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Petty Theft by Some Birhor


The Times of India last Tuesday published a story about some Birhor people that was straight out of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, arguably one of the greatest novels of western literature. Like Jean Valjean, the major character in the novel, five Birhor men are facing lengthy prison sentences for the crime of petty theft. Valjean stole some loaves of bread; the Birhor men stole some cloth and a few other items. The crime of all of them was dealing with their poverty.

A group of Adivasi (tribal) women dancing at a festival in Jharkhand state

A group of Adivasi (tribal) women dancing at a festival in Jharkhand state (Photo by Tuhin Paul in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Some Birhor—one of the prominent Adivasi peoples of northern India—who worked at a brick kiln in the Palamu District of India’s Jharkhand state, broke into several homes in October and November. They stole a mobile phone battery, four mobile phones, an emergency light, a rechargeable flashlight, and nine meters of cloth. Police also charge them with stealing some cash, though they did not have enough money to get any clothing made out of the cloth they’d taken.

The newspaper interviewed the Superintendent of Police for the district, Indrajeet Mahatha. He explained that if four or fewer people had been involved in the burglaries, they would have just been charged with robbery. But with five or more people involved, it must be considered by law to have been dacoity—a major crime. When three different homes were raided in just one November night, local people raised an uproar, which included blocking a road, to get the police to do something.

Heeralall Yadav, the Deputy Superintendent of Police, quickly solved the case by tracking the locations of the mobile phones that had been stolen to the Birhor workers at the brick kiln. There, the police found the stolen cloth as well. Superintendent Mahatha said that seven people had been in the Birhor group committing the crimes, but only five were present at the brick kiln when the police arrived to arrest them.

The mahua tree (Madhuca longifolia)

The mahua tree (Madhuca longifolia) (Photo by J. M. Garg in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

In his article about Birhor living in the same district more than 64 years ago, Bhattacharyya (1953) made a number of interesting points. “The Birhor [of this district] are peace-loving and honest people. As far as the police report goes they are never involved in any crime,” he wrote (p. 10). They rarely fought with one another; in order to avoid getting into disputes with permanent dwellers of the plains, they avoided gathering mahua (Madhuca longifolia), a very popular tree that produces seeds which are still widely used by many for the production of vegetable butter, soap, detergents, and other products.

How much they have changed in the intervening 64 years since Bhattacharyya visited this particular Birhor community can be judged by the ways their needs have changed. In March – April 1953 when he visited them, the author noticed that the Birhor lived a hand-to-mouth existence. They ate what they could find or went without food. They did not save anything to eat the next day, and many would refuse to work at such jobs as repairing roads. Some would rather starve than work for pay, though others did do contract day-laboring on farms. “The Birhor generally hate to do other’s work,” he wrote (p. 9). In essence, they really disliked giving up their forest-based gathering lifestyle.

A Birhor man

A Birhor man (Screen capture from the video “Birhor—a Tribe Displaced for Nothing” by Video Volunteers on YouTube, Creative Commons license)

Now some of them have become so modernized that they are seeking the pleasures of smart phones, though presumably they were unaware that the stolen goods might be traced by GPS systems. Victor Hugo’s story changed from a tale of a man serving an unjust prison sentence into someone, a thousand pages later, who symbolized the figure of Christ. The story of the five Birhor men is less complex. They are just characters in a hostile world that is changing—one that they are having a hard time coping with.


Taking Money from the Devil’s Claws


The sustainable harvesting of roots from the devil’s claw plants growing in the Kalahari Desert, and their careful marketing to international herbal medicine buyers, are returning increasing profits to the Ju/’hoansi. Two different reports last week, from the Namibia Economist and the New Era newspapers, carried complementary stories about the good economic news from the Nyae Nyae Conservancy of the Ju/’hoansi and the neighboring N#a Jaqna Conservancy of the !Kung.

Chopped up and dried roots of the devil’s claw, Harpagophytum procumbens

Chopped up and dried roots of the devil’s claw, Harpagophytum procumbens (Photo by H. Zell in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

The reports explained that plentiful rains in 2017 and rising prices for the herbal medicines made from the devil’s claw roots have boosted the harvesting and sales of the plant products. For centuries, according to an earlier report, the Ju/’hoansi have been carefully harvesting some of the roots of the unobtrusive plants for their medicinal properties, in the process carefully protecting them so they will still be flourishing the next time the people want to gather them. During this past year, nearly 200 Ju/’hoansi harvested and sold about 18.7 tons of the tubers, earning the people nearly N$1 million (US$73,690). The conservancy will earn about N$1.4 million. The neighboring !Kung harvested somewhat more on the lands of their conservancy.

Other than the well-documented health benefits of the tubers, part of the appeal of the products is that they are harvested and sold on a strictly sustainable basis—a strategy which melds with the traditional approaches of the Ju/’hoansi anyway and adapts their traditions into a modern market economy. The Nyae Nyae Conservancy has particularly benefited because it has agreed to an arrangement with the buyer, EcoSo Dynamics, a local exporting firm, to a written contract that has formed a type of fair trade marketing system.

The fruit of a devil’s claw in the Kalahari Desert hooked fiendishly into someone’s left foot

The fruit of a devil’s claw in the Kalahari Desert hooked fiendishly into someone’s left foot (Photo by Tee La Rosa in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The fair trade agreement, called Fair for Life Certification, is based on the concept that local, indigenous people can take charge of their own development. The parties to the contract agree that both the harvesters and the company handling the products will work together and form respectful relationships, the reports said. Fair working conditions are essential, as is respect for the environment in every phase of the supply chain. Buyers can then read on the products they purchase the conditions under which the herbal medicines were harvested, processed and sold.

Mr. Gero Diekmann, Managing Director of EcoSo Dynamics, said that the partnership between his company and the Ju/’hoansi harvesters has grown on a basis of mutual trust over the past 10 years. In cooperation with the conservancies, they have developed a system whereby each bag of roots can be traced back not only to the individual who gathered it but to the actual place where it was harvested.

The stable system, composed of a reliable local buyer and harvesters who are quite comfortable with the need for careful, consistent, system-wide requirements and record keeping, fosters the sale of  products that are certified as both organic and fair trade. The two conservancies earn about 75 percent of their income from their devil’s claw businesses.



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