Crashing land prices to no brides: In Kerala villages, fear of proposed buffer zone near forests hangs heavy

SEVEN YEARS ago, Pokkathayil Mathew gave up his one-and-a-acre farm land and a house by the Aralam sanctuary, fed up with constant attacks and raids by wild animals from the forests nearby. “I had moved to a new house in the village, a little away from the forest, hoping I would be able sell my land someday,” says Mathew, who lives in Adakkathodu village in Kelakam panchayat bordering Aralam, a wildlife sanctuary spread over 55 sq km.

Mathew now feels stuck. With large parts of Kelakam and Kottiyoor panchayats in north Kerala’s Kannur district likely to be a part of a proposed buffer zone or eco-sensitive zone (ESZ), Mathew and other villagers fear its implications on their lives.

“There are no takers for our land because of the buffer zone threat that’s hanging over our heads. I am surviving by rearing a cow while my land lies abandoned. I can’t carry out farming for fear of wild animals and I can’t sell that land either,” he says.

Protests have erupted across Kerala after the government made public a satellite survey report on areas that are to fall within the proposed one-km buffer zone around 22 wildlife sanctuaries and parks in the state. The survey was held following a June 3 order of the Supreme Court, which said that all national parks and wildlife sanctuaries in the country should set aside a 1-km buffer zone, where prohibited activities specified by the Centre, including mining and establishment of any new permanent structure, will not be permitted.

The Supreme Court’s orders were most acutely felt in Kerala, a state with high population density, high forest cover and a rapid pace of development. About 40 per cent of the Western Ghats lie in Kerala.

Last week, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had tried to assuage the fears of the protesters. “Our stand is very clear that all inhabited areas and farm lands outside the forests should be excluded from the buffer zone. The state will inform the Supreme Court of the practical difficulties in making the farm lands near the forest as a buffer zone,’’ he had said.

Despite the government’s assurance, farmers fear the restrictions, regulations and bans that the buffer zone is expected to herald in would end up in their eventual eviction.

Almost every village in the twin panchayats of Kelakam and Kottiyoor, fall in the proposed one-km buffer zones of either the Aralam Wildlife Sanctuary or the Kottiyoor Wildlife Sanctuary, two of 22 protected forest tracts in the state. The villages have tarred roads, with hundreds of homes dotting the hill slopes. A portion of the ambitious Hill Highway, a proposed 1,332-km state highway connecting the southern end of Kerala to its north, passes through the villages and is slated for further widening. But with the buffer zone restrictions including a ban on road-widening projects and felling of trees, many in these villages fear these will affect economic activities and eventually render their land useless.

Benny Chamanatt is one of 176 farmers/landowners of Kottiyoor panchayat, who last year applied for the forest department’s voluntary relocation programme, under which farmers who surrender their lands near the forests get a compensation of Rs 15 lakh for up to two hectors.

“Earlier, my land didn’t border the forest. But over the years, as people living near the forests abandoned their land, wild animals moved into these uninhabited areas. Now, the forest is at my doorstep. Now with this buffer zone, I am not sure the relocation programme will be implemented. I will have no option but to abandon my land and leave,” says the 50-year-old.

Officials say land transactions in the panchayats have almost come to a halt.

Mukesh Antony, assistant officer at the village office (the basic unit of the revenue department) in Kottiyoor, says, “Until a few years ago, our office used to get 30 to 50 applications for changing the ownership of land (mutation). Now, it is down to three or four a month. Most applications these days are related to partition of land among family members. Nobody from outside the village buys land here fearing the buffer zone.’’

Villagers say that with no takers, the value of the land has come down sharply – making it difficult for them to mortgage their land for personal and educational loans.

“Our men have already been struggling to find brides since this village falls in the buffer zone. This way, we will be forced to leave the region. But we can’t do that either because we can’t sell our land,’’ says Sebastian Velikkakathu, a farmer in Kottiyoor panchayat.

Kottiyoor panchayat secretary K K Sathyan says the fears of the village are not without reason. “Wildlife attacks have increased and villagers fear that with the buffer zone, more areas will be part of the forest. Farm lands have been lying idle and many of the villagers are surviving on MGNREGS. They don’t even have money to pay property tax. Last week, our tax collection camp evoked a very poor response,’’ he says.

Kottiyoor panchayat president Roy Nambudakam said, “We are totally against any kind of restriction that is likely to come in with the buffer zone.’’