Friday August 3, 2007 8:16 PM
By GAVIN RABINOWITZ
Associated Press Writer
NEW DELHI (AP) - A bill to restore land rights to millions of poor tribal people in India could mean the end for India's endangered wild tigers, eliminating much of their protected habitat, conservationists warned Friday.
The struggle over the Tribal Rights Bill highlights India's dilemma as it tries to include hundreds of millions of impoverished people in its recent economic growth and at the same time preserve the environment.
"Our biggest problem is not from poachers but from the tribal bill," Valmik Thapar, one of India's leading tiger experts, told a news conference.
The bill, which is expected to be passed in Parliament in the next few months, would allocate land to an estimated 85 million tribe members, indigenous forest-dwellers who occupy the lowest rungs of India's complex social ladder. Much of this land falls in wildlife reserves.
Proponents of the bill say the most important issue is to undo the decades of discrimination and victimization faced by the tribal people.
Many have been displaced as mines and industry's took away their traditional lands and deforestation deprived them of their livelihoods. Denied an education in many cases, tribe members often fell prey to unscrupulous landlords and money lenders.
"We are trying to do a balancing act between restoring the rights of the forest-dwellers and the environment," said Tribal Affairs Secretary Gautam Buddha Mukherjee, adding there are sufficient safeguards in the bill to protect tiger reserves.
But environmentalists disagree, saying the move could decimate the country's already dwindling wild tiger population, which has dropped from about 3,500 to just 1,500 in the last five years.
The bill gives tribal members the rights to farm, graze cattle and sell forest produce such as honey, wax, medicinal plants and herbs from the once-protected forests.
While hunting animals would be banned, critics say the redesignation of land use would ravage the tiger population by reducing land dedicated for reserves from 4.5 percent of the land in India to just 1.5 percent.
"Wherever you have humans and tigers living in the same area, they just do not coexist," said Thapar, attributing much of the recent steep decline in tiger numbers to loss of habitat and poaching outside protected areas.
"Ninety-five percent of tigers outside the parks were wiped out. They do not exist," said Thapar. "We have never been in such a sorry state."