Falling land prices without wives: In Kerala villages, fear of a proposed buffer zone near forests weighs heavily

SEVEN YEARS AGO, Pokkathayil Mathew gave up his one-acre farmland and a house near the Aralam shrine, fed up with constant attacks and raids by wild animals from nearby forests. “I had moved to a new house in the village, a bit away from the forest, hoping that one day I could sell my land,” says Mathew, who lives in Adakkathodu village in Kelakam panchayat on the edge of Aralam, a wildlife sanctuary spread over 55 years. km².

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

“There are no takers for our land because of the threat of the buffer zone hanging over our heads. I survive by raising a cow while my land is abandoned. I can’t farm for fear of wild animals and I can’t sell this land either,” he says.

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

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

Last week, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan tried to allay protesters’ fears. “Our position is very clear that all inhabited areas and agricultural land outside forests must be excluded from the buffer zone. The state will inform the Supreme Court of the practical difficulties of making agricultural land close to the forest a buffer zone,” he said.

Despite the government’s assurance, farmers fear that the restrictions, regulations and bans that the buffer zone should announce could end up evicting them.

Almost all villages in the twin panchayats of Kelakam and Kottiyoor lie within the proposed one-kilometre buffer zones of Aralam Wildlife Sanctuary or Kottiyoor Wildlife Sanctuary, two of the state’s 22 protected tracts of forest. The villages have tarred roads, with hundreds of houses dotting the slopes of the hills. Part of the ambitious Hill Highway, a proposed 1,332 km national road linking the southern end of Kerala to its north, passes through the villages and is expected to be further widened. But with the buffer zone restrictions, including a ban on road-widening and tree-cutting projects, many in these villages fear it will affect economic activities and ultimately render their land unusable.

Benny Chamanatt is one of 176 farmers/landowners in Kottiyoor panchayat, who last year applied for the Forest Department’s Voluntary Resettlement Scheme, under which farmers who give up their land near forests receive compensation from Rs 15 lakh for up to two hectares.

“Before, my land did not border the forest. But over the years, as people living near 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 that the relocation program will be implemented. I will have no choice but to abandon my land and leave,” said the fifty-year-old.

Officials say land deals in the panchayats are nearly halted.

Mukesh Antony, Deputy Officer at the Village Office (the base revenue service unit) in Kottiyoor, says: “A few years ago, our office received 30-50 requests for change of land ownership (mutation). Now it’s three or four a month. Nowadays, most requests concern the division of land between family members. No one from outside the village is buying land here for fear of the buffer zone.”

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

“Our men are already struggling to find wives since this village falls into the buffer zone. In this way, we will be forced to leave the area. But we can’t do that either because we can’t sell our land,” says Sebastian Velikkakathu, a farmer from the Kottiyoor panchayat.

Kottiyoor panchayat secretary KK Sathyan says the village’s fears are not without reason. “Wildlife attacks have increased and villagers fear that with the buffer zone, more areas will become part of the forest. Farmland has remained unused and many villagers survive on MGNREGS. They don’t even have the money to pay the property tax. Last week our tax collection camp got a very bad response,” he said.

Kottiyoor panchayat chairman Roy Nambudakam said: “We are totally opposed to any type of restriction that may come in with the buffer zone.

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