For generations, the nomadic Van Gujjar tribe have carved out a challenging but rewarding existence in northern India. Traditionally, the months between October and April find them in the Shivalik Hills, tending to their beloved buffaloes, but when temperatures begin to soar and the creeks are drying up, they head for the alpine meadows of the Himalayas. When Michael Benanav lived and worked among the Van Gujjar in 2009, this time-honoured way of life was already under threat. Back in 1992, thousands of herders had been prevented from returning to the Shivalik Hills because their lands lay within the Rajaji National Park, where human habitation was now deemed illegal. Protests ensued and successful legal challenges were mounted but, nonetheless, over the coming years, most of the Van Gujjar in Rajaji abandoned their migratory lifestyle. Many settled in villages established by the government and, by 2009, only six or seven hundred families sustained the old ways.
The family with whom Benanav stayed, headed by the impressive Dhumman and Jamila, had not been directly touched by events in Rajaji, but they now faced uncertainties of their own. Their summer meadows were located inside the Govind National Park, and the state government of Uttarakhand had declared that access would not be granted. On paper, this seemed odd because the 2006 Forest Rights Acts had theoretically secured the rights of ‘traditional forest dwellers’, even within national parks. The threat was real enough, so while Dhumman and his clan embarked upon their migration as usual, it seemed as if they might be on ‘the cusp of irreversible change.’
Benanav accompanied them, working admirably hard and winning the affection and respect of his Van Gujjar hosts. As things turned out, Dhumman and his family were not able to reach their traditional pastures, settling instead on higher and more distant land in Kanasar made available by a friend. Even this diversion was not without its setbacks and, at one point, 2,000 rupees, seven litres of milk and eight kilograms of butter were required to ‘persuade’ forest guards to allow the family’s transit. For Benanav, such stories reach to the heart of a sensitive and complex issue. As he explains, ‘no people in parks’ has long been a conservationist mantra. Human beings, so the theory goes, are always a force against biodiversity.
This logic sometimes appears to make sense, especially as new environmental pressures emerge, but does it not sometimes rest on a decidedly Western assumption: that there is some inevitable chasm between humanity and the natural world? Is the notion not a kind of ‘green imperialism’ that certainly does not fit with the worldview of people like the Van Gujjar? Benanav, who eschews dogmatism, urges us to approach the issue on a case-by-case basis, and he is pleased that more and more conservationists seem to agree. In any event, we should certainly be doing a better job of dealing with the ‘conservation refugees’ who, in their millions, so often struggle to adjust to life after their banishment from ancestral lands. In the case of Dhumman and his family, at least, there was happy news. From 2011 they were able to return to their traditional summer pastures, though the sense of uncertainty has certainly not vanished.
“Beyond the big questions, Benanav paints a sensitive and intimate portrait of his new-found friends, of how they live and play, think and pray”
And then, of course, there are the buffaloes. Their milk provides the Van Gujjar with food and income but they mean so much more. Distress abounds when the animals die or fall ill and Benanav sensed that the Van Gujjar were rather like ‘doting servants to their buffalo masters.’ It is also worth noting the Van Gujjars’ appreciation of the precious liquid the buffaloes provide. One of Benanav’s companions cannot fathom why, in America, people go out of their way to purchase skimmed or semi-skimmed milk. After all, ‘one of the fundamental truths of his world is: the higher the fat content, the better the milk.’ Goodness knows what he would make of the culinary absurdity that is the egg-white omelette.
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