The mental health costs of human displacement: A natural experiment involving indigenous Indian conservation refugees

Elsevier, World Development Perspectives: Volume 2, 2016, Pages 25-33
Authors: 
Jeffrey G. Snodgrass, Chakrapani Upadhyay, Debhashis Debnath, Michael G. Lacy

Abstract

We examine human displacement among indigenous tribal conservation refugees—the Sahariya—recently displaced from a wildlife sanctuary in central India. We focus on human displacement’s mental health toll as well as the displacement-related changes that help explain such emotional suffering. To do so, we compare individuals relocated from the core of the sanctuary to those allowed to remain in their villages inside the sanctuary’s buffer zone. The drawing of the sanctuary boundary—and thus also the assignment of villagers to relocation versus remaining in the buffer zone—was capricious. These village contexts thus provided a natural experimental opportunity to assess relocation’s impact on mental health. Our study’s ethnographic and structured psychiatric scale data reveal that relocated Sahariya suffer the most in mental health terms. Such suffering is partially explained by but not reducible to material, livelihood, and poverty factors. Overall, our research suggests that the loss of homeland compromises mental health—and especially the highest level of positive emotional well-being related to happiness, life satisfaction, optimism for the future, and spiritual contentment—in ways not easily repaired by even well-intentioned relocation programs focused on material compensation and livelihood re-establishment.