Last month I travelled to Ranthambhore National Park in Rajasthan to go on a safari with my best friend who was visiting from Beirut. Another friend had arranged the trip as she works with the extraordinary organisation Dastkar. What I love about the way that Dastkar works is that it is not a charity. It is an organisation that is dedicated to empowering women to build skills and a livelihood in such a way that they lessen the impact they have on the environment around them.
When the project began in 1989, the families who live around the national park were regularly going inside the park to chop down trees to burn so they could cook their meals each day. It was illegal, but these families couldn’t afford gas cylinders so they relied on wood to make charcoal. As a result, the number of trees reduced drastically and in turn so did the deer population and then followed the tiger population. But once the women of Dastkar began introducing a traditional crafts as a way to build livelihood, things changed. Women started earning and saving money and are financially independent. What’s great about Dastkar is that it works holistically: rather than only look at helping women earn money, they built up skills in craft traditions that were dying out, helped women become independent, enabled the environment to thrive, and as a result the deer and tiger population shot up! It shows how interconnected we are and why a solution that only deals with economics or only the environment won’t be sustainable in the long term. Also, it’s not an NGO; these women are earning a living and not taking handouts, which more and more I feel is a far better model for sustainability.
Some of the craft work being done at Dastkar may look familiar to products made by Joy at Work. That’s because my friend Devika has encouraged the women at Dastkar to expand their skills and crafts to include upcycling. One of the environmental pressures on the villagers and the animals in the forest is the increasing tourism industry. On the one hand, it brings economic prosperity to the people; on the other hand, it also brings a lot more plastic and a great deal more garbage. Most of the hotels are not doing much about their waste (though Ranthambhore Bhag where I stayed does compost and contribute its tetrapaks to these Dastkar projects). Devika has taught the women to make embroidered bags out of cement sacks and tetrapak bags as well. They also keep scraps of all fabrics they use in their craft work and save them to make patchwork bags, quilts, and other products that make sure as little cloth as possible winds up in a landfill.
To be fair, the villagers also contribute their fair share of garbage. One lovely aspect of the national park is that it is open to the villagers, many of whom go to the Ranthambhore Fort inside the National Park in order to pray at one of the Jain or Hindu temples inside the Fort. I love the idea that this is a living space that still gets used by the people in this community. However, the amount of trash produced by villagers who are buying tea and tiffin (chip bags) along the way or who are purchasing offerings for Ganesha is astonishing and can be seen in the images below. I’m sure the tourists coming through just follow suit and hence the trashed historical site you see below.
We did spot tigers on 2 occasions, by the way. The first we could see him, Pacman, rather up close. He just strutted by our Jeep. The second time it was a female, Laila, I believe, and she was busy killing a wild boar. We heard her more than we could see her.
Throughout this little excursion I could help but be reminded of a couple of my favourite passages from Amitav Ghosh’s novel The Hungry Tide. In this passage, one of the characters, Kusum, is pondering why it is humans around the world who throw money at foreign (to India) NGOs like the World Wide Fund for Nature, to save tigers when their actions are helping to ethnically cleanse humans:
“Saar,” she said, wiping her face, “the worst part was not the hunger or the thirst. It was to sit here, helpless, and listen to the policemen making their announcements, hearing them say that our lives, our existence, was worth less than dirt or dust. “This island has to be saved for its trees, it has to be saved for its animals, it his a part of a reserve forest, it belongs to a project to save tigers, which is paid for by people from all around the world.” Every day, sitting here, with hunger gnawing at our bellies, we would listen to these words, over and over again. Who are these people, I wondered, who love animals so much that they are willing to kill us for them? Do they know what is being done in their names? Where do they live, these people, do they have children, do they have mothers, fathers? As I thought of these things it seemed to me that this whole world has become a place of animals, and our fault, our crime, was that we were just human beings, trying to live as human beings always have, from the water and the soil. No human being could think this a crime unless they have forgotten that this is how humans have always lived–by fishing, by clearing the land and by planting the soil. (261-262)
A similar conversation happens when an Indian American character, Piya, is told that she’s complicit in this preservation of wildlife over humans.
Piya dissociated herself with a shake of the head “I don’t see how I’m complicit.”
“Because it was people like you,” said Kanai, “who made a push to protect the wildlife here, without regard for the human costs. And I’m complicit because people like me–Indians of my class–that is–have chosen to hide these costs, basically in order to curry favour with their Western patrons. It’s not hard to ignore the people who’re dying–after all they are the poorest of the poor. but just ask yourself whether this would be allowed to happen anywhere else? There are more tigers living in America, in captivity, than there are in all of India–what do you think would happen if they started killing human beings?”
“But Kanai,” said Piya, “there’s a big difference between preserving a species in captivity and keeping it in its habitat.”
“And what is that difference exactly?” (301)
I think that if people approach sustainability, environmentalism, and the preservation with wildlife holistically that such questions won’t need to be asked any longer.