How Forests Think is a now classic anthropological study of the forests of the Ecuadorian Amazon and one of the communities that live in them, the Avila Runa. The anthropologist Eduardo Kohn takes seriously the idea of a sentient ecology and crafts a compelling narrative of the forest as a coherent symbolic and communicative system that thinks and talks and conveys its intentions to all the life forms that know how to receive this communication.

This is no mere cosmological fantasy that plays with ideas of culture or belief – it is a dense ecological ethnography that pushes against the limits of thought, opening up new possibilities for understanding human–non-human entanglements.

If Indian forests could think (and talk) what would they tell us, 75 years after they were made the ecological property of a newly created nation-state?

First, perhaps they would say that the capacities and life potential of those with the ability to listen to and decode the forest’s signs have been systematically eroded and undermined. This erosion, which some have termed ecocide, is only partially captured by the idea that their rights are being violated or denied.

First under colonial rule, then under a newly independent, industrialising nation-state, and finally, to service the endless demands of a neoliberal economy – forest-dwellers have been evicted, displaced, or deemed illegal for merely existing.

To reassert their ties to the land, forest-dwelling communities have developed practices of resistance and negotiation with the state and law ranging from armed rebellion to embodied, nonviolent protest, valiantly navigating alien legal and governmental systems.

The forest and its peoples have constantly evolved new and creative vocabularies of engaging with dominant states, including in the language of citizenship and democratic protest. Despite the sustained attacks on and attempts to dilute the Forest Rights Act of 2006, scholars and activists concur that it is one of the last remaining bulwarks against the wholesale destruction of Indian forests.

Nonetheless, the rampant destruction of physical forests and the unequal terms and speed with which Adivasi and other forest-dependent peoples are drawn into participating in mainstream culture means that an autonomous language of communication with nature and its cycles becomes denuded, a vocabulary shrinks, coming to be shrouded in shame, loss, and forgetting.

Second, forests might tell us that they are among the last remaining “sinks” or reserves of biodiversity. The Biological Diversity Act of 2002 belatedly recognised this, and if implemented seriously can protect locally grounded understandings of integrated and interlinked ecosystems, privileging the perspectives and knowledge of forest users.

The essay “The Tiger and the Honeybee” by anthropologist Savyasaachi captures this idea for the Simlipal tiger reserve which was zoned in the 1980s to revive tiger populations, allowing for commercial logging and tourism, but displacing the Kharia Adivasis and criminalising their use of the forest to collect biomass or fuel. The Kharia were alert to the resulting disbalances in food availability in the reserve, surmising that the crucial species was in fact the humble honeybee which sustains the cyclical food and sunlight system required for nourishment to all species.

The forest thus reminds us that biodiverse environs are crucial for long-term ecological sustainability, but also cautions that the language of hotpots, sinks, or registers are more useful to non-forest interests of mapping and enumerating than to the vitality of actual living ecosystems.

In the Baiga territory of the Maikal hills for example, the forest department’s operations in the interests of preserving Sal all but destroyed the mahul creeper which clings to Sal trees and grows along with them. The mahul bela is an important source of fruit, medicine and fibrous material as well as making its appearance in songs and stories. Recent niche efforts to revive the creeper show tangible microhabitat benefits.

Finally, the forest is a rich source of plural metaphors – from politics (consider the current controversy on the symbolism of snarling lions!) to epic literature to films, the forest has compelled reflection on civilisational themes and challenges such as caste inequality, predation, asceticism, renunciation, wildness, and now, climate change.

Forests have been central to consolidating the power of the state, both in material and symbolic terms. In colonial India, forests became emblematic of the wild and ungovernable nature of landscapes and peoples. Bringing them under a legal/scientific and institutional regime was as much about maximising the revenue potential of forests as about colonising their meaning through the remaking of natural terrain and the forced “civilising” of rebellious native groups.

The meaning of a forest quite literally came up for debate before the courts during the Godavarman case where the court had to settle for the ‘dictionary definition’ of a forest. Since then, the Indian State of the Forest Report has consistently used ‘tree cover’ as a substitute for forest, a bureaucratic-technical sleight of hand that experts have repeatedly criticised.

The centrality of trees to defining a forest was firmly entrenched during the colonial phase, when the orderly landscaping of forests to harvest the most commercially valuable trees was the priority. The newly independent Indian state prioritised heavy industry and large-scale developmental projects that were land-intensive.

Forests were subsumed under the category “land” rather than being valuable or useful in themselves. Estimates of land-acquisition-related deforestation vary widely but concur that deforestation has occurred steadily and progressed rapidly since pre-independence, displacing many millions even before the term “project-affected people” entered the policy lexicon.

The conjunction in the 1970s of the influence of a rising global environmental consciousness and a national government with some affinity for environmental concerns had mixed consequences for forests. Project Tiger initiated a formal conservation regime to urgently respond to what was seen as a crisis of extinction, but the result was an exclusive or fortress conservation model centred on charismatic megafauna.

Regions such as the Sundarbans delta became identified as the last home and refuge of the “Royal Bengal” tiger, setting off the spate of social as well as human wildlife conflicts and antagonisms. The late 1970s and early ’80s saw the entrenchment of the forest department’s powers and central control over forests.

The power to decide on forest diversion shifted from the states to the centre, usufruct rights were severely curtailed, and the logic of ‘compensatory afforestation’ was enshrined in the Forest Conservation Act of 1980. First it was guided by a logic of ‘tree for a tree’, replaced then by two trees for every tree—that is, the diversion of forests had to be compensated by planting trees elsewhere.

But, as critics have pointed out, trees are not substitutable by other trees, and plantations are no replacement for old-growth, mixed forests.

Now, tree loss can be compensated with money, swelling the coffers of CAMPA, or the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority.

Since at least the 1970s, a growing “environmentalism of the poor” has mounted a searing critique of the state and corporate takeover of forests, river valleys, mountains, and coasts, and fought against evictions and displacement.

This has borne fruit in the passing of progressive legislation such as the Forest Rights Act in 2006, which etched into the law the radical idea that the forest has always been the legitimate domain of Adivasi and forest-dependent communities.

Global mining and other extractive industries have been vastly influential in undermining these hard-won gains, and now view forest lands primarily as mineral reserves, forest legislation as an obstacle to accessing mineral wealth, and the state, law, and paramilitaries as accomplices in removing this obstacle.

The governmental, legal, and political history of forests in independent India is well-documented. What we need are better listening mechanisms to hear the voices of those who observe, record, and interact with forest systems most closely.

These must go beyond the language of claims and rights to call forth genres of writing, speech, or collective action that centre communities on the frontlines of ecological degradation without romanticising their role as the last remaining bulwarks against climate change – for romanticisation may go hand in hand with extinction.

Maya Ratnam is Assistant Professor of Social and Political Sciences at Ahmedabad University. She is a Fellow of the New India Foundation and is currently working on the manuscript of a book on people-forest relations in central India.

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