People of the rainforest

Tribal communities in the rainforests of the Anamalai hills

Understanding the lifestyles and livelihoods of the Kadar, Muthuvar, and Malai Malasars

  • A bamboo house under construction (Udumanparai)

  • A tribal home in Koomati

  • Fishing down the Idamalayar river

  • Traces of ancient peoples: dolmen in the forest

  • Home and hearth in the rainforest

  • A tribal village in the forest

  • Preparing for festival time in a Muthuvar village

  • A tribal elder, Veerappan

Conservation and the community

Proactive protection to forested environments with minimal or no human use is one of the strategies commonly advocated for conservation. At another end of the spectrum, conservationists have advocated community-based and participatory approaches involving local people dependent on the forests for their livelihoods and subsistence. 

Different approaches have been used to understand the impacts that human communities have on their surroundings and arrive at needs of forest conservation. 

Understanding livelihood choices and strategies of forest-dwelling people entails understanding the means to livelihood and reasons for their practices. For proactive conservation of forests around forest villages, we may need to combine our understanding of the communities who use them as well as our understanding of ecosystem processes. In this study in the Anamalai hills, we take an approach predicated on the belief that conservation requires constructive engagement of local people rather than their alienation by exclusion.

Understanding lifestyles

This project aimed to document the strategies used by the forest-dwelling communities of the Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary to understand their current lifestyle patterns in the forest, the history and drivers of change, socio-economic conditions, economic and livelihood status, their dependencies on forest, and resource requirements. 

It seeks to understand communities that live within or in close proximity to tropical rainforests in the sanctuary, with the following areas of concern (1) the nature, patterns, and variability of resource-use and extraction from within the rainforests, (2) the levels of community dependence on and linkages maintained with forests and markets, (3) demographic change and its repercussions on development objectives of human settlements and management of the sanctuary, and (4) aspects of ethnography, social identity, and cultural change.

Interviews and historical records

The study focusing on three tribes—Kadar, Muthuvar, and Malai Malasars—used both fieldwork and historical material. Fieldwork concentrated on obtaining information using three main approaches: oral narrative, informal interviews and commentaries on processes of change to present practices, building a database of basic socio-economic information and material culture. Photography and observation were used to elucidate livelihood strategies, resource-use practices, and material culture and as a part of appreciative learning necessary for understanding the means and reasons for peoples’ choices. We visited and stayed at the settlements to meet and discuss with village headmen, elders, and key informants. An interview schedule was developed to collect primary data, provisioning for additional information to broaden the scope of understanding. All settlements were visited on a regular basis each month during the study period starting from mid July 2006 to June 2007.

The study documented population and demography, agriculture practices, crops grown, major forest produce extracted, housing and facilities, educational levels, and employment patterns of eight focal settlements: five Kadar settlements (Nedungkundru, Kavarkal, Udamanparai, Kallarkudi, and Eethakuzhi) two Muthuvar settlements (Sankarankudi, Paramankadavu), and one Malai Malasar (Koomati) settlement. Detailed results are presented in the final technical report.

Changing futures

Forestry and plantation-related developments over the years has caused the loss of tropical rainforests and lands that were used by tribal communities. These once self-sustaining communities have become dependent on outside resources inducing changes in lifestyles. Though the people do enjoy benefits of these measures, the dependence is resented and may have led to the present condition and stasis. The basis of the traditional economy of shifting cultivation, foraging and trade in forest products is seen as a means toward self-sufficiency and income generation, with barter as an important element in trade, kinship, and symbiotic relationships with other ethnic groups. With this becoming partly dysfunctional through restraints on former means to livelihood, a common refrain on people’s aspirations was a desire to be part of a process for access to and sharing of basic services and resources. The Forest Department, the offices of the Collector and Panchayat are three key Government offices involved. Key areas of development that people envisioned were better education, access to employment, involvement in development schemes such as housing, food security, and water supply. Some desire an involvement in a regulated market for forest products, aware that this is governed by regulations to manage the sanctuary, and look towards integrating responsibility and ownership for the maintenance and improvement of their own settlements and utilisation of inherent skills.




  • Report
    Tribes of the Anamalais: livelihood and resource-use patterns of communities in the rainforests of the Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary and Valparai plateau.
    NCF Technical Report No. 16, Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore.

    PDF, 1.5 MB

    The Western Ghats hill range of India, recognised as a global biodiversity hotspot, also contains impressive cultural diversity including a number of tribal communities. This study uses past records and primary field research to describe aspects of ethnic identity, social change, demography, livelihoods, and resource use among three tribal communities in the Anamalai hills along the Western Ghats mountains of southern India. Kadar, Muthuvar, and Malai Malasar communities across 190 households in 8 settlements located adjacent to rainforests in the Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary were studied to examine current modes of existence vis-à-vis their past and the use of rainforest patches they live within. (Download PDF to read more)

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