By Michael Benanav. Pegasus, 2018, 230 pp.
As we confront the damage humans have done to the planet, I’m always impressed when countries establish environmental policies to protect the natural world and wildlife. But as Michael Benanav shows in this excellent book, these policies can have a dire impact on people’s lives and are sometimes misconceived and unnecessary.
For generations, the nomadic Van Gujjars of India, who herd water buffalo, have spent winters in the Shivalik Hills and migrated to the Himalayas for the summer, to provide grazing for their animals. In recent decades, however, the government has established national parks to preserve wildlife in the areas where the Van Gujjars have traditionally taken their buffaloes. Park authorities have tried to block the tribe from their grazing lands.
In 2009, Benanav, a travel writer, accompanied a family on their annual migration, and in Himalaya Bound, his account of this journey, he makes clear how devastating to the Van Gujjars’ life and culture this banishment would be. The Van Gujjars live in wilderness, not villages—they say they live “behind the veil of the forest”—and their world revolves around their buffaloes, who are family to them. Indeed, when a calf is injured on the journey, they set the broken leg, bandage it, and carry the heavy animal over difficult terrain to the camp. “In ways big and small,” says Benanav, “virtually everything about this nomadic culture is shaped by what’s best for the animals.”
Living so closely with the large family and participating as helpfully as he can on the arduous journey, Benanav (communicating through a translator) comes to know them as individuals, and he evokes the qualities that win his admiration: their honesty, warmth, openness, and ability to relate so closely to the natural world they inhabit. I especially appreciated his depiction of the women, who seem to be strong and outspoken in this Muslim culture.
As the family trek to the Himalayas, with children, grandchildren, and more than 80 water buffaloes in tow, it isn’t clear whether they will be allowed to enter the park when they arrive. Threats of banishment in previous years weren’t carried out. But they can’t be sure. Benavav conveys the tension and uncertainty the family experiences not only for the outcome of this migration but for their future.
The Van Gujjars have support in India, and the author raises the question of whether it is necessary to ban them and their buffaloes from the parks. He points out that though we have a concept of national parks as pristine, in fact native populations lived in those areas for centuries without damaging them. Native Americans, for example, lived in the Yellowstone area long before it was a national park and managed the land and wildlife well.
Environmentalists, he says, are now coming to understand that in many cases, nomadic herders have helped the environment, taking care to preserve well what they know they will need in future years, and their grazing animals have proved beneficial for flora and fauna. By personalizing the Van Gujjars’ story, Benanav has not only told a warm and vivid tale but has also made a strong case for sustaining their way of life.