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Guards shoot indigenous boy in India's 'shoot-to-kill' national park

A 7-year old boy has been shot by park guards in Kaziranga national park, India, visited in April by Prince William and Kate, which operates a strict 'shoot first' policy. The incident highlights the government's wider efforts to evict tribal peoples from their forests in the name of conservation.

A seven year old tribal boy is reportedly in a critical condition after being shot by a park guard in a national park in northeast India, notorious for its brutal 'shoot to kill' policy towards suspected poachers.

The boy, named in reports as Akash Oram, is a member of the Oroan tribe who live around Kaziranga national park. He sustained serious injuries to his legs, and is being treated in hospital.

Two park guards have been suspended after the shooting, following an outcry from local tribal people. Akash's village is facing eviction. Their issue was recently highlighted in The Ecologist after Prince William and Kate visited the park earlier this year.

The incident raises serious concerns over the advisability of the 'shoot to kill' policy, which has seen at least 62 people killed in the park over a nine year period. This militarized approach to conservation has had serious consequences for local tribal people, who face arrest and beatings, torture and even death in the name of conservation.

Madegowda C, a tribal rights activist from the Soliga people in southern India, said: "The Kaziranga park director is violating the human rights and constitutional rights of the tribal people ... Forest conservation is not possible without tribal and local communities. Most of the forest officials do not understand the relationship between the forest and tribal peoples - they need to understand tribal cultures and our lifestyles in the forest. Tribal peoples are the indigenous people of this country and they are human beings."

The Hindustan Times has reported that other tribal people in the area have been shot as 'poachers' just for wandering over the park boundaries to retrieve cattle or collect firewood. A 2014 report by the park's director revealed that Kaziranga park guards are encouraged to execute suspected 'poachers' on sight with slogans including "must obey or get killed" and "never allow any unauthorized entry (kill the unwanted)."

Locals near the park are reportedly paid to inform on suspected poachers. If someone is subsequently killed, the informant is given up to $1,000.

Government should tackle the real criminals!

Former Environment and Forests minister Prakash Javadeka from Narendra Modi's BJP party, planned to implement the policy nationwide, despite human rights concerns and the acute risk of guards killing or wounding innocent people.

This is despite the fact that in BRT tiger reserve in southern India, where tribal peoples have won the right to stay on their ancestral land and militarized conservation tactics are not used, tiger numbers have increased at well above the Indian national average, demonstrating that militarization is not necessary for successful conservation.

Targeting tribal people diverts action away from tackling the true poachers - criminals conspiring with corrupt officials. Earlier this year, four Kaziranga officials were arrested on suspicion of poaching and involvement in the illegal wildlife trade.

Militarized conservation tactics are not only used in India. In Cameroon for example, Baka 'Pygmy' people haverepeatedly testified to beatings and torture at the hands of eco-guards. Likewise in Botswana, Bushmen are criminalized when they hunt to feed their families, and face arrest and beatings.

Survival's Director Stephen Corry said: "It's time for a global outcry to stop innocent tribal people being shot and killed in the name of conservation. Why are the big conservation organizations complicit in these lethal policies which are useless at tackling the true poachers - criminals conspiring with corrupt officials? It's no good pretending this is an isolated accident, it's an integral part of the murderous regime running this tiger reserve."

Draft Forest Policy foresees mass evictions of tribal communities

The shocking attack comes just a month after the Indian Government's environment ministry published what it announced was the 'draft national forest policy 2016', which made no mention of tribal peoples' existing rights to live in their forests, and would have led to more tribes being evicted from their homes.

The draft policy proposed that: "Voluntary and attractive relocation packages of villages from within national parks, other wildlife rich areas and corridors should be developed." The proposal to evict people from the vaguely described "other wildlife rich areas" and "corridors" as well as National Parks and Tiger Reserves would cover a huge area affecting millions of tribal people who have have been dependent on and managed their environments for millennia.

However the 'policy' was removed a few days later after it caused an outcry from indigenous groups, and a statement was issued claiming that the document was merely a study by the Indian Institute of Forest Management (IIFM), which had been "inadvertently uploaded." Indian news website Live Mint quoted an anonymous ministry official: "[The] U-turn came after intense criticism of the draft policy from civil society."

Across India tribal peoples are being illegally evicted from their ancestral homelands in the name of conservation. Most so-called 'voluntary relocations' are far from voluntary, with tribal people often given no choice - they face arrest and beatings, harassment, threats and trickery and feel forced to 'agree' to leave their forest homes.

The speedy withdrawal of this 'draft policy' has been welcomed, but huge concern remains at what lies ahead for the tens of millions of India's tribal people who live in forests, and other forest dwellers - concerns that have only been fuelled by the shooting of an indigenous child at Kazaringa.

The Ecologist. 2oth July, 2016.