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The Van Gujjar Migration - A traditional cultures project

The Van Gujjar people's annual migration challenges conservation to build more flexible strategies guaranteeing the sustainability of ancient traditions; especially when these can be better partners than settled agriculture in the challenge to maintain sustainable levels of biodiversity. This project showcases an innovative use of Google Earth and Google Maps to highlight the Van Gujjar's ancient migratory tradition now imperilled by, amongst many pressures, the establishment of protected areas. The challenge to conservation of including not just established and settled communities but also migratory ones in their attempt to ensure an inclusive and participatory solution to conservation are vividly portrayed.

 The Van Gujjar Migration Project  

story, images and video by Michael Benanav

The people of northern India's Van Gujjar tribe are nomadic water buffalo herders whose lives revolve around caring and finding food for their animals. Winters are spent in the lowland wilderness of the Shivalik Hills, where the thick jungle foliage provides plenty of fodder - and plenty of isolation from the rest of the world. By April, however, temperatures soar above 110 degrees F; leaves and grasses wither and die; creeks run dry. With nothing left for their buffaloes to eat or drink, the Van Gujjars must move. Entire families, from infants to the elderly, trek with their herds up into the Himalayas, where melting snows reveal lush alpine meadows laced by gurgling streams. When the cold sets in at the end of September, they head back down to the Shivaliks, where the jungle has sprung back to life following the monsoon rains. True nomads, they've followed this cycle of seasonal migration - shunning settled village life - for over a thousand years. But things are changing...

The most immediate threat facing the tribe is the creation of national parks, and their displacement from them. Thousands of Van Gujjar conservation refugees have been evicted from their traditional winter range in the Shivalik Hills, where Rajaji National Park was established; they were forced to settle in government-built villages and abandon their nomadic forest-dwelling way of life. Among those families who spend winters outside the boundaries of Rajaji – and who have been allowed to continue to live in the jungles - some have been threatened with eviction from their summer pastures in the Himalayas, which have been absorbed into Govind Pashu Vihar National Park.

These parks, and the policies of clearing people out of them, were created with no input from the Van Gujjars, who have lived on the lands within them for many generations. A park plan proposed by the Van Gujjars, which would have essentially allowed them to manage Rajaji with oversight by the Forest Department, was rejected by park authorities and international funding agencies. Government reports on Govind Pashu Vihar state that that human pressure on the park needs to be “urgently reduced” or it is “bound to suffer irreversible ecological damage.” From the findings in the report, however, the actual environmental impact of the nomadic pastoralists is unclear, and some ecologists outside the government challenge the idea that banning them from the park is necessary.

For the past seven years, while ultimately not (yet) banning the Van Gujjars from Govind Pashu Vihar, officials at the Forest Department have waged a campaign that’s traumatized the tribe while attempting to poke loopholes in India’s Forest Rights Act – both of which could smooth the path toward displacing the nomads.

This project documents the Van Gujjars' annual spring migration, following one family on their journey into the Himalayas – and their attempt to reach their traditional meadow within Govind Pashu Vihar National Park. Their story vividly illustrates the Van Gujjars' nomadic way of life -- both its age-old essence as well as some of the modern challenges that threaten it. And it invites us into their forest-world in a very personal way. 

We are presenting this project in two different formats:

The 3-D map version allows you to travel virtually along the migration route, to get a sense of the terrain that the family is covering. Click "Continue the migration" to move from one stop to the next, then click on the links in the pop-up bubbles to access the text, images and videos that explain what's happening at each stage of the trek. (Note: The Google Earth plug-in is required; some Macs have trouble installing this).

The 2-D map version displays the same story, with the same text, images, and video as the 3-D map version -- only in one less dimension. And you must move the map manually, rather than cruising through the terrain on auto-pilot. Recommended for slow connections and some Mac users who can't install the Google Earth plug-in. 

With either version, you can use the tools to zoom in and out and all around.

The project's website can be found here:

Please contact the project for more information.