What are the indigenous practices of the Warli tribe?

By Jill Johnston

This article appeared in Abroad View magazine spring 2003.

"God made the earth and the forest;then He made us, Adivasis, to live upon the earth . . . Generation upon generation of our ancestors lived and died here. We are born of the earth and we bring forth grain from it. Governments live in cities and live on our grain. We live in the forest and we keep it alive . . .

The government cannot create the earth or the forest; then how can they take it away from us?"

-Khajan, Bhilala Adivasi

Guided by secret landmarks, we headed on foot into the hills. When we finally reached our destination, I found myself overlooking a half-finished dam and two densely forested hills. The villagers were preparing to reach a consensus: Would they risk their own lives for these trees?

We had traveled three hours north of the metropolis Mumbai (Bombay). We had journeyed along the western coastline past the city of Dahanu and through thatched-roof rural villages. The coast had gradually sloped into rolling hills that were drought-prone and starved of vegetation. The terraced landscape camouflaged the houses, only occasionally interrupted by lonesome green hills.

"Those [hills] were reclaimed by the Adivasis from the government," I was told. The endpoint was another village of 'Adivasis,' indigenous peoples who define themselves as "the people who have been here since the beginning." The hill-dwelling Warlis, a tribe of Adivasis, are fighting to preserve not only a few trees but also their livelihood and their dignity.

For thousands of years, the inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent have lived off the land and acted as the earth's caretakers. The land is not property; rather it is an ecological system that sustains the people. The forest is considered their anna (food), aasraa (security) and aarogya (well-being). The peoples of southern India assert that humans have a great responsibility to nature because of our unique ability to comprehend its dynamics. Communitarian in character, the adivasis practice shifting cultivation and agroforestry, mechanisms that incorporate recycling of the land. The Adivasi farming techniques depend on minimal disturbance of the landscape and ecology and mimic the symbiotic association of local plants. Rotation and preservation of large trees keeps the soil intact. Even burning is beneficial: fire preserves the soil, helps reduce pest population, provides nutrients and contributes to higher crop yields.

After the arrival of the British, the colonial government viewed this slash and burn agriculture as primitive. Since the Adivasis lack technology and the agricultural techniques of straight lines and monocropping, the British claimed that they were unable to care for the land on which they had lived for centuries. By 1818, the forests had become commodified, both in practice and by law. Trees belonged to a centralized government agency. The British Raj systematically acquired Adivasi community landholdings and relocated shifting cultivators from the forest. By 1865, "in the name of preservation," the British Raj's legal acts restricted access to the forest. What it was protecting was its ability to harvest teak, its singular cash crop.

Teak plantations are currently considered "forest" by the government. The species does not produce edible fruits and covers the forest floor with slow decomposing litter that prevents the sprouting of new plants. It has destroyed the fruit and fodder producing trees, as well as the traditional medicinal plants, and can only be removed by digging the roots out of the soil.

The post-independence government of India has treated human-forest relations in much the same way as the British Raj. It has continued the widespread exploitation of national resources, while expanding restrictions imposed on the marginalized Adivasis.

"Fortunately, the tribal areas of the state are rich in industrial and power potential," according to the 1963 Report of the National Council of Applied Economic Research, Tribal Policy. "There is no reason why in the wider interest of the nation and in the long-term interest of the tribals themselves, industries should not be developed and localized in tribal areas."

As a result, these communities are pushed to environmental degradation, forced to encroach on the forest in order to survive. Nevads (plots of land) are a means of asserting customary ownership; however, the pressures to employ traditional agricultural mechanisms are too great. Due to the imposed constraints, the Adivasis' agriculture has over-exploited the land, forcing their further marginalization.

Ongoing dam construction projects, so-called "temples of modernity," have displaced 50 million Warlis. A quarter of a century ago, their village was drowned by a government-sponsored dam that has yet to produce one volt of electricity. The community was forced to move further up the hill, and as a result has had to compete with the neighboring teak plantations.

Marginalized and voiceless, the Warlis reestablished control 15 years ago by reclaiming two hills from the government as community-controlled land. The area was collectively protected, and traditional species were replanted to restore native biodiversity.

As the vegetation returned, the Warlis reconnected with the forest, living off its fruits, fuel wood, medicines and soil. The village has instituted a labor-sharing practice in which each worker spends three days of the week on community land and three days on private plots. Legally, the forest is still in the grips of the Forest Development Corporation of India, a government agency. Over the past 15 years, however, the community has brought about natural regeneration of the forest and initiated practices of self-sufficiency. This struggle has been accompanied by police brutality, physical threats and crop destruction.

In 2002, the forest department approved a 200 million rupee project (approximately $4 million) with an unidentified foreign land agency to clear and plant more commercial teak in an area totaling 40,000 hectares.

As of January 2002, the Forest Development Corporation had already started logging the reclaimed area and was threatening to bring armed police to "quiet any dissonance." Tensions were running high when I arrived at the emergency village meeting on January 12. Men, women and children were raising their fists and yelling "Zindabad," the Adivasi greeting and call for revolution. The discussion revolved around a central question: Should they allow the state to log their trees, destroying their livelihood in order to establish more teak plantations? The 250 people reached a consensus: No one would be allowed to cut or remove any trees from their community-protected hills.

This proclamation is representative of a far-reaching struggle against the current development paradigm that estranges people from their land and livelihood. The Warlis asked: Who should control our natural resources? The Adivasis, and indigenous groups worldwide, believe that communities should be empowered to conserve their own livelihood.

After the consensus, a woman recalled that last year, two Adivasis from a neighboring village were assassinated for "impeding progress." An elder then questioned, "Are we prepared to take the bullet?" The crowd rumbled a powerful YES, with a conviction I have never before witnessed. A spokesman explained to me, "These resources were given to us in trust for the generations to come, and we have the responsibility to preserve them."

A mother added: "Our forest and our land is our life. We have no life without it."