Is there room for India's nomads?
Muslim Van Gujjars have herded water buffalos in the Himalayas for over a thousand years: Their tradition is now being challenged as an intrusion on, rather than a part of, the natural environment.
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On reaching a fork in the route, with no sign of compromise by park officials, Dhumman decided to head somewhere different this summer, where maybe a couple thousand rupees (around $50) and a few liters of milk, given to a ranger, was all the permission they'd need.Skip to next paragraph
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Fighting their eviction from parklands, Van Gujjars insist that they're a natural part of the environment and help maintain balance within the forests they rely upon for survival. They assert that because they've been returning to the same areas for hundreds of years, their grazing practices must be sustainable. Conservationists, however, point to the substantial size and appetite of buffaloes as surely destructive to forests and grasslands.
"Buffalo herders are banned from the park because overgrazing and trampling causes environmental degradation," says G.S. Rawat, a professor at the Wildlife Institute of India.
The actual environmental impact of Van Gujjar herds has never been determined, says Nabi Jha, a scientist studying alpine grasslands in Uttarakhand. "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. Rotational grazing is often good for these meadows."
In mid-May Uttarakhand park authorities abruptly reversed themselves, allowing Van Gujjars to enter this year. It was two weeks too late for Dhumman, who was by then deep in an unfamiliar forest to the east, too far to reverse course.
The tribe's future hinges on whether its families will be recognized in Uttarakhand as beneficiaries under India's Forest Rights Act of 2006, which grants rights to "traditional forest dwellers" to the lands they've relied on for generations.
In Uttarakhand, the act is scheduled for implementation this year. If Van Gujjar claims are legitimized by committees established by the state's Tribal Welfare Department, their right to migrate should be assured; if their claims are denied, future migration will become more difficult, as families will have to scramble for new summer pastures and might be completely shut out of the highlands for good. For Dhumman, this year was hard enough. Usually, his migration lasts about 20 days. This time his family was on the trail for 40. Along the way, children fell ill and pack animals went lame, sometimes forcing men to shoulder full saddlebags on the trail. Once, a hailstorm swept a tree off a cliff; it fell on a young buffalo, crushing its leg. Refusing to abandon it, Dhumman splinted the leg, and the buffalo was carried over a 12,500-foot mountain pass.
Upon reaching a ramshackle hut perched on the grassy slope where they'd spend the summer, the family was disappointed. The roof and walls would have to be repaired before it could meet the definition of shelter, and Dhumman's brother's family would have to build an entirely new hut nearby. Compared with their usual camp, 4,000 feet lower, everything was more difficult. Weather was temperamental, and ice coated their tent at night. They were more than 15 miles (and 6,000 feet in elevation) from the nearest village where they could buy provisions, so food was rationed and everyone was perpetually hungry. But perhaps worst of all, for which even the staggering views of the snow-covered, 20,721-foot Bandarpunch massif couldn't compensate, it just didn't feel like home.
The stress of the journey had taken its toll. Jamila, Dhumman's wife, suggested she'd be open to a government settlement program – long anathema to the fiercely independent Van Gujjars – if one was offered: "I never wanted to settle before," she said, "because we used to be free to move around.... But now we have no security. Living in a village, sure, we'd lose a lot, but at least we'd know where we'd be."