Recognising land rights this International Day of Forests

Recognising land rights this International Day of Forests

Last year among the many environmental disasters, the ferocious burning of Amazon rain forests unleashed horrors on the home of indigenous communities, animals, biodiversity and the entire ecosystem.  The Indigenous tribes of Brazil, who have for generations lived in these forests and protected its biodiversity, believe that the fires were an attempt to grab the forest land andburn their rights and way of life”.

Indigenous Communities protecting and managing their resources guided by their centuries old customary knowledge and experience were trampled over in order to open the Amazon forest for private concessions.

Approximately 370 million indigenous people occupying 20 per cent of the Earths territory[1] and up to 2.5 billion people are dependent on critical natural ecosystems such as forests, commons, agriculture land for their livelihood and well-being[2]. The sheer magnitude of the data above confirms the constituency of land being both a political phenomenon and a socio-cultural and economic entity over which the identity and lives of thousands of millions are intricately linked.

While for many of us who live in urban spaces, our clearly demarcated and legal ownership over our living spaces is a nonnegotiable, it is not the same for lakhs of forest dwellers who face eviction in India. There is a strong correlation between lack of formal and legally recognized right of communities and their increased vulnerability, discrimination, marginalization and loss of identity.

The countries that have recognized legal tenures see clear results in the form of enhanced livelihood, rural development, economic development, asset creation, reduction in carbon emissions and conservation and management of ecosystems. On the flip side, non-recognition of land rights leads to conflicts, stalled investments, large scale diversion of forest and land for development projects and loss of livelihood.

The recently launched report ‘Locating The Breach: Mapping The Nature of Land Conflicts in India” by Land Conflict Watch supported by Oxfam India and Rights and Research Initiative, maps 703 ongoing land conflicts in India which affect the lives and livelihoods of 6.5 million people. A majority of these conflicts involve common lands and a large number of conflicts are caused due to violation or non-implementation of Forest Rights Act, 2006.

In particular, India has a transformational opportunity in the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA) which recognizes their legal rights over individual and community forest areas, the authority of the gram sabha and the rights over protection, conservation and management of forest resources. The Act has the potential to recognize rights of 200 million forest dwellers over 100 million acres in 1,70,000 villages. However studies show that even after a decade of the Act only 3% of the minimum potential area of Community Forest Rights could be achieved[3]. It’s fairly safe to conclude that we have failed miserably in honoring the provisions of the Act and the opportunity to see this as one of the largest land reform programs for India, increased rural livelihoods and conserved ecosystems is therefore limited.

On the contrary, the last year has seen multiple assaults starting with the Supreme Court order on eviction of forest dwellers that could in fact affect millions of people to other conflicting laws that violate the provisions under FRA. It completely negates global knowledge and emerging learnings which prove the importance of recognizing tenurial and ownership rights for resilient ecosystems and adapted livelihoods.

Custodians of our forests from the tribal and resource rich states often tell us about what forests are to them and I am reminded of one such instance.

Durga Murmu from village Dumartari, Godda District in Jharkhand said, “Who can be better than us to protect the forest? It is our land and we know it best. In 2015, the forest department had given us sagwan (teak) to grow in our forest. None of them survived. If we are to grow trees, we will know what best to grow according to the biodiversity of our forest. Isn’t it?”

Dumartari is a mixed village where the non-Adivasi families are more in number. FRA has given them a position of power with which they can talk to the Forest Department now. Recognizing that forest is their life and the primary source of income the community forest management committee has made rules to protect the forest and control cutting of trees.

This year’s theme for International Day of Forests is ‘Forest and Biodiversity’ which is linked with protecting and recognizing that those living in these forests have rights and are protectors of this land. This is an urgent call to action for the Government here and elsewhere and to remind them that there are no forests and biodiversity without people and protecting forests mean recognizing and securing the rights of the people that live in it.

 

[1] https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/mandated-areas1/environment.html

[2] https://www.wri.org/blog/2017/03/numbers-indigenous-and-community-land-rights

[3] https://www.fra.org.in/document/Promise%20and%20Performance%20Report.pdf

Economic Justice

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