Shymal Chakma
JTICI Vol.5, Issue 1, No.3, pp. 22 to 34, March 2018

The Paradox of Conservation Politics and Tribes

Published On: Saturday, August 4, 2018


In the context of tribal studies, the Indian environmental historiography plays significant roles in defining, understanding and conceptualising tribes or Adivasis. It challenges the ecological romanticism and other theoretical framework based on the tribal peoples’ relationship with nature. In the paradox of conservation politics, the environmental discourse contributes and dominates in understanding and conceptualising tribes. In the phenomenon of displacement, it asserts and negotiates for sustainable use of resources but it does not critically engage in conceptualisation of tribal epistemology that challenges the very notion of conservation and displacement. It does not theorize if the tribes have to the victim of conservation projects or if environmentalism has to be in lieu of the tribal people who does not contributes in the on-going environmental crisis and problems. Nonetheless, the discourse has its merits, challenges and problems in critically engaging and contributing to the tribal studies in India.

The environmental issue is a reality and conservation is a mechanism adopted both by the state and market. Historically, the experience of the indigenous people around the world remains painful by the fact that they were treated as unwanted in the making of conservation. In such context the conservation projects are ever growing at par with the rising environmental problems such as carbon pollution, bounding extremes heat and cold, storm and droughts, habitat loss to ocean acidification, threats to the survival of wildlife and loss of biodiversity. At the same time, the conservation induced displacement is also compared with the magnitude of human evictions and suffering due to civil wars, mega-development projects, and high modernist state interventions (Schmidt-Soltau 2005; Brockington et al. 2006: 250;West and Brockington 2006: 613). However the figures of numbers of displaced is not maintained and it is estimated to be a figure of 8.5 to 136 million humans displaced as a result of conservation projects (Geisler 2003). According to him, this figure would have ranged from 10.8 to 173 million.

In describing the problems of conservation, Raymond Bonner (1993)1, quotes that “Livingstone, Stanley and other explorers and missionaries had come to Africa in the nineteenth century to promote the three Cs – Christianity, commerce and civilization, Now a fourth was added: Conservation”. Similarly, such realities and experiences can be interpreted and analysed for the tribes in India especially when it is estimated that 90% of tribal or indigenous people in India live in or in close proximity to forests. The tribes have traditionally lived in about 15% of the geographical area of the country, mainly in forests, hills and undulating inaccessible terrain areas (Madegowda C, 2009). As per Forest Survey of India report (2003), about 60% of the forests cover of the country and 63% of the dense forests lie in 187 tribal districts. The steady rise in the number and geographical coverage of Protected Areas (PAs) in India has been accompanied by a rise in the number of conservation refugees (Asmita Kabra, 2009).

Indeed in the 2002, Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) envisaged conservation coverage of 10% geographical area, India has displaced millions of tribes and in that envisioned goal only 5% was achieved till 2001 (Rangarajan 2001 and Kabra, 2009). It is alarming especially when the policies of conservation or protected areas have been predominantly insensitive to the rights and needs of these people and in many cases further impoverished them (Ashish Kothari 2008). In such backdrop, this chapter engages on the paradox and methodological concerns of conservation politics, and the state of the tribes. It also discusses the theoretical approaches of conservation which is underpinned in ecological analysis and political economic theories. It revisits the structuralist and post-structuralist theoretical framework of understanding tribes in the Indian environmental discourse. It addresses the challenges that the indigenous people faces from the discourses of development and environment which strongly demand for conservation and justify displacement. It argues that for need to engage in the discourse of conservation by the school of tribal studies.

Understanding Tribes: Ecology and conservation

The ‘New Traditionalists’ of environmental studies advocates that the tribes who have been living in the forest for time immemorial and having a distinct culture and identity in relations to nature have the right against displacement from conservation projects. They advocates against the sacrifices and impasse of the tribes by the elite Indian environmentalists who argue conservation without people or by displacing people. In that process, they also play a significant role in understanding and conceptualising tribes in the context of environmental politics. The works of Verrier Elwin’s (1943) construction of aboriginal or Adivasis based on the “Love of Nature” is centred in such understanding which is one of the most contested and debated. Guha (1996) quotes Elwin’s work that “the forest provided him food, fruit, medicine; materials for housing and agriculture; birds and animals for the pot. The significance of the forest was economic as much as cultural, practical as well as symbolic. All tribals had an intimate knowledge of wild plants and animals. Swidden agriculturalist, for whom forest and farm shaded imperceptibly into each other, had an especial bond with the natural world”.

It also believes that the traditional or pre-colonial Indian society was marked by harmonious relationships, ecologically sensitive resource use practices, and was generally far less burdened by the gender, economic and environmental exploitation (Gadgil and Guha, 1993: Ch.4; Shiva, 1998: Chs.1 and 2). However, such narrative demonstrates a human-nature relationship of ecological romanticism, and does not critically examine the dynamic of socio-economic and cultural ethos of the tribes in the complex web of their relationship with larger socio-political, political economy and the dynamic of intra and interrelationship in the glolocal context. Such structural approaches explain homogenous narratives and attract challenges from the emerging theoretical enquiries of post-structuralists perspectives. In fact, the narratives of the environmental historicity or historiography begins from the colonial times to nation-state formation to capitalistic development and thus conceptualisation of tribes is freeze in the context of isolation and culture.

Such discourse is challenged and is argued against the notion that “women, forest dwellers and peasants were primarily the keepers of a special conservationist ethic” (Subir Sinha et al., 2008). They also argue that the Indian environmental history based on the colonialism, modernity and development discourse which were responsible for the degradation of nature in India. Sumit Guha (1999) argues that the terms “Indigenous” and “Tribe” in an uncritical adoption on a theoretical level are not supported by the historical record. Furthermore, the structuralist understanding of tribes also involves the use of classical texts and creates a spiritualised and romanticised view of traditional hill society where the Indian culture consists of its defined life in the forest as the highest form of evolution (Bharati, 1988:55). Thus the ‘New Traditionalists’ deploy such venerable ideas about the hills areas which profoundly conservative in inspiration and attitude (Sinha and Co. 2008:70). They argue that such traditions are with unresolved tension and revulsion between the Hindus of plains and the tribes of hills and forest. For instances the forest tribes of Jharkhand were seen as less than human on the surrounding plains (Kelkar and Nathan 1991). In Uttarakhand, the plainsfolk saw the people of hills as not the bearers of a ‘true’ Hindu tradition, but as peripheral to it (Berreman 1991). Xaxa (2005) argues that the depiction of tribes in Indian Sanskritic and Hindu religious texts and traditions is indeed referring them in primitive and barbaric conditions. According to Bara (2002), the pre-colonial depiction of the tribal people of India as ‘dasyus’, daityas’, ‘rakshakas’ and ‘nishadas’, juxtaposed with the mind-19th century western racial concept (Bara 2002: 125).

The debates on tribes and environmentalism remains a contentious one based on the empirical studies produced on certain geographic spaces and region by taking into the socio-historical approaches. Scholars like Sumit Guha (1999) argues that the terms “Indigenous” and “Tribe” in an uncritical adoption on a theoretical level are not supported by the historical record. However, the Adivasis claims to an `authentic indigenity’ cannot be easily dismissed on the basis of Guha’s evidence, as other researchers, most notably Hardiman (1987), Skaria (1999) and Bhaviskar (1995), have shown for western India (V. Damodaran, 2000). Vinita (2000) also argues that Guha’s assessment does not take local traditions, historical transformation and the emergence and politics of indigeneity identity formations in India. She dismiss Guha’s adoption of Leach-Fairhead thesis in understanding the tribes in western India based on the Kissidougou landscape in Guinea that is currently filling up with rather being emptied of forests. She alleged that such perspective is to sympathise the assimilationists like G.S Ghurye (1943) and other Hindu nationalists who believe that tribals were part of Hindu culture.

These debates do not theorize and contributes to the fundamental question of whether environmentalism in general or conservation in particular should be only understood in lieu of the tribal epistemology when the tribes has little or has no role in the larger environmental issues and crisis. While engaging the tribes in such context, it creates debates and an impression whereby they become an object of enquiry rather than being a subject of itself. Thus the debates and negotiations on rights and incentives dominate in the paradox of conservation politics and tribal understanding. Besides, the tribal communities with their distinct socio-cultural and religious practices have their unique system which plays an important role in conserving forest and its resources and is still function2. Indeed, there are stiff rejection and opposition with attempts of imposed ideas of conservation and practices which does not fall under the conceptualised understanding of the tribes. Such social discourse narrates a social consciousness and construction based on human-nature relationship even in the changing times and context. Thus it arise the needs to theorize in addressing and articulating such perspectives and realities apart from the fixed notion of tribal understanding and interpretations.

On the other hand, the paradox of conservation is operated under the guise of political economy which sees and understands ecology and nature as set zones that needs to be appropriated and exploited for the benefits of the human society. It is also conceptualised based on the ecological theoretical analysis which sees the environment or nature in itself rather than human in nature thereby rationalizing and sanctifying the needs of human to sacrifice for the nature. Hence displacement of tribes is justified in the context of on-going and emerging environmental problems and crisis.

Conceptual understanding and the paradigms of conservation

The philosophical underpinnings of ‘man over nature’ and human-nature relations is dominated by the understanding of science and religious interpretations over nature. While the theological interpretation of nature gives license for human domination over nature3 and is considered to serve humanity4; the scientific rationalization guides the man to treat the nature as the means to enjoy its fruits and extract maximum for the materialistic benefits. The understanding of nature encompasses the ‘rationalist dualisms’ that oppose reason to nature, mind to body, emotional female to rational male, human to animal and so on (Plumwood, 1993). Thus, the colonial history is not only processes of colonialisation of people but also the nature where it were subjected to conquest and control, harnessed and transformed to serve projects of agricultural improvement, industrialization and trade (MacKenzie, 1990a; Grove, 1995; Drayton, 2000).

Such led to the exploitation of nature including wildlife which led to a state of crisis at an alarming rate over times. Today, the paradigms of environmentalism remains in the theoretical understanding that are oriented in the theories of political economy and ecological analysis theories (Greenberg and Thomas 1994). Such approaches and perspectives can also be understood in the conservation models that emerges in an attempt to addresses the environmental problems. In fact, neither the needs for conservation nor the interests of the tribes are against each other but historically the model of conservation whereby displacement was considered essential marked painful memories and narratives for the indigenous people around the world.

Conservation is understood in ‘a geographically defined area which is designated or regulated and managed to achieve specific conservation objectives’ (Krishnan et. al. 2012:5). International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has defined conservation into six categorised such as 1) Nature Reserve and Wilderness Area 2) National Park 3) Natural Monument 4) Habitat Species 5) Protected Landscape/Seascape and 6) Protected Area with sustainable use of natural resources (Dudley 2008). The internal and external forces determining the needs for conservation are due to the irreversible loss of biological diversity which is driven by the five factors as mentioned by Krishnan et. al. such as a) habitat loss b) unsustainable use and overexploitation c) pollution d) invasive alien species and f) climate change (2012: 4).

However, the battle against species extinction has been the main driving force for the emergence of the global conservation regime (Adams, 2004). In the 20th century, the conservation practice was based on protected areas that establish jurisdictions and borders that define exclusionary rights. This was considered as “different forms of co-management conservation” (Brechin et al. 2003; Brosius, Tsing, and Zerner 2005; Gibson and Marks 1995; Peters 1998 cited in Vaccaro et. al. 2013) and “Fortress conservation” (Brockington 2002; Neumann 1998; Ibid.) which is characterized by an exclusionary approach as it has often resulted in evictions of local inhabitants and focuses in its managerial efforts on protecting and defending its borders from outsider (Brockington 2002; Peluso 1992,1993).

The “Indigenous people have been subjected to the colonization of their lands and cultures, and the denial of their sovereignty by a colonizing society that has come to dominate the shape and quality of their lives, even after it has formally pulled out” (Smith, 1999). Fabienne Bayett (1998) has stated that a noted Aboriginal writer has argued that the establishment of national parks well may be the “second wave of dispossession” which denies their customary inherited right to use land for hunting, gathering, building, rituals and birthing rights. The conservation model has created several questions on social justice and rights of the Indigenous people by displacing them and making conservation. For the tribes, displacement from their habitation and environment is not just a mere livelihood, economic and physical displacement. It is the removal from their history, memory and representation (Schama 1996 cited in Brockington and Igoe, 2006).

In the era of neoliberalization another stream of governmentality models concentrates on community based conservation or decentralized conservation. This model employs three main strategies such as a) providing compensation (or substitution); b) promoting alternative livelihood opportunities and c) creating a direct stake in conservation for local people (Western and Wright, 1994; Hulme and Murphree, 1999; Hutton and Leader-Williams, 2003 cited in Krishnan at. el. 2012). The ‘sustainable use’ believes in the relationship between the growing markets and the protection of nature and wildlife. This consensus, which can be seen in both the realms of concept and practice, is variously referred to as market environmentalism (Anderson and Leal 1991), green neoliberalism (Goldman 2005), green capitalism (Heartfield 2008) and Neoliberal Conservation (Igoe and Brockington 2006; Sullivan 2006). The research by Ken MacDonald (forthcoming) and Saul Cohen (forthcoming) on the Congress reveals how specific groups within the IUCN used various kinds of marketing and performance to market-based conservation appear unproblematically compatible with social justice and sustainability (Igoe, Sullivan and Brockington 2009).

Such approaches to conservation practices and policies tend to serve the political economy under the domains of ‘resource owning and resource using’ or the accumulation of natural resources. It also deploys various concepts such as market environmentalism (Anderson and Leal 1991), green neoliberalism (Goldman 2005), green capitalism (Heartfield 2008) and Neoliberal Conservation (Igoe and Brockington 2006; Sullivan 2006). In doing so, it serves the political economy of market and the interest of the dominant social and political groups. Therefore, the paradigms of conservation and the environmental discourses need to be critically studied as other antagonistic agents for the tribes like any other discourses such as ‘nation-state’, development and so on. As this discourse of conservation practices also challenge the existence and survival of the tribal/indigenous people. The fact that there is a growing concern of conflicts between the conservation and the indigenous people (Dowie, 2005) around the world itself is a great concern in the school of tribal studies. Guha (2007) argues that the tribal who formerly regarded himself as the lord of the forest, was through a deliberate process, turned into a subject and placed at the mercy of the neo-liberalists. For the tribes, displacement from their habitation and environment is not just a mere livelihood, economic and physical displacement. It is the removal from their history, memory and representation (Schama 1996 cited in Brockington and Igoe, 2006).

Methodology of conservation

In the most updated version of conservation practices which is based on ‘community base conservation’ or ‘decentralized conservation’, it employs three main strategies such as a) providing compensation (or substitution); b) promoting alternative livelihood opportunities and c) creating a direct stake in conservation for local people (Western and Wright, 1994; Hulme and Murphree, 1999; Hutton and Leader-Williams, 2003 cited in Krishnan at. el. 2012). The fundamental belief of this approach is that “local participation in decisions and benefits could reduce hostility towards conservation efforts” (Western and Wright, 1994: 4) and to form local conservation initiatives which is compatible with the interests of outsiders (Western, 1994a:500). This approach is also influenced by the Common Property Resource that focuses on communities and collective action in management of resources for sustainable and equitable use of resources (Agrawal 1999b; Baland & Platteau 1996; Bromley & Cernea 1992; Jodha 1992; Orstrom 1990, 1992, 1999; Wade 1988).

However, this environmental governance from below lack people’s perspective and rights to decide in the decision making process and it serves like a model directed and guided by state, market and the conservation or environmental experts. Hence, this model remains as problematic as any other conservation models. Agrawal (1997) states that, “community-based conservation is unavoidably about a shift of power as well as about how power is exercised, by which loci of authority, and with what kinds of resistance”. There are various interest groups in this ‘operandi mondus’ of conservation practices which Tania Li (2009) described it as “an assemblage that brings together an array of agents (villagers, labourers, entrepreneurs, officials, activists, aid donors, scientists) and objectives (profit, pay, livelihoods, control, property, efficiency, sustainability, conservation)”. She further illustrates that it inclusive notion of the common good also promote exclusionary outcomes which not only in the site of conservation zones and protected areas but in other arenas too. She states that “legitimacy and regulation are the main powers at work in these exclusionary regimes, but force also plays a role, as does the market, as systems of incentives are devised to shape policies and practices at multiple scales” (Li, 2009, p. 60). The community based conservation is a discourse and a practice which has been widely adopted in a range of natural resource, institutional and political contexts (Brosius, Tsing and Zerner, 2005).

The community based conservation assumes that conservation today cannot be carried out by the local communities (Western, 1994a: 10). Besides, this does not conceptualize who is the community and provides a homogenous understanding of community. Without understanding the community and the context and alongwith it’s exclusionary, external or impose model of conservation, this approach equally faces more challenges both at theoretical and conceptual level and at the policy and practical level. In fact, the tribal peoples’ are equally engaged in forest protection and management whereby they seek to retain control over their natural resources which contradict with received little support or recognition from the state and international conservation base organizations. Among such examples, the Apatani landscape of Ziro valley represent how co-existence between people and nature has been perfected over centuries (UNESCO 2014) with their distinct socio-cultural belief and practices even in the changing times, growing populations and relationship with outside the world. They reject the idea of conservation imposed by the state and conservation organizations as they have their indigenous conceptualisation of conservation5. Such human-nature relationship also provides an opportunity to further explores and challenges the dominant discourses of environmental studies.

Today, the conservation projects also works as a source of resource, power and domination for the dominant social and political groups. Ramachandra Guha (2003:140) identifies the following five groups that together fuel for conservation and attempts to justify the wildlife conservation so strongly that it does not care about displacement or its impact. The five groups are 1) the City Dwellers and the Foreign Tourist, 2) Ruling Elites, 3) Biological Conservationist, 4) The Functionaries, and the 5) Biologist. He asserts that these five groups are united in their hostility to the farmers, herders, swiddeners and hunters who have lived in the wild well before it became a ‘park’ or ‘sanctuary’.

Therefore the conservation projects have become a desirable phenomenon not only for the sake of environment or biodiversity but also for the opportunities it provides in terms of employment, money making, aesthetic, etc. In the process, it the tribes or the minorities within a particular space are victimised. It also acts as a mechanism towards double victimisation of the people. For example, in Kaziranga National Park (KNP) of Assam, the people who inhabits around the parks are the unwanted citizens of the state like the Bengali muslims or Bengali and Adivasis who migrated from central part of India. Similarly, in the state of Mizoram, the conservation agenda is highly supported by the dominant ethnic groups as it aims to displace the ethnic minorities’ who shares an antagonistic relationship with both the state and the socially and politically dominant groups in the state. Such also echoes at the national level where the conservation projects does not face any resistances or apprehension from the middle class or any dominant class or caste as they are not the subject of displacement and victimisation.


The 2010 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) held in Aichi, Japan is indeed an eye opening in the discourse of tribal studies and policies when the target for conservation was further revised from 10 to 17% of land areas and 10% of oceans that is to be achieved by 2020. Most likely this target will be revised again in 2020 whereby the conservation projects will be more ambitious and the targets will be even bigger. Environmentalists like Edward O. Wilson (2016) argue for conserving half of the planet for nature (both terrestrial and marine). He advocates for setting big goal instead of aiming for incremental progress or goals with due magnitude of the problem. Historically such paradigms of conservation practices remained exclusive, imposing and imperial for the indigenous peoples. In the complex and dominant political economy and ecological framework, the conservation practices becoming inclusive and retaining control of the tribes over their environment remains ambiguous.

Since 1970s onwards there is a growing social and political consensus for the needs towards conservation due to the issues and problems of the environment. Today, undoubtedly the threats to environment and its biodiversity are real but the methodology of addressing such issues that victimised the tribes’ needs to be critically engaged. In the ninth World Trade Organization (WTO) of 2013 in Bali, Indonesia, the indigenous people expressed their concerns and voiced against globalization and its policies. They reaffirm responsibilities to ‘protect and defend their lands, water, territories, natural resources, culture and traditional knowledge’ and opposed commodification, privatisation and plunder of nature including green economy. At the policy level unlike in the western countries the indigenous or tribal studies in countries like India are still dominated in the binary debates of isolation with culture and identity versus assimilation with nation-state building and developmental discourse especially with the coming of powerful nationalist political party. In the academic space, the tribal studies are yet to engage in the paradigm of environmental discourses.


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