Forest Society and Colonialism

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Disappearance of forests is known as deforestation. Under colonial rule, it became more systematic and extensive in India.     

Land to be Improved

With an increase in population, there was a growing demand for food. As a result, peasants were forced to clear forests and find new land. Britishers encouraged the production of commercial crops such as jute, sugar, wheat and cotton. Demand for such crops increased in the 19th century. The colonial state had the feeling that forests were unproductive in the early 19th century. However, the expansion of cultivation between 1880-1920 was a sign of progress.

Sleepers on the Tracks

Oak forests were disappearing in England by the early 19th century. For exploring the forest resources, search parties were sent to India. Railways started spreading from the 1850s. It was essential for colonial trade and for the movement of imperial troops. From the 1860s, the railway network expanded quickly. Trees kept falling as railway tracks spread across India. The contracts were given out to individuals by the government for supplying required quantities. As a result, forests around the railway tracks started vanishing.


In order to meet Europe’s growing need for commodities, vast areas of natural forests were cleared making way for tea, coffee, and rubber plantations. The forests which were taken over by the colonial government were given to European planters at cheap rates for planting tea/coffee.

Rise of Commercial Forestry

Britishers were wary of the fact that reckless use of trees by traders and use of forests by the public would destroy forests. German expert Dietrich Brandis was the first Inspector General of Forests in India. He understood the importance of introducing a proper system for managing forests and also realized that people had to be trained in the science of conservation. But he required legal sanction. The Indian Forest Services were established in 1864. It helped in the conceptualization of the Indian Forest Act of 1865. In 1906, the Imperial Forest Research Institute was established at Dehradun. The Indian Forest Act was amended twice in 1878 and 1927. The Act of 1878 had divided forests into three categories namely reserved, protected and village forests. The best forests were known as ‘reserved forests’. 

How were People’s Lives Affected?

Villages relied on forests for satisfying their needs of fuel, fodder and leaves. On the other hand, the forest department had their eyes on teak and sal, which were suitable for building ships or railways. Roots, leaves, fruits and tubers were used for various purposes as well. In a forest we can find herbs, yokes, bamboo etc. Oil which was extracted from the fruit of the mahua tree was used for cooking and lighting lamps. The Forest Act brought about severe hardship for villagers across the nation. People had to steal wood from the forests for their livelihood. Forest guards took bribes from them when they were caught. Police constables and forest guards used to harass people by demanding free food from them.

How was Cultivation Affected by Forest Rules?

Shifting cultivation/Swidden cultivation was introduced during European colonialism. Shifting cultivation is a traditional agricultural practice in several parts of Asia, Africa and South America. In this type of agriculture, parts of forests are cut and burnt in rotation. The seeds are sown in the ashes post first monsoon rains, the crop gets harvested by October-November. Such plots are cultivated for a couple of years and then left free for 12 to 18 years. A mixture of crops are grown on such plots. As per the European foresters, the practice is dangerous for the forests. It was difficult for the government to calculate taxes as well. Hence, it was decided to ban shifting cultivation.

Who could Hunt?

The scale of hunting had increased under British rule, certain species became almost extinct. Certain areas of forests were reserved for hunting. People were rewarded for killing wild animals. 

New Trades 

Under colonial rule, European firms were given the sole right to trade in forest products of certain areas. However, the colonial policies never favored the tribes/common people.

Rebellion in the Forest

Forest communities in India rebelled against the changes that were being imposed on them by the colonial government. 

People of Bastar

Maria and Muria Gonds, Dhurwas, Bhatras and Halbas are among the different communities which inhabited Bastar. People of Bastar worshiped ‘Earth’ and made offerings at each agricultural festival. Villagers monitored the natural resources within their boundaries. They had to pay a small fee called devsari/dand in case they had to borrow wood from the forests of neighboring villages.      

Fears of People

The colonial government proposed to reserve two-thirds of the forest in 1905. People who used to stay in forests by working free for the forest department were known as forest villagers. Villages suffered from increasing land rents. 

The protests against the reservation of forests turned violent. Bazaars were looted, houses of officials/traders were burnt and robbed. British forces were sent to suppress the rebellion. 

Forest Transformations in Java

  • Java is popular as a rice-producing island in Indonesia.
  • There were several communities living in the mountains.

    Woodcutters of Java
  • Kalangs were skilled forest cutters and shifting cultivators.
  • As the Dutch started to gain control over the forests in the 18th century, they forced Kalangs to work under them.

    Dutch Scientific Forestry
  • Restricting villagers’ access to forests, the Dutch enacted forest laws in Java in the 19th century. 
  • Punishments were imposed for grazing cattle, transporting wood without permit etc.
  • The Dutch introduced the blandongdiensten system.Villages were exempted from land rents if they worked collectively to provide free labor and buffaloes for cutting and transporting timber.

    Samin’s Challenge
  • Surontiko Samin of Randublatung village questioned the state ownership of forests. 
  • Saminists protested against the Dutch by refusing to pay taxes or fines or perform labor.   


The first and second world wars have had significant impacts on forests across the globe. Lot of forest resources were destroyed to meet the requirements of the war.

Latest Developments in Forestry

In the modern days, conservation of forests is regarded as an important goal. Ranging from Mizoram to Kerala, dense forests have survived only because villages preserved them in sacred groves known as sarnas, devarakudu etc.  

In this blog, we have discussed about forest societies and the impact of colonialism on them.

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