Wandering The Wilderness

Americans in the early 19th century were too busy hacking down the wilderness to appreciate George Catlin's vision. "What a splendid contemplation," wrote the romantic painter, "a magnificent park... containing man and beast, in all the wild [ness] and freshness of their nature's beauty!" It didn't take long for Catlin's idea to catch on. The year he died, in 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant created Yellowstone National Park. Five years later park guards clashed with the Shoshone, a tribe of indigenous Americans, killing 300. The U.S. Army later drove out the rest. So began the world's first national park, a bit of Eden with a splash of blood. So, too, began a new class of victim: the environmental refugee.

Much has been said over the years about preserving the wilderness and the animals that live in it. What's gone virtually ignored is the people, overwhelmingly poor, who often pay the price when land is set aside. Wilderness preserves now encompass 10 percent of the earth's surface--the equivalent of China and India combined. Most of this land has been set aside in recent decades. Laws now protect more than 44,000 wilderness areas, up from barely a thousand in 1950. Catlin's vision is a global phenomenon, and the world faces a riddle: the poor are both environmental victims and predators. The conflict holds particularly for the tropics, home to the world's richest animal and plant life and to two thirds of the planet's poor. "Sustainable development," the latest eco-fad, at least addresses the problem by empowering local peoples to "comanage" their environment. But there's a risk. Native communities, for a variety of reasons, often tread heavily on the lands they occupy. "The idea that you can always conciliate preservation with human needs is fiction," says Sergio Brant, a Brazilian ecologist. The alternative is the status quo: keep people out.

No one keeps tabs on how many people have had to uproot their families and their villages, often leaving hunting grounds and fertile farmland they and their ancestors had occupied for generations. Charles C. Geisler, a rural sociologist at Cornell University, puts the number as high as 14 million in the past century. Whether you believe this figure or not, there are enough stories of hardship, from just about every corner of the world, to confirm that the problem is real and growing. Each new Eden, it seems, brings a new eviction.

--Mac Margolis


'Even the Men Cried'

Babu Lal kicks off his shoes and prays before an abandoned family shrine. Five generations of his ancestors lived and prayed in the same village, but now roads and buildings are crumbling in the face of the encroaching forest. The area is officially part of the Kuno wildlife sanctuary, designated in 1995 as a protected habitat for the endangered Asiatic lion. To allow six lions to roam unencumbered, the village's 8,000 inhabitants were asked to give up their rich farmland for parched scrub on the outskirts of the park. Lal, 52, the village headman, was reluctant to go. But when police shut down the local post, leaving villagers to the mercy of bandits, they had little choice. "Even the men cried that day," says Lal. "Is it fair to do this to 1,600 families for a few lions?" Now Lal prays for money--enough to throw a feast in honor of a Hindu deity, who perhaps might be persuaded to make the crops grow in his new home.

The gods may have to start working overtime. Although India accounts for only 2 percent of the world's landmass, it holds 14 percent of its population--but also 60 percent of the wild tigers, 70 percent of the rhinos and all the Asiatic lions. The government has sought to protect its wildlife since 1972, but under pressure from environmentalists--particularly a lawsuit brought by the World Wildlife Foundation in 1993--it's had to work harder. To defend the country's 89 national parks and 498 sanctuaries, which cover 156,000 square kilometers, the government last year approved a 14-year wildlife action strategy that includes tougher conservation laws and an 8 percent increase in protected land area. The pace of relocations has been quickening. In the past five years 467 villages were moved from tiger reserves alone. If India goes through with its plans, it is expected to create 2 million more "conservation refugees." "There's a bias for animal conservation in government policy influenced by urban middle classes," says environmentalist Ashish Kothari, founding member of the Pune-based NGO Palpavriksh. "But it's the poorest and most disadvantaged who pay."

Although the Kuno park was set aside as a sanctuary back in 1981, for years villagers were allowed to make a living--growing crops, grazing cattle and gathering medicinal plants. Then conservationists began to fear for the world's only remaining 300 Asiatic lions, which all resided in Gujarat's Gir National Parks. "It's like having all your eggs in one basket," says Arpan Sharma, a Delhi-based sociologist. "If there's a calamity, they'd be wiped out." In 1994 plans were laid to move a pride of six lions to Kuno as insurance. To keep the lions' habitat secure, human settlement had to cease.

The relocation of Kuno villagers began four years ago. Although government policy bars forced removal, in reality villagers had little choice. Electric power, schools and other services, where they existed, were shut down within the reserve. Outside lay the promise of land, a plot for a house and the unheard-of sum of $800 to build it. "We went for the money and the farm plot," says Dhammu, 43, who uses just one name. "No other reason." But the land hadn't been cleared for crops, and cash has been slow in coming. In such remote spots with little government oversight, the opportunity for official corruption is huge. "I don't know a single example in India where relocation was handled properly," says Kothari. "It's a scandal, and now people don't want to move out."

Conservationists make few apologies. It's a "win-win" situation, they argue, that gives villagers schools, roads, electricity and medical facilities they wouldn't otherwise get, while protecting the environment. "Should these people be anthropological exhibits?" asks M. K. Ranjitsinh, the former bureaucrat who drafted India's wildlife-preservation laws. "If so, let's close down all the parks and sanctuaries. The environment must be protected--not only for wildlife but for humanity and the country as a whole." It may sound harsh, but even most human-rights activists accept the necessity of moving people out to save endangered species, despite the suffering it causes. Saving humans may be the harder task.

--Ian Mackinnon


The Sun Rises Late

Dickson Kitango gathers for tea with the other bow-and-arrow hunters at a hotel called the Kimaech--which means, in the local Ogiek language, "Where the Sun Rises Late." The hotel is aptly named. Located at a crossing of dirt roads in the Mau Forest, thick trees keep the sun off the building until noon. Every 10 minutes or so, the roar of passing trucks drowns out all conversation. Each truck is loaded with mammoth, freshly cut pine logs. Kitango, 32, no longer bothers to go hunting during the workweek because, he says, the trucks and noisy logging machinery chase away the gazelles and the duikers, a type of deer. The Mau Forest is disappearing, truckload by truckload.

The Kenyan government has long acknowledged the importance of preserving the Mau Forest. It is, after all, the source of a third of the country's water and a rare parcel of forested land in this parched, drought---ridden region. For years, though, Kenya has pursued a bankrupt environmental policy that has allowed vast tracts of the Mau to fall into the hands of logging companies. At the same time it has scapegoated the politically weak Ogieks, and has even tried to force them off their land. In 1992, 2,000 Ogieks were evicted from their forest homes "for the purpose of saving the whole of Kenya from a possible environmental disaster," said the Nairobi High Court.

"If we hunt in the forest, we violate the Wildlife Act," says Solomon Kones, who works for the Ogiek Welfare Council. "We officially even violate the Forest Act by just being in the woods. Our entire lifestyle has been criminalized." Says Joseph Kariangei, one of the displaced: "We are now refugees in our own country."

Such harsh treatment might have been defensible had it actually saved the forest. Instead, the former government of longtime president Daniel Arap Moi doled out pieces of land to shore up political support among the country's dominant tribes. In turn, the settlers have usually turned the land over to timber companies for a quick profit. Moi himself was alleged to have given out 700 fraudulent title deeds in the Mau to members of his Kalenjin tribe before elections in 1997. In February 2001, the Moi government announced what would have been its most blatant land grab to date: removing more than 60,000 acres of the traditional Ogiek hunting area from government protection. The administration was foiled in its plan to parcel out this land to 50,000 squatters when it lost the elections in December.

The recent elections have given the Ogiek their best hope in decades of saving what's left of their culture. A coalition of former opposition groups is now promising to overhaul the bureaucracy and crack down on corruption. President Mwai Kibaki named Wangari Maathai, Kenya's leading environ--mental activist, to a top post in the Environment Ministry. "The Ogiek are a class of their own," says Maathai. "We should realize that they are different from other communities." The Ogiek haven't heard talk like this--aside from the occasional foreign anthropologist--in years. In January, a delegation of three Ogiek elders traveled to Nairobi to visit Maathai in her downtown office, seeking permission to return to the Mau Forest. They asked the new deputy minister to put genuine conservation schemes in place.

The current fashion among environmentalists for sustainable development may also give the Ogieks a fillip. Regional experts in eastern Africa are no longer touting the wisdom of evicting people from environmentally sensitive areas. "In the past some hard-core conservationists said: 'We care about the animals, to hell with the people'," says Gordon Boy, editor of Swara, the magazine of the Nairobi-based East African Wildlife Society. "But you don't hear those voices very often anymore. That attitude caused the mess we are in today." Now the fashion is to try to involve local communities in wildlife conservation.

But clearly these hunters still face a hard road. Years of government misrule have left a legacy of impunity in the Mau Forest. In the past year thousands of newcomers have arrived. Despite a court order freezing any reallocation of forest land, last January bulldozers from a company called Timsales were clear-cutting trees near the village of Kaprop, in the heart of the Mau reserve. Questioned about the work, the crew boss pretended to be deaf. Even the woods around the hotel where hunters like Dickson Kitango gather for their tea is thinning out. Soon, it could be just another place where the sun rises early.

--Teije Brandsma


'A Terrible Conflict'

When two close friends were killed in a power struggle between Zapatista rebels and another indigenous group a few years ago, Domingo Perez Gomez decided the once peaceful village of Salinas-Cruz, where he'd farmed for a decade, was no longer safe. He picked up his family and fled to the 320,000-hectare Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, the richest patch of virgin forest in Mexico. "It was the only place we could go," says the 48-year-old. "We lost everything we had. All we wanted to do was work." Once there, they cultivated corn and black beans on a small plot.

Gomez and the 40 other families from his village weren't yet out of the cross-fire. Montes Azules contains 31 percent of Mexico's bird species and 28 percent of the mammal species--including an endangered jaguar. That meant Gomez and his family had to go. In December 2002, government inspectors showed up and accused them of illegally cutting down trees, threatening to arrest them if they didn't leave the reserve.

When the government kicks out illegal forest dwellers, as it did three times in 2000, the peasants often return. Green activists from Conservacion Internacional have tried to develop alternative ways they can make a living, including producing organic coffee for export, but so far the farmers haven't caught on. "We shouldn't cut the forest down, I agree," says Rosario Lopez, 24, a resident of Emiliano Zapata, a community in the reserve. "But if we don't have any work, how are we going to survive?"

The environmental crisis started with poor government policies of the 1960s and 1970s, which encouraged indigenous tribes, like the Lacandons, to settle in the area. As populations swelled to 300,000, the local ecology took a nose dive. In 1994, the Zapatista rebels rose against the government over better land rights and treatment, driving hundreds of rural families, like Gomez's, to the safety of the forest. The rebels argue that concern for the environment is a pretext for the government to develop the land and militarize the region, and they've taken up the farmers' cause. About 25,000 Zapatista supporters now live in the reserve. "We will die for the hunger of our children," said Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos recently. "There will be no peaceful relocations."

Environmentalists say the reserve is sinking fast. In the last 14 years, logging and intensive farming have stripped away 41 percent of the forest. Destruction of Montes Azules would be a disaster. The Usumacinta River accounts for a quarter of Mexico's fresh water, and its dams supply half the nation's electricity. Ecologists say the damage being done to the forest may be irreparable.

Regardless of who's to blame, when the time comes it's usually the peasants who have to relocate. "It's a terrible conflict," says environmentalist Homer Arejis. "Determining what to do with these families inside the jungle has become a huge social problem." Gomez and his family now live in the dusty yard of a shelter, raising chickens. He's looking for work. His best prospect is, ironically, a new environmental project--to reforest a nearby plot of the jungle.

--Scott Johnson

Join the Discussion