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Aug 21, 2015

“I will not leave my forest. I will keep my jungle”

Savvy Saumya   /   Savvy Soumya Misra

Community Forest Resource Rights under the Forest Rights Act

The study report on the potential of Community Forest Resource Rights under the Forest Rights Act being launched at an event in Delhi.

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“I will not leave my forest. I will keep my jungle.” Know the importance of CFR. http://bit.ly/1IZuW9P

Half of India’s forests fall within the purview of the CFR. Read more about it here. http://bit.ly/1IZuW9P

“Moro jongola chadi binaai” “Moro jongola munh rokhibi”(I will not leave my forest. I will keep my jungle) — Maheshwar Naik. 

Maheshwar is the president of Forest Rights Committee of Bilapaka Village in Gudgudia Gram Panchayat in Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district. 

He was speaking at the India International Centre (IIC) in New Delhi in July 2015 at the launch of a study report on the potential of Community Forest Resource Rights under the Forest Rights Act. 

Small yet resolute, Maheshwar voiced the sentiment of at least 140 million forest dwelling people — tribals (adivasis) and other traditional forest dwellers — across the country. 

His confidence, sense of immense ownership and security comes from a piece of laminated document he proudly waves at the audience. The piece of paper is his village’s Community Forest Rights (CFR) title over 1500 hectares of forest in the Simlipal Tiger Reserve in Odisha. 

Once called ‘encroachers’, Maheshwar and millions like him, are laying claim on what now is legally theirs. Since the colonial times Indian laws tagged forest dwellers as encroachers and criminalized their forest related activities be it grazing, farming, collecting forest produce or using water bodies. 

The Forest Rights Act passed in 2006 departed from this injustice by recognising the customary rights of the forest dwellers — individual and community forest rights.

It’s perhaps a little early for Maheshwar to talk about the benefits of CFR but testimonies of forest dwellers is proof of improved livelihoods post recognition of rights. 

Radaviya Bhai of Narmada district in Gujarat narrated how his village and a few others resisted the paper mill contractors and the forest department from taking their bamboo away. After they received the title, they harvested and sold the bamboo to the same paper mill contractors but on their own terms and earned about Rs 60 lakh from the sale.

The civil society organisations (CSO) played a critical role in enabling the adivasis and other forest dwellers to claim their rights over forest resources and manage and conserve them. For instance, Vasundhara in Odisha and ARCH Vahini in Gujarat were crucial in getting Maheshwar his rights and Radaviya Bhai’s village their dues. 

The CSOs have informed the communities of their rights, strengthened the gram sabhas and brought the communities together to stand up to the forest department and claim their rights. 

There are plenty of examples from other parts of the country as well. Villages in Gadchiroli in Maharashtra have traded bamboo to boost their community income. Villages in Gondia and Amravati district have been managing the collection and sale of tendu leaves for the last three years creating sustainable livelihood support for the community. Sirsanapalli village in Andhra Pradesh sold Rs 26 lakh worth of bamboo and used half the income for regeneration of forest and making their village a model village. 

The potential for CFR is huge in the country. According to Government of India’s data (census and the Forest Survey of India) at least half of India’s forests fall within the purview of the CFR under the Forest Rights Act. 

A 2015 joint study by Vasundhara, Rights and Resource Initiative (RRI) and National Rural Management Consultants (NRMC) shows that at least 40 million hectares of forest, in 1.7 lakh villages (1/4th of total villages in the country) can be brought under the Forest Rights Act. These will cover 120 districts and benefit 150 million forest dwellers, 90 million of who are Adivasis (Scheduled Tribes). For instance in Odisha, at least 32,711 villages with at least 2.3 million hectares of forest land are eligible for CFR. 

As per the last government data 73,000 hectares were recognized under the FRA. But according to field reports in the Vasundhara-RRI report there is gross under-reporting by the government. Perhaps one of the reasons is the under reporting by the states to the centre. The report suggests that CFR has been recognized in less than 5 lakh hectares of forest area. But that too is just 1.2 % of the total potential. 

As compared to the Individual Forest Rights, there is a lack of awareness of the community forest rights among the forest dwellers and so the demand is not as much. The recognition of rights is concentrated to areas where either the civil society organisation or the local administration has taken initiative. It’s, however, in the government’s best interest to give the titles of forest areas to the adivasis and other traditional forest dwellers. 

A 2015 study by scientists at Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Indonesia shows how local communities are protecting extensive areas of land – in contrast to assumptions that such communities overuse or damage natural resources.

Sustainable livelihood and economic gains notwithstanding the recognition of CFR should be pushed as an adaptation strategy to climate change and food and nutritional security. 

For instance, the Baigas in the Baiga-Chak belt of Dindori, Madhya Pradesh after getting their rights over the forest areas were able to get back their Minor Forest Produce, Non Timber Forest Produce, and over 30 varieties of fruits and tubers (essential for their nutrition). 

The 52 villages, in the Baiga-Chak belt, surrounded by the Achanakmar wildlife sanctuary and Bandavgarh and Kanha national parks were at the mercy of the forest department until the implementation of the Forest Rights Act. The forests were turned into monoculture forest of Sal trees in the 1980’sand they lost most of it after an insect (salborer) attack. For the Baiga adivasis who earn 80% of their livelihood from the forests, this was a huge setback. 

Having successfully rejuvenated the forest and their traditional food resources, the Baigas managed to revive their water bodies as well. “When we invited the Sub Divisional Magistrate to the village he was surprised at the eleven varieties of mushroom that we showed him.” said Balwant. Balwant represented the Baigas at the meeting at India International Centre, Delhi. 

In June 2015 Prime Minister Narendra Modi directed the Ministry of Tribal Affairs to implement the Forest Rights Act in campaign mode. He was disappointed with the performance of the “laggard” states—Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Kerala.  

Deadlines were set and orders given to speed up the implementation of recording and recognising the forest rights of the adivasis and the other traditional forest dwellers. 

It is intriguing though that the Prime Minister is keen on the speedy implementation of the Act especially when in the last one year of office his government’s policies have only pointed towards a possible dilution of the FRA. The Prime Minister wanted to bring a notification that does away with the Free Prior and Informed Consent or the FPIC powers vested with the Gram Sabha.

But a unified opposition in Parliament and a logjam of proceedings forced the government to bring FPIC back on the discussion table.

It is simple – at present the rights of a handful few (adivasis constitute about 8.6% of the total population) will not affect him electorally but it could have an aggregator effect. 

The opposition would ride on this notification (if it came through) and any other infringement of the rights of these handful of voters to corner the government.

 

Written by: Savvy Soumya Misra, Research Coordinator, Oxfam India

Photo credit: Bibhor Deo, Vasundhara

 

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