Mobilising Forest Dwelling Communities to Claim Individual and Community Forest Rights

Mobilising Forest Dwelling Communities to Claim Individual and Community Forest Rights

“I stay in the Bijali village which is surrounded by mountains and forests on all sides. After the Forest Rights Act came in operation in 2008, we came to know that the agricultural land we have been cultivating and community forest where we collect fruits, leaves and other Minor Forest Product (MFP) can be recognised under this law,” says Patra Mallick from Bijali village in Kandhamal district in Odisha.

Patra is one of the 300 million people, especially the Adivasis, in India whose lives and livelihoods are intrinsically linked to the forest ecosystem for resources such as food, fodder, agriculture, housing, and other MFP (Parliamentary committee Report, 2019). It is worth noting that Adivasis comprise of 8.6% of the total population yet they lag almost 20 years behind the average population in growth and poverty indicators such as per capita income, literacy rate, health status, and lack of access to basic amenities. One of the major reasons for these poor indicators is lack of access and basic rights over resources. 

The forest dwellers have, historically, lost their forests — their land, water, and livelihoods — to the big corporations that are keen on the forests for mining and power. This has been because the adivasis and other traditional forest dwellers did not have formal rights on these resources. And the impact can be gauged thus — It is estimated that since independence more than 60 million people have been displaced due to mining, of which 30% were Adivasis and this was because they had no legal titles over these land and forests. (Report of HLC, MoTA 2014). 

There was an attempt to right this wrong with the 2006 legislation, The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act. The Act (henceforth referred to as the Forest Rights Act (FRA)) is a landmark legislation in the struggle of adivasi and forest dwellers movement to address the historical injustice done to them and an attempt to recognise and record their existing rights on the forest land. 

The FRA recognises the traditional and customary rights of forest dwellers both at the individual and community levels. The Act that came into force in 2008 has seen 42,10,378 individual and community forest rights being claimed by forest dwelling communities across India. However, according to government reports only 18,79,372 claims, i.e. 40% of the claims, have been approved till 2018. There continues to be major problems in the implementation of the Act. Only around 10-13% of potential forest area has been recognised under FRA. 

READ TEN YEARS OF THE FOREST RIGHTS ACT: OPPORTUNITY LOST?

Oxfam India is working with communities in Jharkhand, Odisha, and Chhattisgarh to spread awareness about the Act, and on issues of conservation and management of forest. Patra is one of them who managed to receive his individual forest rights over the land they had been cultivating for generations. This was made possible after Oxfam India and Amagam, a Kandhamal-based NGO, conducted trainings and awareness workshops on filing claims and forming the Forest Rights Committee (FRC).

“Once we formed the committee in our village, we supported four other villages in setting up their FRCs and submitting their community claims,” says Patra who has been trained as a community mobiliser by AMAGAM. Patra and many like him have been tirelessly working to engage with the stakeholders, educate, and organize them, which has helped them claim their community rights also. 

“Though we have been fighting for recognition of individual land titles, we realised that community forest titles are very important as we depend on forests for income and food.  Now we are working with the villagers for filing of community rights and creating a thorough understanding of the community forest rights. This has helped us to collectively organise our resources towards the process,” says Kishore Baliarsingh, executive secretary, AMAGAM. 

FOUR REASONS WHY THE FOREST RIGHTS ACT FAILS TO EMPOWER FOREST-DWELLING COMMUNITIES

In India, the FRA continues to be a landmark piece of legislation that has empowered Adivasis and other traditional forest dwellers and struck a balance between maintaining environmental sustainability, ecological biodiversity, and human rights at the individual and community levels. 

Oxfam India is proud to stand in solidarity with AMAGAM’s efforts to mobilise the forest dwelling communities of Kandhamal district and ensure better implementation of the Act. 

Text By - Sreetama Gupta Bhaya, Programme Coordinator-Natural Resource Management and Vineet John Samuel, Intern, New Delhi


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