Conservation politics and the impact of conservation technologies on Indigenous people: A conversation with Trishant Simlai

By Aman Vernekar
Posted on 29th April 2023
Trishant Simlai, a postdoctoral research associate in the Smart Forests project.

Aman Vernekar interviews Trishant Simlai, a postdoctoral research associate in the Smart Forests project in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge. He is a conservation researcher primarily interested in the politics and geographies of wildlife conservation in India.

Aman: Hi Trishant, can you tell me a bit about your work and what it involves?

Trishant: I'm a postdoc at the Department of Sociology employed on a project called Smart Forests. The project aims to investigate and discuss the sociopolitics arising out of the increasing use of digital technologies in forest governance systems across the world, particularly focused on the Global South. The technologies range from GPS devices and satellite imagery to camera traps, drones, acoustic sensors, and LiDAR imagery that are being used to mitigate climate change and document forests. We are trying to understand the impacts these digital technologies have on Indigenous knowledge systems, data production, knowledge production, and the politics that arise out of their use.

Aman: What conservation goals are these technologies used for? What else do they also end up being used for?

Trishant: That's what my PhD was on, and I looked at one particular site, the Jim Corbett Tiger Reserve in Uttarakhand, India. Generally, these technologies are introduced by researchers or NGOs trying to test out new conservation methods. The Forest Department is keen to support them since they want to build their capacity, and they claim to use these technologies for wildfire or deforestation monitoring, or for knowing the biodiversity present in the forest. My research reveals that while these technologies are used for these goals, they also seamlessly become tools of the state to repress marginalised communities and Indigenous communities.

I have seen camera traps being installed around people's homes simply because they belong to a certain community. In August 2019, when India abrogated Article 370 (an article in the Indian Constitution that granted ‘special status’ to the state of Jammu and Kashmir), the Van Gujjars (a pastoralist community who trace their ancestry back to Kashmir) in Jim Corbett protested. Immediately after the protest, the Forest Department deployed drones and camera traps to monitor their activities.

Caste also plays a big role. The Forest Department deploys digital technologies in very different ways in villages dominated by upper caste Brahmins and in villages that are 100% Dalit (lower caste). In villages dominated by upper caste people, the department works with the village headmen who dictate where the drone will fly. In a Dalit village, however, the drones are often flown right though the village and over people’s houses without any consent. Furthermore, the Forest Department blatantly lies about the drone’s capabilities, claiming that the drone has face recognition features that can link people to their national identity card and incriminate them. This is a tactic of psychological terror, which forces people to regulate themselves. These people do have legal rights to go to the forest and collect produce but the Forest Department is completely changing the game in this manner.

Aman: What is the goal of this surveillance and why does the Forest Department desire so much control over the people living in these forests?

Trishant: There is a lot of history to this. During colonial times, the British created settlements inside forests to help create labour for forestry activities. A lot of people, usually from the lower castes, were transported from different parts of India to these forests. They were never given legal forest rights and the land remains under the Forest Department even though some settlements are over 100 years old. In 2006, India came out with a landmark bill called the Forest Rights Act (FRA), which aimed to give these people rights back to the land. The Ministry of Forests and the Forest Department have been vehemently against the Act and have been causing all kinds of disruptions for its implementation.

The biggest challenge in Indian environmental governance is that nobody covets land as much as the government and they don't want these lands to be democratised. The Forest Department is completely against giving people control over their land under the FRA because they think it makes their job difficult. The Forest Department in India has still not been able to come out of its colonial way of functioning. It was introduced as a policing forestry body and is still a policing forestry body.

Aman: What is the conservation role played by Indigenous communities and by the Forest Department in India?

Trishant: Indigenous communities have been doing conservation for a very long time and they far outdate any conservation policy. They have been systematically kept out of any conservation decision making, but they still do conservation. The people making conservation policies - the Forest Department, researchers, naturalists, etc - often come from a more privileged background. But the cost of conservation is borne by the people living next to the animals. Just from November 2022 to March 2023, at least 17 people have been killed in Uttarakhand alone by tiger attacks. People who are saying “Save the tiger” are not being eaten by the tiger, and there's a huge disparity there. Unless you can have common ground between conservation objectives, it’s useless to discuss what role who plays in conservation. If you're going to do conservation, you should be there and do conservation.

This is my general criticism about big things around climate change as well. For example, in COPs, it is agreed that countries should increase their green cover by some extent. What does that mean on the ground? The Forest Department will treat it as a metric they need to increase and might, for example, convert a grassland into a teak plantation. That might help fulfil a COP target but it has probably taken away livelihoods from many marginalised people, like the pastoralist community that depends on the grassland. Ecologically, it has replaced one ecosystem with another. Besides, carbon sequestration cannot be looked at just from the metric of green cover, because it also depends on ecological niches and the biodiversity present in the area.

Aman: What is your advice for anyone developing conservation technology? What approach should they take to ensure its appropriate use and prevent misuse?

Trishant: The first thing to keep in mind is proportionality. Do you really need to use the technology for what you want to gain from it? Is there anything that you could use instead of a drone, for example? Secondly, you often need to enter into an agreement with the Forest Department and the state that all the data is also state property. You should be intelligent enough to understand the risks with that, especially if you’re collecting sensitive information.

The best way to do these things is to partner with the people that are going to be impacted the most. Let these communities have a say. Before doing anything, ask them whether this technology will help. In my current postdoc work, I am working with a pastoral community called the Van Gujjars on counter mapping, where they are using the same technologies that the state uses to keep them out of the forest. But they're using the technology to challenge the state's narratives by mapping their forest areas as evidence for implementation of the Forest Rights Act. There is a window there where you could be using these technologies along with Indigenous communities to truly democratise it and make them equal partners. Even with this, there are risks because you cannot romanticise Indigenous communities either. There are power differentials within them and it's not a homogeneous unit.

So yeah, think about data justice and proportionality. Even while you're experimenting, make sure you're doing it properly. Your experiments could have severe consequences for people on the ground. That's why we need to reflect about our positionality, privilege and the knowledge systems we are inspired by.

Technology is not a silver bullet at all. It's very useful, but it can also exacerbate grave injustices.

Aman: You mentioned that some communities are now using technology as a counter mapping tool to assert their rights. Can you walk me through that process?

Trishant: Counter mapping is a narrative which is 5-6 years old, and started in South America and Southeast Asia. In Laos and Cambodia, communities started using drones to counter map, say, private companies' idea of oil palm plantations. In Latin America, it was against cocoa and the drug mafia in Colombia. In India, it is a more recent trend where a lot of communities who are fighting to get forest rights in their name are using this technology. When you apply for forest rights in your name or in the name of your village, you need to, as evidence, show a map of your imagined community forest. You have to show evidence of, for example, a temple that was there in the forest, or a pool of water where you used to graze your cattle. All of this was initially hand drawn but a lot of claims were being rejected because they were not accurate enough. People then started using GPS and tools like Google Earth but that too wasn't very accurate. Now people have started using drones to do very accurate mapping of an area which they imagine as their community forest and that can be used as evidence for claiming forest rights.

Aman: You began your work from a natural sciences perspective, and you're now working almost exclusively from a social sciences and humanities perspective. What caused this shift?

Trishant: I started as a wildlife biologist with very straightforward objectives. How many tigers are there in the forest? Why are tigers moving in a certain way? What are tigers eating? That would be my line of research. But while doing some work on the ground, I realised that science only produces certain kinds of knowledge. You will know what the tigers do. But after that, when you get into conservation, it becomes a people problem. Conservation is very little about wildlife or about animals. It's mainly about people and the sociopolitics that people give rise to. I particularly realised this when I was working with an NGO on a tiger conservation plan for an area with active insurgency. Interacting with a wide range of people - insurgents, Forest Department officials, members of the army and Indigenous communities - changed my perspective completely. Later, during my Masters, I realised that a field called political ecology existed within geography and jumped into it.

Aman: You spend a lot of time doing fieldwork. Can you tell me what that’s like?

Trishant: The biggest challenge with fieldwork is how you navigate the web of relations present. You have to spend a lot of time in the field to understand it and to be accepted. Many people ask me how I got access to the data I collected for my PhD. One, I've been working in the Corbett landscape for a very long time, but even for my PhD, I did 14 months of fieldwork. Out of those 14 months, for the first three months, I was only repairing people's bicycles or umpiring on cricket matches or having innumerable cups of tea in somebody's house. You have to be seen. People should know who you are, and that you're an okay person to work with or talk to. Once you are a familiar face and people know that you care, they'll make you a part of their lives. That's when you get to do the best fieldwork and can get real data out.

Aman: What’s your advice for someone who wants to enter a similar field as you?

Trishant: The kind of research I do requires a strong understanding of fieldwork and the field. I would recommend taking a year or two off and working on the ground where the action is. Make yourself part of the action and you'll come out as a different person altogether because you will realise certain things. This is my biggest advice to people who want to do PhDs, especially in fields that require field work. Understand your industry properly before you commit to a PhD. It's very easy to do a bachelor's, master's, and then PhD and have your PhD when you're 25. But what you get out of that time in the field will make your PhD journey very rewarding. When your PhD comes from real empirical understanding of a situation, then you're really adding new knowledge. 

Aman: Thank you so much for your time, Trishant, and thank you for such an interesting conversation.

Trishant: Thank you for having me.