This land is our land: The Soliga community struggles to save its old ways of living while adapting to modernity

Dr Made Gowda is a senior research associate at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment. The 48-year-old lets out a laugh when recounting his past; he failed classes and dropped out several times before earning a PhD.

Gowda belongs to the Soliga community and is an exception within it. He is among the first five children of this Adivasi community to have learnt to read and write. After spending time in and out of forests, picking up languages other than his native Sholaga and acquainting himself with the mannerisms of people residing outside his village, he now studies his own community.

Over 7,500 Soliga families live in the region surrounding the Biligiri Rangana (BR) Hills and Male Mahadeshwara in Chamarajanagar district of Karnataka, and around Erode district of Tamil Nadu. They are indigenous people of South India and are credited with being the first at many things: They are considered the first settlers of India; their home, BR Hills, was among the first areas to be declared a wildlife sanctuary in India, in 1974; in 2011, when the region was declared a tiger reserve, the Soligas were the first community to win resident rights in a tiger reserve.

Today, the Soligas battle modern problems: The inability to perform shifting agriculture and live close to the canopy of the forest has affected their livelihoods, their kitchens, as well as the forest itself.

Straddling the worlds within and outside the forest

“Growing up, the opportunity to know and understand the outside world was limited," Gowda says. The arrival of televisions, mobile phones and the internet changed this. Shruthi N Jagadeesh, a PhD scholar at the University of Colorado Boulder, who studies intergenerational changes in the Soligas and the life of young community members in the forest notes in her research that new lifestyles, a Westernised wardrobe, and being accustomed to a modern way of living distinguishes young Soligas from the rest of their community.

Under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, the Soligas are allowed to take non-timber forest produce home. However, young community members find themselves being asked to prove their identity when they do so. “Laws and rights are often not enough to ensure access or agency. Regulations often lead to ambiguities that allow State discretion in the allocation of access,” Jagadeesh explains.

The community has made small gains in terms of education, but there still remain many hurdles. The Soligas' enrollment into Science and Math courses is limited, Gowda says. “Though the new generation is trying to make its way into educational institutions, there are boundaries that need to be crossed. Leaving one's home is a challenge, and obtaining an education is not enough," he says, adding that competition outside the forest are immense. The result is that it is very difficult for the Soligas to secure jobs.

“Even with reservations to secure an education and jobs as a Scheduled Tribe (ST) community, we don’t get the advantages,” Gowda says. Speaking from personal experience, he adds that competing with people from other Scheduled Tribes is another concern. "We are only the first and second generations of our families to receive formal education," he explains.

The FRA does not address the issues of livelihood and rehabilitation. On the subject of youth in the forest, Jagadeesh says that the Soliga youth have received "limited attention from authorities and researchers, which makes it hard to challenge the dominant idea that young people want to look outside the forest for opportunities... Contrary to the dominant narrative, many of the young Soligas do want to stay in the forests." During her stay with the community, she observed that many of the community members were interested in taking up jobs in the forest department or at local resorts, and showed a desire to settle in the forest.

A changed, unfamiliar way of life

When Gowda was young, he was witness to the tribe engaging in age-old practices like shifting agriculture, worshiping trees, singing songs to birds and animals, and paying respects to the innumerable gods and goddesses revered by the community. As formal education continues to be promoted in the community, the tribals' practical knowledge about interactions with wild animals and recognising herbs and medicinal plants is being lost. This is in part due to the distancing of young Soligas from the forest, as well as the division of their lives between their family homes and the city. "The young ones are slowly losing touch with the gods, the temples, the customs and the forests,” Gowda remarks.

In the past, the tribe managed the forest through an annual practice involving fire conducted before the onset of the warmer months in January to March. This practice was undertaken with an understanding of and in synchronisation with the various types of wind. However, since the government considers all fires as being illegal, natural forms of forest management such as this one have been replaced by conservation management by government officials.

“The forests are changing... The government is failing to understand that not all forests are dense or the same. Not all fires are bad, and indigenous people are protectors of the forests,” says Nitin Rai, a fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment. One example of the fundamental changes taking place is the invasion by an ornamental plant-turned-weed called Lantana camara, which is responsible for the displacement of over 80 percent biodiversity in the region.

The Soligas say that over a hundred species of plants and trees have declined over the last 40 years. “We had about 45 different types of green leaves, seven kinds of mushroom and 40 other types of edibles and tubers that we collected from the forests. Now this diet is limited,” says Gowda.

As the Soligas moved to the peripheries of the forests, both the availability and accessibility of the forest resources were hampered. An increased dependence on food from markets has compelled them to become cash- and wage-dependent in order to survive. This is one of the major reasons why they have migrated out of the forest. “Many young Soligas are moving to the city because earning opportunities in the forests are limited, ” Rai says.

Often, they end up working as migrant labour in coffee estates or on agricultural farms in Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. “While the boys leave for other states, the girls stay back,” Gowda says, “Though the mobilisation of education has opened up a new world for the Soligas in the last 10 years, the means to become empowered are still limited.”


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