Floral battles: past and present

by Priya Rangan

As children growing up in Dehra Dun several decades before it became the capital of the state of Uttarakhand in the western Indian Himalayas, we spent a fair amount of time playing outdoors. It was a small town at the time, so there was plenty of outdoors, open space with some variety of vegetation, home gardens or, if you ventured a little further out, farm plots. Most afternoons, we’d spend time rushing about in the playground, and when tiring of it, wander along the canals and by-lanes in the neighbourhood, chattering away. Sometimes, as we walked along lanes lined with lantana hedges, we’d pluck a whole lot of flowers, pull the little florettes off the flower-heads and throw these at each other. As far as we knew, that’s what lantana was for, spontaneous floral confetti battles.

Seeing lantana in BRT Hills Reserve areas during our recent field visit brought back these childhood memories. There is a lot of lantana there, plenty to keep children fighting floral confetti battles every day for years on end. As I listened to our research collaborator, Nitin Rai and his colleague C. Madegowda talk about the politics involved in managing lantana in the reserve areas, another clutch of memories from my doctoral fieldwork in the forests of the Uttarakhand Himalayas came to mind: the Forest Department’s stance towards people from villages adjoining forested areas. I remembered how its officials were preoccupied with asserting control over the actions of people from these communities, making sure they were constantly aware of the power and authority of the Forest Department in the area. There was little interest among the officials to learn about local knowledge and experiences of land and forest management. The boundaries of ‘knowledge’ were clear: there was a line separating the scientific knowledge of foresters from the unscientific, self-interested, and opportunistic attitudes of local populations. This line had to be defended and policed, no matter what. I found it both familiar and strange that despite all the famous experimentation with Joint Forest Management in India over the past three decades, the Forest Department remained resolutely committed to fortifying and defending this boundary.

The issue of contention in the BRT Hills is how to manage the lantana that has spread widely and vigorously within the Forest Reserve and adjoining settlement areas where the Soliga tribal communities reside. The Soliga communities have lived in this area for a long time, combining hunting, gathering, subsistence farming, and wage labour in forestry and coffee plantations. The lantana is not an unfamiliar plant to them; they have seen it spread, they understand its characteristics, and know how to control its growth within forests using a combination of fire and clearing. They also have the hard-fought-and-won rights accorded by the Forest Protection Act of 2006, which should give them the ability to negotiate with the Forest Department not only over access to resources, but also the management of forests in their tribal areas. Combine the two, their knowledge of managing lantana and their rights under the Forest Protection Act, and there should, in principle, be a straightforward solution to controlling the spread of lantana in the BRT hills. But it isn’t so from the Forest Department’s point of view; it refuses to acknowledge this approach and, in contrast, appears to hold a fairly benign view towards the spread of lantana within its Reserve areas. The reasons behind this view are manifold, some of which have been described in Ramesh Kannan’s work (see the references in Christian’s blog), and others which we will explore in our collaborative study. Who’d have thought that lantana would become ammunition for something beyond children’s floral battles?

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