Forest Society and Colonialism

New Trades

The new trade was mainly controlled by the British people with some participation of Indian merchants. For the forest dwellers no significant opportunities emerged. Many people from Jharkhand, Orissa, and Chhattisgarh were forced to work in tea gardens of Assam and West Bengal. But the working condition in the tea gardens was very bad. People were given low wages and there was no permission to come back to their home villages in between. Many nomadic tribes who had earlier been engaged in trade of forest produce continued to do so.

The Story of Bastar

Bastar is located in the southernmost part of Chhattisgarh. Many tribal communities, like Maria and Muria Gonds, Dhruwas, Bhatras and Halbas, live in this area. They speak different languages but share common customs and beliefs. These tribal people had always been dependent on forests and had developed the practice of keeping the forest in high reverence.

The Fears of the People

When about two-thirds of the forest was made into reserve forest and shifting cultivation, hunting and collection of forest produce was stopped, it disturbed the people of Bastar. Some villagers were allowed to stay in the reserved forests. But they had to work for free for the forest department. The work included cutting and transporting trees and protecting the forest from fires. Such villages came to be known as ‘forest villages’.

But most of the people were forced to leave their villages. Their problem was further aggravated by the famines of 1899-1900 and 1907-08. People began to group together. The Dhurwas were the people to take initiative. There was no single leader but Gunda Dhur from village Nethanar was an important figure in that rebellion. The rebellion began in 1910 and every village contributed towards the rebellion expenses. The rebels looted the bazaars, houses of officials and traders. They burnt schools and police stations.

The British sent troops to suppress the rebellion. Negotiations by adivasi leaders failed and the British surrounded their camps and fired upon them. Most of the villages became deserted as people took refuge in the jungles. It took three months (February-May) to control the rebellion.

Work on reservation of forest was suspended for the time being. The area to be reserved was reduced to about half of what was earlier planned. This was a major victory for the rebels.


Java is in Indonesia and it used to be a Dutch colony. This was the place where the new forest management policy was initiated by the colonial rulers.

The Woodcutters of Java

The Kalangs of Java were a community of skilled forest cutters and shifting cultivators. Their expertise was valuable for the kings, for building palaces. Their importance can be gauged from the fact that when the Mataram kingdom of Java split in 1755, the 6,000 Kalang families were equally divided between the two kingdoms.

When the Dutch began to gain control over the forests in the eighteenth century, they also tried to take the Kalangs under their control. They resisted by attacking the Dutch fort in 1770 but their rebellion was suppressed.

Dutch Scientific Forestry

New forest laws were introduced by the Dutch. Villagers' access to the forests was restricted. Permission was given to cut wood only for specific purposes; like making boats and houses. Grazing was banned in young stands. Wood could not be transported and travelling on forest road by horse cart or cattle was also banned. Wood was cut on large scale to meet the demand for railways and shipping. In 1882 the number of sleepers exported from Java alone was 280,000.

Rent was introduced on villagers who cultivated in the forest. Some villages were exempted in lieu of providing free labour and buffalo for cutting and transporting the wood. This was known as the blandongdiensten system.

Samin’s Challenge

Around 1890, Surontiko Samin of Randublatung village, a teak forest village, began questioning state ownership of the forest. He began to convince his folks about the wrong policies of the colonial rulers. Many families joined that rebellion. People protested by lying down on their land when the Dutch came to survey it. Many others refused to pay taxes or fines or do work.

War and Deforestation

The two World Wars had major impacts on forests. More trees were cut to meet the wartime needs of Britain.

In Java, the Dutch followed ‘scorched earth’ policy just before the Japanese occupation of the region. They destroyed sawmills and burnt huge piles of giant teak logs. The Japanese continued the exploitation of forests. They forced forest villagers to cut down forests. For many villagers, it was an opportunity to expand cultivated area.

Current Scenario: From the 1980s governments in most of the countries began to realize the faults of so called scientific forestry. They also realized that forest act generally instigated conflicts. The conservationists realized that there was an urgent need to transform the rules. Over the period of time, rules have changed and have mellowed down. Forest authorities are now taking initiative to minimize conflicts between the government and the local people.

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