Tourism detrimental to Adivasis, nature, says study

While tourism promoters are listing Wayanad as one among the top 50 must-see destinations in the entire world, a comprehensive study conducted by two social anthropologists from Germany has found that nature tourism is turning a severe challenge not just to the region’s biodiversity and wildlife but also to its highly vulnerable tribal community.

As per the 2001 census, the population of Scheduled Tribes in Wayanad district is 17.43 per cent of its total population as compared to 1.14 per cent for Kerala overall.

“Introduced as a panacea for Wayanad’s agrarian and ecological crisis, tourism has resulted in ‘zooification’ and ‘exoticisation’ of tribals and that verges on racism,” observes Daniel Munster of the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Martin Luther University in Halle-Wittneberg, and Ursula Munster of Department of Anthropology, Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich.

The findings of their six-year-long research activity, accessed by The Hindu, reveal the other side of nature tourism, which turned highly exploitative in the case of tribals and environment in Wayanad.

Non-agrarian livelihood

As per their findings, the settler cash-crop farmers of Wayanad who hitherto used environmentally destructive capitalist farming processes, struggling against wildlife, Adivasis and the forest department are now partially shifting to a post-agrarian economy that includes non-agrarian livelihoods and large-scale investment in tourism.

“In their practice of nature tourism, they ironically value and commodify the same forests, wildlife and tribal people. These three elements were seen by them for many decades as obstacles to capitalist development,” the study says.

The prevailing agrarian crisis in Wayanad is the outcome of ‘de-peasantisation’ or transition from land-based livelihoods to market-based ones, the study adds. “The low productivity of degraded agricultural fields forces small holders to sell their land, making it available for real-estate investors, who have been responsible for the mushrooming of cottages and resorts that block elephant corridors and water sources. Moreover, ginger cultivation outside the State has brought new agrarian capital to the district to invest heavily in tourism that turned exploitative to local communities.”

Land reforms

The researchers say the land reforms initiated by successive governments in the State had very little redistributive effect in Wayanad. “It legalised large-scale land grabbing by settlers and bypassed claims of the Advasi population. Now tourism is helping commodification of Wayanad’s nature and culture for middle-class consumption,” they say.

Quoting official data, they say Wayanad’s tourism is predominantly domestic. The share of international visitors was marginal ranging from a 0.28 per cent in 2002 to 0.4 per cent in 2004.

“Critically analysing a project of the District Tourism Promotion Council (DTPC) to take the visitors to tribal huts, they quote an young officer who encourages the visitors to donate ‘a sum of at least Rs.100 to the respective family as a contribution to the village economy.’ The tribal hamlets are now turning ‘ethnic village zoos’ where Adivasi images are preserved on the same conceptual level as elephant encounters and other wildlife adventures.

“All the tourist sites in Wayanad are ecologically wasted and tribal temporary employees at each spot recruited under eco-tourism initiative are just cheap labour,” they feel. The participatory forest management initiatives in Wayanad are turning labour reserves of Adivasis for manual forest works, they say.

They suggest more involvement of Adivasis in the formulation of tourism policies and restrictions on nature tourism.

More In: Kerala | National