Hundreds of Van Gujjars were camped near the town of Kalsi, along the banks of the Yamuna River. A major nexus of migratory routes, many families converge here before heading upriver - into the Garhwal Himalayas - or crossing the bridge and moving toward the neighboring state of Himachal Pradesh. Cradled by the foothills to the north, open to the plains to the south, this is the gateway to the high country, where the Yamuna first emerges from the canyon it carves through the mountains.
Unlike at the Asan River, where there was plenty of space between Van Gujjar camps, here families set their tents close together, leaving some open space for their animals to share. With few nearby fields in which to graze, the buffaloes spent most of their time lounging in the water, keeping cool during the absurdly hot hours of the day.
While Dhumman, Mir Hamza, and Goku were out watching the herd, Jamila and the kids who stayed at camp had fun looking at the myriad goods that hawkers, drawn by the crowd, were selling tent-to-tent. At the slightest expression of interest, everything from cloth to cookware to flashlights to nose rings were spread out for them to admire. Though they didn’t buy much, Apa and Bashi each picked out a new kameez.
Whatever else was going on, the issue of the grazing permits always lingered in the background. The day after reaching Kalsi, Dhumman, Yusuf and a number of other Van Gujjars camped there traveled to Dehradun to join a protest being held at the headquarters of the Forest Department. Organized by an NGO that advocates for the Van Gujjars, called the Society for Promotion of Himalayan Indigenous Activities (SOPHIA), about 80 nomads showed up to plead with the director of Rajaji National Park – who also controlled Govind Pashu Vihar – to change his mind and let their people go.
To call the event a protest is probably overstating it: there were no slogans chanted, no fists or voices raised, no signs or banners waved around. The men and women who had come from camps scattered along different migratory routes sat peacefully in the shade, talking quietly, chewing tobacco and smoking bidis, by their presence alone showing support for the small group of lambardars, including Dhumman, who went inside the forest office to speak to Director S.S. Rasaily.
For decades, “no people in parks” had been a widely accepted principle in the field of environmental conservation. Around the world - as nature reserves, wildlife sanctuaries, and national parks were created - tens of millions of indigenous peoples became “conservation refugees,” forced off of the lands that their tribes had lived on since time immemorial. The idea behind these evictions was simple: the best way to preserve fragile ecosystems was to keep people out of them (except, perhaps, as tourists). But as time has passed, as the cultural damage of these policies has reached disturbing proportions, and the people threatened by them have become increasingly empowered to speak out and be heard, many conservationists are beginning to step away from "no people in parks" as strict dogma.
In addition to raising provocative human rights issues, many conservation refugees – including the Van Gujjars – make an impassioned environmental case for their continued presence on their traditional lands. They argue that their people have been living in these areas for so long that they are, in fact, vital elements of their ecosystems; that removing them from these lands would alter the ecology more than leaving them in place. At heart is the question of whether human beings can be parts of natural ecosystems, or whether people should always be considered an invasive species. From the indigenous point of view, the bright-line distinction between man and nature, the premise that people don’t belong in the wilderness, is heavily skewed by a Western/Euro-American bias; in many other parts of the planet, they note, people have long lived out in the jungles or mountains or savannahs or deserts, completely immersed in the natural world, their age-old cultures - and their perceptions of themselves and what it means to be human - inseparable from it.
While many conservation refugees agree that wildlife habitat does need protection, they don’t think it needs to be protected from them. They point out that their own survival depends on the health of the ecosystems they live within and that its imperative to their own interests to use resources sustainably – the way Van Gujjars prune trees so they’ll regenerate each year. This, they say, is the fundamental ethic on which their cultures are based. And they note the irony that it’s their traditional territory that’s been deemed special enough, pristine enough, and home to enough rare wildlife to be worthy of becoming parks – which, they say, means they must be doing something right.
The forest world of the Van Gujjars, however, is not as healthy as it once was. It has suffered from a variety of factors, including legal and illegal logging; industrial, agricultural, and residential encroachment; wildlife poaching, pollution, and climate change. With all of that, the Van Gujjars feel like they are getting the bulk of the blame and paying the highest price for problems to which they, overall, are minor contributors.
Nevertheless, from a conservation standpoint, it is important to assess the actual impact that people like Van Gujjars are having on their ecosystems. It’s possible that today - combined with the effects of climate change, shrinking habitats and grazing ranges, and other factors - age-old practices that were once sustainable no longer are. As habitat has disappeared, as tribal communities and wildlife are restricted to smaller – sometimes island-like – areas of wilderness, can people who have been living in harmony with nature for hundreds or thousands of years continue to do so? Will their presence crash – or help save – the ecosystems they rely on for survival?
These questions can really only be answered on a case-by-case basis, depending on local environmental conditions as well as the specific ways of life of any particular group of people.
The Van Gujjars who spend summers in Govind Pashu Vihar National Park practice seasonal, rotational grazing, which is generally regarded to be environmentally responsible, and often beneficial, to meadow and grassland ecosystems. Since seasonal herders only spend part of the year in any one place, the land has a chance to regenerate when they’re gone, helped by the animal dung left behind, which acts as a fertilizer and seed-scatterer. In studies from around the world, this kind of grazing has been shown to keep aggressive plant species in check, allowing a wider variety of life to flourish and keeping biodiversity in balance. Despite this knowledge, it’s not unusual for grazing to be forbidden in the name of conservation.
Official reports on Govind Pashu Vihar itself, made by the State of Uttarakhand in 2009, say that human pressure on the park needs to be “urgently reduced” or it is “bound to suffer irreversible ecological damage.” In assessing the threats described in the report, however, it’s hard to distinguish how much of the impact is caused by the Van Gujjars and how much is caused by the year-round residents of the forty-two villages that abut and “fragment” the park. The loss of forested land seems mostly attributable to the villagers, who build wooden houses and granaries, cook over wood, and heat with wood throughout the frigid winter. But the report also says that the presence of livestock is what prevents the trees from growing back – which seems to point the finger at the nomads. At least until you do the math.
According to the report, an estimated 150,000 sheep and goats, plus another 70,000 head of “cattle, mules and horses belonging to the local inhabitants as well as migratory pastoral communities graze” in the park in the summer. A few, but not many, Van Gujjar families keep sheep and goats, so most of those probably belong to the villagers. As far as the larger livestock is concerned, if there are 100 nomadic families that use the park (as the report claims) and each family has fifty animals – which is more than either Dhumman, Yusuf, or Alfa had, and would be well above average – that would total just 5000 animal in Van Gujjar hands. And that’s surely an over-estimate. So, either about 65,000 cattle, mules and horses, plus some 1.5 lakh sheep and goats, belong to the families of forty-two mountain villages and would be responsible for the vast majority of any environmental damage due to grazing - or the figures in the report are less than accurate.
When I spoke with Dr. G.S. Rawat, a prominent biologist at the Wildlife Institute of India and one of the authors of the report, he had some sympathy for the Van Gujjars – he acknowledged, for instance, that they had nothing to do with wildlife poaching, and he was the only contributor to the report who suggested actually compensating the nomads to settle their land rights claims, rather than just slamming the gates to the park. But he firmly believed that the Van Gujjars herds were hurting the ecosystem and diminishing fragile wildlife habitat. Even more than grazing, he said, the biggest problem was that they trampled seedlings to death with their heavy hooves. He noted that there were more nomadic families bringing more buffaloes to the same places that they’d gone in decades past, implying that their increasing numbers had made their use of Govind’s bugyals unsustainable; they had to go.
But I also spoke with Nabi Jha, a scientist and former research fellow at the G.B. Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development who specializes in mountain grasslands ecology. He believed that seasonal rotational grazing was often good for mountain meadows, and was firmly against the plan to evict the Van Gujjars from Govind Pashu Vihar, at least at this time. No one, he said, had ever determined the environmental impact of the nomads' herds, or how many animals the meadows in the park could sustainably support. “We need to measure the land’s carrying capacity against the buffaloes’ demands before we’ll know if there’s any reason to ban Van Gujjars or limit their numbers,” he said.
The director of SOPHIA, Praveen Kaushal, didn’t think that defending the environment had much at all to do with why the park authorities wanted the Van Gujjars out. “These guys are full of themselves,” he said. “They see the parks as their own private fiefdoms and want to show them off to other officials and foreign tourists, and they don’t want a bunch of poor Muslim herders around spoiling the view.”
When Dhumman and the other lambardars went into Director Rasaily’s office, they didn’t present the Forest Department honchos with philosophical or scientific arguments. They let Kaushal make the case that blocking the Van Gujjars would violate the Forest Rights Act, while they themselves pleaded for mercy for their families.
They got none. Rasaily would not be moved, neither by legal logic nor humanitarian compassion.
Dhumman and Yusuf returned to Kalsi. They still clung to a thread of hope that Rasaily would change his mind as pressure on him continued to grow. But they also worked to finalize the alternative plan they’d come up with at Asan.
The next morning their families were on the road again before dawn, trekking up the Yamuna and into the burly gorge it hews through the Himalayas.