Four reasons why the Forest Rights Act fails to empower forest-dwelling communities

Four reasons why the Forest Rights Act fails to empower forest-dwelling communities

Oxfam India's CEO Amitabh Behar on ensuring sustainable livelihood and advocate on issues where forest-dwelling communities can determine nature of prices and have the right to sell.


1.    Implementation of the Forest Rights Act has been slow, and the rights of forest dwellers are still being violated. What have been the main barriers to implementing the Act?

The Forest Rights Act is one of the most discussed issue since over a year now and the reasons for it range from increasing protests in rural India against its poor implementation and dilution and impending elections in some of the tribal dominated states like Chhattisgarh and Odisha. Over a decade after its introduction, FRA's poor performance in terms of its implementation and poor quality of forest rights recognition has been a huge loss of opportunity.

 The main barriers with regard to implementation relate to the structural conditions, which define power of the state vs powerlessness of the scheduled tribes and other forest dependent communities. The current growth model has systematically perpetuated high levels of inequality, which reflects on competing interests over the rich base of natural resources- land, minerals, water and forest. To elaborate more, three significant barriers, which impede the realisation of forest rights, are: 

Lack of Political will: There is no political will to implement this act as assertion of power of forest dwelling communities is in direct conflict with the agenda of ease of doing business. It also challenges the power and authority of the Forest Department, which has from colonial times managed the forest for commercial gains. In recent times, new policies and orders such as the Compensatory Afforestation Act, draft forest policy, village forest rules have provisions that are diluting or contradicting the FRA.  

Systemic issues: There is lack of coordination between the tribal, revenue and forest department on implementation of the Act. There are multiple laws that are in conflict with FRA and to operationalise FRA on the ground, changes in rules and other laws are important such as in case of ownership of minor forest produce. It requires change in number of state laws, excise laws, Panchayat laws etc. The other important issue with FRA is the lack of recognition of Community Forest Resource rights. There is a huge resistance from the forest department to recognize CFR Rights and sharing of power with Gram Sabha for conservation and management of forest resources. The Government approach towards forest is clearly reflected in the recently developed draft forest policy which is heavily tilted towards forest commercialisation, PPP model, decision to be dominated by technocrats and forest dwellers have no place in decision making.

Functional/implementation barriers: There are number of implementation challenges. A large number of claims are being rejected; pending or limited rights are recognised. The area recognized has been drastically reduced from the area, which has been claimed without any proper reasons. Ministry of Tribal Affairs has written to State Governments that in case of rejection, reasons have to be communicated and chances of appeal to be given to claimants, which is hardly happening.


2.    How has Oxfam India been supporting forest communities, and what has been your impact to date? 

Oxfam India is working in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and Odisha with local partners and state and national alliances for enabling the recognition of forest rights. Oxfam has provided support in capacity building of the local partners on claiming of rights, provided training through GPS mapping for boundary demarcations. Currently the focus is on assertion of rights and strengthening of village institutions so that they can manage the resources and strengthen their livelihood systems.

Oxfam and other leading organizations have also come together to create a national platform – CFR -learning and advocacy, which is engaged in evidence-based advocacy at the national and state level. Oxfam also supports the State and district level forums to engage with the district authorities and bring together the civil society groups and community organisations to advocate on issues of FRA.

Our advocacy and engagement with district administration in Chhattisgarh has resulted in recognition of rights of PVTG communities where District collector has suo-moto recognised individual forest rights of the pahadi korwa communities over resources. Advocacy has also led to conversion of forest villages to revenue villages within Simlipal Tiger Reserve. This reduces the threat of relocation and making available basic services which people in the forest were previously not entitled to.


3.    Do you have a specific strategy to engage the various stakeholders that have been showing resistance to implementing the act, notably corporations and forest bureaucracies? 

We are engaged with multiple stakeholders including the forest bureaucracy. There have been instances where forest department has collaborated and supported civil society in the process of recognition of rights. Strategy is to understand and identify the level of problem and approach the right department. Implementation issues are to be addressed at the district level through DLC, larger policy matter or violations are taken to the State level and similarly, Ministries at the Central levels are approached for interpretations, clarifications on Acts and seek directions on conflicting policies. We are also engaging with elected representatives. We are not engaged with corporations directly on all these issues, as we believe that it is the government, which is accountable to the people and all the compliances, and clearances are given from the Government department, so the responsibility lies with the regulatory authorities at all level.


4.    Forests can provide sustainable sources of income to local communities, notably through the sale of bamboo. What is the connection between upholding the land rights of forest dwellers, and reducing poverty?

 Reducing poverty has direct linkage with rights, especially when it comes to forest dwellers who are primarily dependent on natural resources. Security of tenure has a direct correlation with willingness of communities to invest, conserve and use their resources sustainably which rights under FRA is effectively able to ensure.

Yes, bamboo and tendu are important forest produce, which gives high monetary returns. There are other important forest produces also which provides seasonal and substantial income to the communities - such as Mahua, Sal, Char, Tamarind and medicinal plants. This calendar of different forest products and cycle of incomes act as safety nets. These add to their basket of livelihood.

So rather than focusing on one high yielding species, we are focussing on ensuring sustainable livelihood and advocate on issues where communities can determine nature of plantation, prices, and have the right to sell etc. We have also set up pilots where smaller value addition to the existing products can yield higher returns. We are also trying to understand if access to renewable energy can add value to raw forest produces which could possible fetch better prices in the market and how block/district administration adopts these models for forest geographies.


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