Local People and the Global Tiger: An Environmental History of the Sundarbans
Global Environment 3 (2009): 72–95
The present article investigates the significance of the Sundarbans as a natural reserve or buffer area (a resource of yet unknown magnitude) in pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial South Asia. In pre-colonial India this region was, by and large, outside the purview of the state and occasionally served as a natural reserve in more ways than one. In British India the vast mangrove swamp of the Sundarbans became an important location where European “Selves” and Indian “Others” started interacting. The Sundarbans jungle became the object of European thoughts and actions. A new systematic endeavour to manage this unknown and unique natural frontier began under the forceful thrust of European enlightenment. This quest for knowledge went on throughout colonial rule and even after Indian independence in 1947. The British colonial government sought to manage an area they had little understanding of, and hence incurred in a series of unforeseen problems which posed new challenges to the colonial project in the Sundarbans. In this area, the tiger had always been at the centre of people's economic, social, cultural and religious life. This was the case in the past and still is today. During the Raj, the colonial drive to maximize revenue forced the inhabitants of the Sundarbans to come face to face with the tigers. In post-colonial India, the introduction of Project Tiger turned the Sundarbans into a local theatre of a larger campaign.
The present paper also seeks to explore the complex pattern of the production of knowledge and its short term and long-term implications. I argue that the human endeavour to manage unknown frontiers often produces new complications and brings to fresh engagements with new unforeseen challenges. This is all the more true of the last quarter of the twentieth century, when the impact of capitalism, politics and science was more distinctly felt at the global level. In the 1960’s and 70’s European wildlife biologists made a strong case of the fact that only in the forests of India and the mangrove swamps of the Sundarbans there were tigers in sufficient numbers for an effort to save this endangered species to have any likelihood of succeeding. The rhetoric of wildlife conservation fuelled a universal campaign which disregarded local knowledge systems. This campaign led to the launching, in 1973, of Project Tiger in nine reserve forests of India, including the Sundarbans. Project Tiger led to friction between the universal/global and the local, giving rise to new unexpected troubles which needed to be addressed.
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