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India’s Conflict Diamonds: Buxwaha

A new ecological social contract may emerge if the Save Buxwaha Forest movement attains its objectives.
Baxwaha dimond.

They say diamonds are forever. So is the ecological damage diamond mines cause, say environmental activists protesting against the proposed diamond mine in Madhya Pradesh’s Buxwaha forest. Blood or Conflict Diamonds is a term used for organised crime networks in African countries such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, Congo, Angola etc, where the money from diamond smuggling is used to fund endless civil wars. A diamond mine in Buxwaha may generate another kind of conflict, one between man and nature.

The Buxwaha forest movement is different from earlier environmental struggles in some crucial ways:

Digital Environmentalism

Social movements now harness the power of social media to mobilise and amplify support. India Against Corruption movement demonstrated how social media can help mobilise people for public issues and influence government policy. But when it comes to mass support for environmental issues, there is a vacuum. Greta Thunberg’s #FridaysForFuture movement created an online buzz but has limited reach among schoolchildren, millennials and ecophiles. Moreover, it was big on slogans but fell short on specific demands. #StopClimateChange is a simple enough slogan to attract a mass audience but so vague that it allows governments to escape accountability. Movements are bound to fail if they are unable to produce actionable policy proposals.

This is not the case with the Save Buxwaha Forest movement. Hundreds of digital environmental activists have created a narrative with a single-point agenda: stop the proposed diamond mine project at Buxwaha. Hundreds of thousands have supported it and specifically demanded that the government scrap the mine. Specific demands place additional pressure on authorities, leaving the government less space to create ambiguity, manipulate the discourse and escape accountability.

In the eighties, Medha Patkar toured the country to generate support for the Narmada Bachao Andolan among non-tribal, non-project affected people who lived outside the Narmada Valley. Today, social media is available to connect the affected tribal communities in the Buxwaha forest with environmentalists across India. This is why digital solidarities could get created, forging social bonds that are otherwise difficult to construct.

Cross-Class Environmentalism

Most analysts classify Indian environmental movements as Middle-Class Environmentalism and Environmentalism of the Poor. According to the historian Ramchandra Guha, Indian environmental movements are in fact conflicts between different social groups over who controls natural resources and for what purpose. The Save Silent Valley movement in Kerala during the 1970s, had scientists, activists, professionals and intellectuals pressurise the government to not interfere with the pristine and virgin forests in the Western Ghats. It is perhaps an apt instance of post-Independence middle-class environmentalism. Movements such as Chipko Andolan in Uttarakhand, where rural-tribal communities claimed collective ownership of forests by opposing contractors who wanted to cut forests for commercial-industrial uses, is the latter kind of environmentalism.

With urban tech-savvy citizens now mobilised to protect the forest rights of tribals in the Buxwaha forests, we get an encouraging sign that these two strands of environmentalism are intermingling.

Intriguingly, the urban citizenry is using modern tools and digital devices to fight for the tribal inhabitants of Buxwaha forest from the dangerous dimensions of modernity: ecological degradation, destructive development and fragmentation of wildlife habitats. The two dimensions of modernity, one that empowers citizens to take environmentally responsible action and the other that attacks the natural environment, is a phenomenon we are sure to witness again.

Diminishing Faultlines between Wildlife Conservationists and Tribal Rights Activists

India is home to two vibrant strands of environmental movements, which unfortunately interact and collaborate much less than they should. The first is focused on wildlife conservation, and its members dedicate their efforts to save biodiversity and expand the area under national parks and sanctuaries. The second group fight for tribal rights over forest resources, arguing that the forests belong to their original inhabitants and that the tribals have protected forests from degradation.

On many occasions, conservationists and rights activists confront rather than support one another. Some conservationists feel tribals harm the wildlife, whereas tribal communities say they have peacefully coexisted with wildlife for millennia. Jaipal Singh Munda, a tribal leader, had famously said in the Constituent Assembly, “You cannot teach Tribals democracy, in fact you should learn it from them.” Today’s tribal rights activists would say the same thing about biodiversity conservation—you can learn it from tribal communities.

The Buxwaha issue can potentially forge long-term partnerships between these two groups. For, the diamond mine threatens to displace 5,000-7,000 tribals who live in the Buxwaha forests. It is nearly 15 years since the Forest Rights Act was enacted, yet most tribals in the Buxwaha region are yet to benefit from it. Even if they are denied legal rights, the tribal communities still depend on the bamboo, tendu leaves, teak, mahua fruit and flowers of Buxwaha’s mixed deciduous forests. Tribal communities, already socially excluded, are bound to suffer from double vulnerability if they lose access to the forests due to the mine.

The Buxwaha forests also form a forest corridor between two important protected areas—the Panna Tiger Reserve and the Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary. Already, the Panna reserve has had a tryst with the diamond mafia. After mining was banned inside the reserve, the diamond mafia joined hands with tiger poachers to eliminate wildlife within the forest. The aim was to get the area denotified as a forest reserve so that diamond mining could continue unabated. It took the Forest Department great efforts to end this unholy nexus. Now, if diamond mining starts in Buxwaha next door, it could be the perfect opportunity for the diamond mafia to resume operations in the Panna forests. Panna’s diamonds may have sparkled, but they were India’s Blood Diamonds. The only difference is that they were smeared by the blood of not humans but tigers.

To wildlife enthusiasts, regardless of Panna’s troubling past, next-door Nauradehi promises a bright future. In January 2020, the Supreme Court of India permitted the translocation of African cheetahs from Namibia to the Nauradehi sanctuary. Once Indian authorities execute this plan, Nauradehi will become a star attraction on the wildlife map, as no other Indian forest can boast of having Cheetahs.

After decades of effort, Panna’s tiger population is bouncing back and cheetahs are being introduced next door to Buxwaha. The open, deciduous forests of Buxwaha are the perfect landscape for an excess population of cheetahs and tigers (and other wildlife) to spill over and make Buxwaha’s buffer forests their permanent home. Such spilling over is not mere speculation. The authorities are going ahead with the Ken-Betwa river-linking project, which will submerge around 9,000 hectares of the pristine Panna reserve forest. The fauna will have to migrate to nearby areas. The ecological importance of Buxwaha dawns when we consider the inevitable submergence of Panna’s forests.

Therefore, tribal activists and wildlife conservationists, who are often at loggerheads over perceptions of what is good for the environment, suddenly find themselves on the same side in the Buxwaha debate. Combining forces is not only necessary but their only option to safeguard the interests of the tribals and the wildlife.

Disorganised Resistance?

Why, despite honest efforts to highlight important neglected issues, do people’s movements often not achieve their objectives in India? Some would argue that social movements still fail due to a lack of organisation. Often, the resources, leadership or discipline needed to develop an organised resistance against destructive projects are in short supply. This, despite best intentions, proves the Achilles’ heel of social movements.

When I met the self-taught linguist Ganesh Devy, during an informal discussion with social activists, he said something radically different about resistance and organisation. According to him, well-organised movements are easy targets for the State and the corporate sector. Why? Because being organised gives a movement a visible target, such as an influential spokesperson and public face, or a charismatic and powerful leader in charge. To target the leader successfully is to end the movement. Besides, a well-organised movement is easily surveilled. To be organised is beneficial, but also attracts unnecessary attention. A “disorganised resistance” with a common goal, he told me and a can, conversely, inspire a range of different groups and individuals who may act independently, within their domains, according to their capacities. Such a model of resistance allows an exchange of ideas and communication on a horizontal plane. There is no top-down hierarchy.

It seems activists of the Save Buxwaha Campaign have grasped this idea, and it appears to be working. No central organisation is in its driver’s seat, although Madhya Pradesh has a rich network of environmental organisations, born largely to combat the ecological tragedy of the Bhopal Gas Leak in 1984. Most of them seem involved to varying extents. On 5 June, World Environment Day, an obscure NGO named No Future Without Nature started an online campaign against the proposed mine, which received a thumping response.

On the ground, volunteers belonging to groups such as the Paryavaran Bachao Andolan are recreating the Chipko Andolan by hugging trees inside the proposed mine area. A group of lawyers moved the National Green Tribunal bench in Bhopal, which has stayed the felling of trees for the proposed mine. Another lawyer moved the Supreme Court demanding the project be scrapped. Thousands of environmentally-conscious people are uploading videos and other posts on social media against the mine. Some of these actions may be coordinated, but most are organic.

That said, the “disorganised” resistance stage also seems to be nearing its end as a confrontation with the State and corporate entities look unavoidable. Now, activists are keen to organise to channel their collective strength, which is why the Save Buxwaha Committee/ Buxwaha Jungle Bachao Abhiyaan was born.

Emerging Ecological Social Contract?

The United Nations has declared 2020-30 as the Decade of Ecosystem Restoration. UN “experts feel that to ensure that by the end of the 21st century, environmental conditions remain bearable and liveable for humans, we must conserve existing untouched natural environments and restore degraded environments to their pristine quality. This means humans must reduce their demand for natural resources. This is a revolutionary idea that implies a paradigm shift for all of us, as the premise of our current modernity is the limitless extraction of resources from nature. This is a paradox, for science tells us that endless carbon emissions are due to fossil-fuel use, but we also depend on them for survival, especially in nations still trying to uplift millions from poverty. Further, fossil-fuel alternatives and renewable energy are yet to catch up with conventional sources.

Yet there is a way forward! It lies in developing alternatives and rejecting or reducing demand for ‘unnecessary goods that harm nature’. The Save Buxwaha Forest campaign may become a harbinger of a new socio-ecological contract, as it focuses on the second dimension: reducing the availability of an unnecessary product—diamonds.

Diamonds are indeed the hardest natural substance, a physical property that is the source of their intrinsic value. However, in its jewellery form, the monetary and aesthetic value of a diamond is based on human imagination and nothing else. (The market has convinced some of us that a marriage proposal is incomplete without a diamond!) Society has attached romantic notions with diamonds, though they fulfil no fundamental need. Diamonds are also capable of drilling for long periods without significant wear, which gives them industrial use, but alternatives are being searched for that too. Life will go on without them.

The Save Buxwaha Forest movement presents an important pathway to a sustainable future before us all. It is a race against time to save the earth from ecological devastation, and we will have to manage our resources far more efficiently to get past this.

The author is an independent commentator. His research interests include environmental politics. The views are personal.

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