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Forest and Its Impact on the People

Villagers used forest resources for many purposes, e.g., fuel, fodder, leaves. Their food consists of roots leaves, fruits and tubers which were plenty in the forest. Herbs were used for medicine and wood for agricultural implements such as yokes and ploughs. They made things out of bamboo, e.g., baskets and umbrellas. The Forest Department, on the other hand, wanted trees for the purpose of building ships or railways. Forest provided them with hard wood, and was all tall and straight. The Forest Department only encouraged the teak and sal trees to be grown and others to be cut.
The Forest Act brought hardships for villagers across the country. After the act, all their routine practices were jeopardised. Cutting wood for construction of buildings, cattle grazing, foraging, hunting and fishing became illegal. People started to steal; when caught, they were penalised. The police constable and forest guards harassed people by demanding free food from them.

One of the major impacts of European colonialism was the practice of shifting cultivation or ‘Swidden agriculture’. It has many local names in different countries like lading in Southeast Asia, Milpa in Central America, Chitmene or tavy in Africa, and Chena in Sri Lanka. In India, it has many names such as dya, Penda, bewar, nevad, jhum, podu, khandad and kumri. European foresters regarded this practice as harmful for the forests. They felt that land which was used for cultivation every few years could not grow trees for railway timber. When a forest was burnt, there was the danger of flames spreading and burning valuable timber. Added to this, it was difficult for the British to tax the people. Therefore, the government banned this.

Forests in Colonial Period

Shifting of cultivators was practiced––‘Slash and burn agriculture’ or ‘Swidden agriculture’ for centuries. European foresters regarded this practice as harmful for the forests and the British Government decided to ban shifting cultivation. As a result, many communities were forcibly displaced from their homes in the forests and their centuries-old profession was stopped at once.
Many communities left their traditional occupations and started trading in forest products. For example, with the growing demand for rubber in the mid-nineteenth century, the Mundurucu people of the Brazilian Amazon who lived in villages on high ground and cultivated manioc began to collect latex from wild rubber trees for supplying to traders.

In India, the trade in forest products was not new. The Adivasi communities during the Medieval Period were trading elephants and other goods such as hides, horns, silk cocoons, ivory, bamboo, spices, fibres, grasses, gums and resins through nomadic communities like the Banjaras. With the coming of the British, however, trade was completely regulated by the government. The European government gave many large European trading firms the sole right to trade in the forest products of particular areas. Grazing and hunting by the local people were recruited.

The Koravas, Karacha and Yerukula of the Madras Presidency lost their means of livelihood because of the reservation of forest areas by the British Government. These people depended totally on the forest for grazing their cattle.

In Assam, both men and women from forest communities such as Santhals and Oraons from Jharkhand, and Gonds from Chhattisgarh were recruited to work on tea plantations. Their wages were low and conditions of work were very bad. They could not return easily to their home villages from where they had been controlled.

The firms trading timbers and forest produce lost their business due to reservation policy of the British. They could no longer cut trees and collect timber because that was badly needed by the British to build their ships and railway sleepers.

The European plantation owners gained a lot by the changes brought in the forest management. Large areas of natural forests were cleared by the plantation owners to establish huge plantations of tea, coffee and rubber to meet Europe’s growing demand.

The Indian Kings and British officials were allowed to hunt freely in the reserved forest. Under the colonial rule, the hunting increased to an extent that various species became extinct. A large number of tigers, leopards, wolves were killed as sporting trophy.


Bastar is a land of different communities in India, e.g., Maria and Muria Gonds, Dhurwas, Bhatras and Halbas. They speak different languages but share common customs and beliefs. The people of Bastar believed that each village was given its land, the earth, and in return they revered the earth by making some offering at each agricultural festival. They respected the spirits of the river, the forest and the mountain. The local people looked after all the natural resources within the boundary. If people from a village wanted to take some wood from the forests of another village, they would pay a small fee called devsari, dand or man in exchange. Every year there was one big hunt where the headmen of villages in a pargana (cluster of villages) meet and discuss issues of concern, including forests.

In 1905, when the government reserved two-thirds of the forest and stopped shifting cultivation, hunting and collection of forest produce, the people of Bastar were very worried. Some villages were allowed to stay on with a condition that they worked for free for cutting and transporting tress as well as protect trees from fires. This came to be known as ‘forest villages’. People of other villages were displaced without any notice or compensation. The villagers suffered from increased land rents and frequent demands for free labour and goods by colonial officials.
People began gathering in groups or in their village councils, in bazaars and at festivals or wherever the headmen and priests of several villages assembled to discuss their problems. Dhurwas of Kanger forest were the first to start this rebellion. Dhur, from village Nethanar, is an important figure in the movement. In 1910, mango boughs, a lump of earth, chillies and arrows, began circulating between villages. These were actually messages inviting villagers to rebel against the British. Every village contributed something to the rebellion expenses. Bazaars were looted, the houses of officials and traders, schools and police stations were burnt and robbed, and grain redistributed. William Ward, a missionary, observed these events and wrote about it widely.
The British tried to suppress the rebellion. Adivasi leaders tried to negotiate, but the British surrounded their camps and fired upon them. They marched in the villages, flogging and punishing those who had taken part in the rebellion. The villages were deserted and people fled to jungles. The British temporarily suspended reservation and the area of reservation was reduced.

After independence in the 1970s, the World Bank proposed for the natural sal forest by replacing tropical pine to provide pulp for the paper industry. The local environmentalists protested and stopped the project.

Java is a famous rice producing island in Indonesia. The Dutch started forest management since they required timber from Java to build ships. The Kalangs of Java were a community of skilled forest cutters and shifting cultivators. They were expertised in harvesting teak. The Dutch tried to make the Kalangs to work under them. The Kalangs resisted and attacked the Dutch at Joana, but the uprising was suppressed.

Surontiko Samin of Randulblatung village, a teak forest village, began to question the state ownership of the forest. A movement developed and Saminists protested by lying down on their land when the Dutch came to survey it, while others refused to pay or perform labour.

War and Deforestation

The First World War and the Second World War had a major impact on forests. In India, the Forest Department cut trees freely to meet British war needs. In Java, before the Japanese occupation, the Dutch followed ‘a scorched earth’ policy, destroying sawmills, and burning huge piles of giant teak logs so that they would not fall into the hands of the Japanese. The Japanese then exploited the forests recklessly for their own war industries, forcing forest villagers to cut down forests. Many villagers used this opportunity to expand cultivation in the forest. In Java, the Indonesian forest services were unable to get this land back. In India, people’s need for agricultural land had brought them into conflict with the Forest Department’s desire to control the land and exclude people from it.

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