in the Uttarakhand hill range I could see that the snow caps of the distant peaks had become smaller as they had been melting gradually. There were sudden cloud bursts at various locations, the rainfall was erratic and unpredictable. I even saw a road known as an ‘all weather road’ being built along with a railway track in the mountains through tunnels to Devprayag. This, according to environmentalists, is “an act against nature”.

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At Uttarakhand, cloud bursts have now become a regular occurrence, this, my tribe’s elders say, is due to “the pressure put on nature by man and the increased usage of industrial resources”.

I understood what they meant when we were just outside the protected Rajaji forest area, while the forest itself was thankfully thick, a few kilometers outside the thorny shrubs began to show up. We drove on a long stretch. It is a dirt track with just the shrubs on the side till we reach the proper road. I wondered, “Was it always like this, dusty brown with only shrubs?” Once at Kumaon it was all populated cities and villages. I remember coming here as a child and even these places were very green then. How many trees had been cut down and the cleared land was readied for farming it seemed.

I met many Van Gujjar families along the way, during our pit stops I asked them what their memories were of the once green forests. Most said the changes began over 25 years ago… almost all the trees are now gone and there are more shrubs than trees. This summer it seems the days have only gotten hotter, only the nights were cool… At the night stops, the Van Gujjar family would gather around as the elders told us tales of the forests and grasslands they remember from their own youth. What they described was so beautiful, the tall grass that moved in the mountain breeze and changed colour and texture according to the season. Now even the grasslands are disappearing and the cattle do not have a place to graze. To my shock I discovered that some plots were even used as dumping grounds!

My grandparents used to tell us such stories of when they were young, and our tribe’s migration routes were all jungle paths. There were tigers too, they said, so many that if one of our buffalos strayed into the jungle it would be considered lost to the big cats. The grass was high, and had many animals and birds that called it home.

Today it seems like my grandparents were telling me tall tales. I have never seen all the animals in the grasslands they spoke about… but even I remember the tall trees, the jungles may not be as dense as the ones my grandparents spoke about but they were still there when I was a teenager.

Now all we see are the many eucalyptus trees planted by the forest department. The heritage trees such as ‘Sain’, ‘Baakhli’, ‘Kusum’, ‘Amaltas’ etc which were better for the climate, prevented soil erosion are dying and being replaced with eucalyptus and bushes like ‘Laltena’, Kikar, Bairi, ‘Kandyaru’, that do not grow tall, but spread on the earth more so during the rainy season and impact the growth of other plants and trees around them. When locals cut down older large trees for wood, they do not plant new ones. This is another factor that needs to be corrected with ‘afforestation drives’ during the rainy season where people must be encouraged to plant trees.

Today the forest department collects revenue for the forest produce, say the locals, and the heritage trees of the forests are replaced with eucalyptus which is then sold for wood. This new cycle continues. I hope this does not reach the Terai East area of Kumaon Mandal where the forest is dense and consists of diverse species of animals, and birds. The undergrowth is full of herbs and the vines intertwine from one branch to another, thus preventing trees from falling in storms. However, such jungles are cut by the forest development authority and are replaced by plants desired by the corporates, say the locals, many who wanted to remain anonymous fearing a backlash.

However, Haji Kacho, a Van Gujjar elder living at the Kumaon Mandal area told us that it is important to talk about climate change to make the people understand that the land, forest and water given by nature should remain unchanged. “I am also unhappy with the people who consider themselves the protectors of the environment who make hue and cry regarding the protection of the environment, but there are few policies made to protect the environment in reality working against the cause,” he said.

How green is the grassland?

Well, it is not. The grasslands of yore are now only found in folktales. Over the decades officials have planted new species of shrubs and trees thus changing the biodiversity of the grassland altogether. This has already had a great impact on the lives of the forest dwellers. More such plantations are underway. Who knows what the summers of the future will bring, if we do not listen to the forest dwellers and take their concerns and suggestions while making environmental policies.

This report is part of CJP Grassroots Fellow program and has been written by Mohammed Meer Hamza who is documenting the lives and challenges faced by the Van Gujjar community. Here he travels to meet Van Gujjar, families living in the Shivalik forest area which shares a border with Rajaji Tiger reserve.

Meet CJP Grassroot Fellow Mohammed Meer Hamza

Mohammed Meer Hamza (26) was born in a jungle. Literally! He hails from Uttarakhand and was born on the outskirts of the Rajaji National Park. Hamza is now pursuing a masters degree in social work. For over three years now, Hamza has been working actively as a social worker for the Van Gujjar community, helping them access education, retain their culture and know their rights. He has created a youth group and is educating them about the rights of forest dwelling communities, citizenship laws, conservation and security issues. He is also researching traditional forest produce and how to enable his community to market it effectively while retaining the balance of nature. Hamza has begun his research and documentation work. He writes to share his life, and work as a Van Gujjar youth leader.


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