Chapter 4: Forest Society and Colonialism
Forests form an important part of our ecosystem and are beneficial to us in various ways. The process of clearing of forests by removing trees through logging or burning is called deforestation. Major deforestation in India occurred during the British rule, between the years 1880 and 1920.
The British grew many cash crops in India, like indigo, cotton, jute and sugar, to increase revenue. As the demand for these products increased, the need for land also increased. The net result was that forests were cleared for cultivation.
Large amounts of timber from Sal and teak forests were exported to build the large and magnificent ships of the Royal Navy of England.
With the advent of railways, wood was needed as fuel to run locomotives and also to lay sleepers under railway lines.
Tea and coffee plantations were grown to meet Europe’s growing need. The Adivasis and the peasants were also largely responsible for the depletion of forests due to their dependence on them for fodder, leaves and fuel. They followed slash and burn and shifting cultivation, which led to deforestation and degradation of the land.
Global warming is just one of the several harmful impacts of deforestation. In addition to this, the water cycle gets disturbed, soil erodes, and several species of plants and animals get extinct. It also has an impact on the native dwellers of forests as they become homeless.
4.2 Rise of Commercial Forestry
Dietrich Brandis was born in Bonn, Germany and worked as a lecturer of Botany. He joined the British service in 1856 as the superintendent of the teak forests in eastern Burma.
During the British Rule in India, due to the demand for trees for railways and other requirements of timber by the British, Indian forests were getting depleted. The British were particularly worried about the use of forest produce by the local people and the unregulated felling of trees by traders.
To conserve the forests, by 1864, the British felt the need of an organized Forest Department for the complete administration of the forests in India. They invited Dietrich Brandis for advice and to organize the administration of the forests in India. He was the First Inspector General of Forests of India and is also commonly known as the father of tropical forestry.
Brandis formulated new forest rules and helped establish research and training institutions. He set up the Indian Forest Service in 1864 and helped formulate the Indian Forest Act of 1865. To help spread the study of forestry, Brandis founded the Imperial Forest Research Institute at Dehra Dun in 1906. He introduced and started the practice of ‘scientific forestry’ or commercial forestry in India.
Scientific forestry is the practice of cutting down all the trees in a forest and replacing them with one single species of tree that is planted in straight rows. This planting of one type of tree in straight rows is also known as a plantation. The Indian Forest Act was enacted in 1865, and was amended twice – in 1878 and 1927.
- Reserved forests were forests completely under reservation or the protection of the government.
- Protected forests were forests under partial protection of the government.
- Village forests were forests whose land rights were assigned by the government to a village community for its use.
4.3 Impacts of the Indian Forest Act
The impacts of the Indian Forest Act of 1865 on the lives of various people:
Most of the basic means of livelihood of the forest dwelling tribes were banned by the British. The daily practices of villagers, such as cutting wood, grazing cattle, collecting fruits and roots, and fishing, were banned and made illegal.
Forest dwelling tribes largely depended on hunting small animals like deer, rabbit and partridge for food. The British also imposed a ban on the hunting of small animals. They encouraged the sport of hunting of wild and dangerous animals like the elephant, lion and tiger, by giving rewards. If anyone was caught hunting illegally, they were severely punished for poaching. Even shifting cultivation, which had been practiced for several generations by the forest tribes, was banned.
Shifting cultivation was an agricultural system in which plots of land were cultivated temporarily, and then abandoned.
Shifting cultivation was banned by the British as the land became useless for growing timber, led to forest fires and also resulted in soil erosion. It was difficult for the British to calculate taxes. The nomadic and pastoral tribes were left with only two options – either give in and change their occupation, or take the stronger path and rebel.
While the Indian Forest Act was passed as a boon to the British, it proved to be a bane for the forest dwellers.
4.4 Rebellion in the Forests
During the year 1910 there were many rebellions against the British in Bastar, the rebellion in the forests of Bastar in 1910 was one such.
A number of different communities live in Bastar and speak different languages. The people of Bastar believe that land is a gift from Mother Earth to humans, and that humans should respect this gift. They look after their forests with great affection and care.
Under the colonial rule, the people of Bastar were exploited for a long time. They were forced to pay higher land rents, work for free and provide free goods to government officials.
They suffered even more due to the famines that hit Bastar in 1899-1900 and again in 1907-1908. The proposal of the government in 1905 to reserve two-thirds of the forest land, stop shifting cultivation, hunting and collection of forest produce was the last straw for the people of Bastar.
The initiative of rebelling against the British was taken by the Dhurwas of the Kangar forest which was the first forest to be reserved. One prominent name associated with these rebellions was that of Gunda Dhur who was a rebel leader from a village named Nethanar. A mass movement of destruction in the form of looting, burning of bazaars, schools, and police stations, and the houses of officials and traders spread throughout Bastar.
Even though the British were able to suppress the rebellion, it took them three months to bring the situation totally under control. Households in every village supported the rebellion by bearing its expense.
The work on forest reservation was temporarily suspended and the area to be reserved was reduced to half of the original proposed.
The development and transformations of the forests of India and Java in Indonesia are similar to a great extent. Forest management in Java and India was started by colonisers, the Dutch in Java and the British in India. Both carried out large-scale deforestation for timber to build ships and sleepers for railways.
Shifting cultivation was practised for several generations by the forest communities of both places. Like the rebellion in Bastar in 1910, the Kalangs, who were the wood-cutting community of Java, also rebelled against the Dutch in 1770 to stand up against the laws that restricted their access to the forests.
In Java, the initiative to stand up against the Dutch was taken by Surontiko Samin of Randublatung, a teak forest village. He argued that the Dutch had not created water, wood and air, and that they had no right to place restrictions on the natural forest resources that Mother Earth has given.
Forest Services and scientific forestry was also introduced by the colonisers, in both Java and India, to manage forests for shipbuilding and railways. The Dutch in Java practised a system known as the ‘Blandongdiensten System’, under which, just like the British in India, they imposed heavy rents on land under cultivation.
Both the Dutch in Java and the British in India exploited the forest resources to meet their war needs. During the First World War and the Second World War, the British cut many trees in India to meet their war needs. Java faced a similar fate at the hands of the Dutch just before the Japanese occupation of Java. The Japanese further exploited the forests of Java and left the forests in an irretrievable state.