Forest Society and Colonialism

While studying history, we often read about kings, and especially about the victorious ones. If other groups of the society are ever mentioned they come from villages or towns, i.e. from the mainstream society. We seldom get to read about those who are even beyond the fringes of the society. Tribes, i.e. people living in and around forests are such people. In this lesson, you will learn about the effects of colonialism on forests and forest society. You will mainly read about the forests and tribes of India. Additionally, you will learn about what happened in the forests of Java.

Diversity in forests has been disappearing very quickly. During the period of industrialization (between 1700 and 1995), 13.9 million square km of forest was cleared for industrial uses, cultivation, pasture and fuel-wood. This turns out to be 9.3% of the total area of the world. Disappearance of forests is called deforestation. The process of deforestation began many centuries ago, but became more systematic and extensive during the colonial period.

The scale of deforestation during this period can be gauged from the increase in area under cultivation. About one-sixth of India’s landmass was under cultivation in 1600. At present, almost half of the landmass in India has come under cultivation. This translates to more than 200% increase.

Colonial Rule and Forest Cover

Colonizers all over the world thought that uncultivated land should be taken over so that that could be used for more commercial purposes. The production of commercial crops like jute, sugar, wheat and cotton increased during this period. This happened because of increasing demand from a growing population in Europe. Food-grain was required to feed the growing population and raw materials were needed for the growing industries. The cultivated area increased by 6.7 million hectares between 1880 and 1920 in India.

Shipping Industry in England: The oak forests were disappearing in England by the early twentieth century. This created scarcity for the ship building industry in Britain. Ships were quite important for military power of the British. They found good source of wood for shipbuilding in the Indian forests. This resulted in large scale deforestation in the Indian forests.

Railways: The spread of railways from the 1850s created new demand for timber. Timber was required for making sleepers for the railway line. Each mile of railway track needed 1,760 to 2,000 sleepers. About 25,500 km of track had been laid by 1890. You can calculate the number of sleepers needed to 25,500 km of railway line and number of trees which were chopped for this.


The British also introduced large plantations for growing tea, coffee and rubber. European planters were given vast areas of land at cheap rates so that they could develop plantations. The area was cleared of forests to make way for tea or coffee plantations.

To properly control and manage the forest resources in India, the British appointed a German expert, Dietrich Brandis, as the first Inspector General of Forests in India. Brandis introduced a new system and began to train people in conservation of forest resources. The Indian Forest Service was set up in 1864 and the Indian Forest Act was introduced in 1865.

Grazing, felling of trees and any use of forest produce was made illegal and punishable offence. In the name of scientific forestry, they replaced natural vegetation with single type of trees like sal or eucalyptus. The modern conservationists tell this system as monoculture and argue that it is not good for the environment.

The Indian Forest Act was amended twice, once in 1878 and then in 1927. The 1878 Act divided forests into three categories: reserved, protected and village forests. Now, people could not take anything from reserved forests. However, they could take forest produce from protected and village forests. Earlier, people used to take food, medicines, firewood and many other raw materials from forests. The new laws made their life miserable. They could no longer take their herds for grazing nor collect firewood. They were now forced to steal wood from the forests. But there always was the risk of being caught and harassed by the forest guards.

Forest Rules and Cultivation

Shifting cultivation has been prevalent among many tribal communities in India. This is a type of subsistence farming in which a small patch of land is cleared by slashing and burning the vegetation. Ash is then mixed with the soil and seeds are sown after the first rain of the monsoon. The patch of land is utilised for a couple of years and is then left fallow for 10 to 12 years.

The colonial officials regarded this practice as harmful for the forests. They were afraid that an accidental fire could destroy valuable timber. Moreover, the shifting cultivators were difficult to control in revenue collection. The government hence banned shifting cultivation.

This affected many families. Many people were forced to work in low paying jobs and some others were forced to migrate to cities in search of jobs. However, some people tried to resist the new laws through small and large rebellions.

Life of Hunters

Many tribal people used to hunt some animals, like deer and partridges for food. Hunting was banned and anyone caught hunting was punished. But the Indian Rajas and the British officials continue to hunt large and ferocious animals. They thought that killing the ferocious animals would help in making the life much safer. Moreover, hunting of tiger or lion was considered to be a sign of bravery and valour. Many rajas and British officials used to display the skin and heads of animals as prized possession.

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