While The Hungry Tide grapples primarily with the conflict between man and nature (in which man is relatively helpless in the face of dangerous natural forces), it also explores the conflicts that arise when people with power take it upon themselves to preserve and protect the natural world from overfishing, poaching, and the general spread of civilization on previously wild land. Though Piya, as a cetologist (a scientist who studies marine mammals), begins the novel believing fully that the welfare of the natural world should take precedence over anything else, her time in the Sundarbans begins to show her that conservation efforts aren't necessarily a clear force for good in the world. Although the novel acknowledges that wildlife conservation is an admirable goal, the novel is ultimately wary of how those conservation efforts play out. In exploring how governments can use the name of ecological preservation to justify violence against vulnerable people, the novel asserts that the human toll of wildlife conservation efforts must be taken into consideration first. In other words, conservation efforts must help both the natural environment and the people who make that environment their home.
Kanai explains to Piya how some government and environmental groups try to protect the environment at the expense of the people who live there. Such groups fail to take into account—or care—about the potential human cost of ecological preservation efforts. When Piya and Kanai discuss their experience of encountering a village mob torturing and burning a captured tiger that killed two people, Kanai encourages Piya to consider both the reasons why the villagers would want to do so, as well as the ways in which even Seattle-based Piya is complicit in creating the environment where torturing a tiger can even happen. Kanai points out that in the Sundarbans as a whole, tigers kill multiple people every week—so many, he suggests, that if people were to be killed in such numbers elsewhere, it would be deemed genocide. However, because the residents of the Sundarbans are "the poorest of the poor," the killings aren't reported. He suggests that the government and environmental groups alike care more for the tigers than they do for the tigers' human victims, if only because the victims are so poor—while there's money and political favor to be had in promoting conservation efforts.
The Morichjhãpi conflict of 1978-79 also illustrates how environmental preservation can be a convenient and impactful justification for violence against the people who live in a certain environment. Though the settlement at Morichjhãpi was seen as a threat to the government for a host of other reasons, some of the conflict had to do with the fact that the refugees chose to settle on an island that the government had previously set aside as a wildlife refuge. The reader learns about this conflict through an argument between Nirmal and Nilima. When Nirmal begs Nilima to route some of the Trust's resources to the people on Morichjhãpi, Nilima insists that the people there are just squatters (illegal occupants). She also says that if people are regularly allowed to take land like they've done, the environment will suffer. Nirmal, on the other hand, believes that the people on Morichjhãpi are people in need of medical attention, just like people everywhere, and that the environmental argument is merely a convenient way to justify the group's eviction. Later, Nirmal is struck when Kusum, who lives on Morichjhãpi, recounts when, in the middle of the first siege, she listened to the police announce that the island is a nature reserve funded by people all over the world. She wonders to Nirmal who these people are who "love animals so much that they are willing to kill us for them?" Kusum comes to believe that her true crime in the government's eyes is being human and poor in a world that privileges people who no longer have to make a living by fishing, farming, and clearing land, as most poor people in the area have to do.
Though the novel ends before any true, large-scale resolution can be reached in regards to the balance between valuing human life and protecting the environment, Piya's proposed ongoing project to study the Orcaella dolphins suggests that she has internalized what she learned from being forced to humanize the locals. She tells Nilima that she'd like to work with local fisherman, rather than attempt to stop their work, and believes that some of the research money she'd receive to study the dolphins could be shared with the Babadon Trust, which provides locals with healthcare and other services. Nilima's apparent endorsement of Piya's plan suggests that environmental conservation can only be truly positive and useful when it seeks to conserve not just the natural world and the animals that live there, but also protect that people who share the environment—no matter how poor they may be.
The Human Cost of Environmental Conservation ThemeTracker
The Human Cost of Environmental Conservation Quotes in The Hungry Tide
"It is common knowledge that almost every island in the tide country has been inhabited at some time or another. But to look at them you would never know: the specialty of mangroves is that they do not merely recolonize land; they erase time. Every generation creates its own population of ghosts."
It was not just that he had thought to create a space for her; it was if he had chosen to include her in some simple, practiced family ritual, found a way to let her know that despite the inescapable muteness of their exchanges, she was a person to him and not, as it were, a representative of a species, a faceless, tongueless foreigner.
But for these women the imagining of early widowhood was not a wasted effort: the hazards of life in the tide country were so great; so many perished in their youth, men especially, that almost without exception the fate that they had prepared themselves for did indeed befall them.
"Why else?" she said. "Because there's a lot of money in prawns and the traders had paid off the politicians. What do they care—or the politicians, for that matter? It's people like us who're going to suffer and it's up to us to think ahead."
I felt something change within me: how astonishing it was that I, an aging, bookish schoolmaster, should live to see this, an experiment, imagined not by those with learning and power, but by those without!
I was tempted to tell him what I thought of him, but it struck me with great force that I had no business to be self-righteous about these matters. Nilima—she had achieved a great deal. What had I done? What was the work of my life? I tried to find an answer but none would come to mind.
The sight was almost unbearable for me at the moment; I felt myself torn between my wife and the woman who had become the muse I'd never had; between the quiet persistence of everyday change and the heady excitement of revolution—between prose and poetry.
Most haunting of all, was I overreaching myself even in conceiving of these confusions? What had I ever done to earn the right to address such questions?
"Who are these people, I wondered, who love animals so much that they are willing to kill us for them […] it seemed to me that this whole world had become a place of animals, and our fault, our crime, was that we were human beings, trying to live as human beings always have, from the water and the soil."
"Because it was people like you," said Kanai, "who made a push to protect the wildlife here, without regard for the human costs. And I'm complicit because people like me […] have chosen to hide these costs, basically in order to curry favor with their Western patrons. It's not hard to ignore the people who're dying—after all, they are the poorest of the poor."
[…] He had become a token for a vision of human beings in which a man like Fokir counted for nothing, a man whose value was less than an animal. In seeing himself in this way, it seemed perfectly comprehensible to Kanai why Fokir should want him dead—but he understood also that this was not how it would be. Fokir had brought him here not because he wanted him to die, but because he wanted him to be judged.