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InfoChange News & Features, 01 January 2008
Recognising the rights of forest communities
Lakshmy Raman
Tribal rights activists are celebrating the notification of the Forest Rights Act. Opponents of the law, including many noted wildlife enthusiasts, see it as the last nail in the coffin for India's forests.  Shankar Gopalakrishnan and Lakshmy Raman slug it out

There was a time when the English media had never heard of forests or forest dwellers.  Now that has changed.  In the last two years, the newspapers have been rife with arguments that India's forests are being sold, parcelled out, hived off or destroyed.  TV channels run public interest ads with forlorn children lamenting the loss of India's natural heritage.

The source of all this sound and fury is a new legislation, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.  Contrary to the allegations made against it, this Act has nothing to do with "distributing" or "handing out" forests or forest land to people.  It is about recognising the rights of forest communities

Millions of people live in forests and have done so for generations, but most are deemed "encroachers" because they aren't on record.  Forest management plans and wildlife protection plans ignore them.  Official policy sees them as obstacles, inconveniences at best and criminals at worst, and tries to evict or resettle them where possible.

But this hasn't worked.  Our wildlife is disappearing.  Poachers are free to move when there are no people; they even get help from impoverished locals, while forest guards turn corrupt because it is so easy to extort money from these same locals.  Meanwhile, forests erupt in violence as people turn against the official "conservation" that subjects them to such brutality. The result?  Animals, forests and people die, in what the Tiger Task Force called the "war within".

This law is the first step towards addressing this situation. It does not distribute lands.  It only recognises the rights of forest dwellers over land that they are already cultivating, with a cutoff date of December 13, 2005 (in the case of tribals; non-tribals have to additionally prove that they have resided in the forest for 75 years).  It also recognises their rights to other forest resources.  Further, it recognises their right to protect the forests and wildlife that are their homelands.

This last right is the key.  Tens of thousands of villages across India today are defending forests and wildlife against mafias and the government – as in Orissa, where the Dongaria Kondh tribals are fighting to keep their sacred mountain from being destroyed by the Vedanta mining corporation.  In current law, this is a crime, and people have been arrested, jailed and sometimes killed for doing it. This Act would for the first time make this a legal right.

But this is not just one more legal proviso.  It is a pointer to the fundamental issue in the struggle.  This law does not pit people against forests.  It takes the first faltering steps towards a more democratic, more just system of forest management, as against colonial principles of total, centralised control.  Those who so fiercely oppose this law tend to assume that the only way to protect a forest is to make sure that all control is kept in the hands of a few.  This does not work, and it cannot work.  Five lakh hectares of forest have been destroyed in the last five years alone under the current centralised system, in which no one can hold the government accountable.

It is not that this law does not have flaws.  Powerful interests have managed to dilute some key democratic aspects of the law.   But to attack this law in this manner, to seek to restore the once-omnipotent forest bureaucracy to its pedestal, is not to defend the forests.  It is to strengthen those for whom both forests and forest dwellers are commodities – to be sold when valuable and to be brushed aside when not.

(Shankar Gopalakrishnan is a representative of the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a collective of organisations fighting for the recognition of the rights of traditional forest dwellers and indigenous peoples.)

Declining tiger populations, degraded forest corridors, sanctions for ports and mines, and unsustainable tourism practices – those responsible for wildlife management have undoubtedly failed us on many counts.  However, providing land rights in forested areas, particularly Protected Areas, even under the guise of recognising the rights of forest dwellers, will mean jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

Allowing land rights would work if these were low-density populations with minimal forest dependence. The Forest Rights Act offers instant gratification without considering the long-term implications on global climate change, on our environment, biodiversity, water security, and the future of the same forest-dwelling people that it claims to benefit. Estimates for CO2 emissions from total forest conversion, which will be triggered by the FRA, range from 4.8 billion tonnes to 6.25 billion tonnes. Deforestation is already responsible for an estimated 18% of greenhouse gas emissions globally (Stern Review), and over 26% in India. How will large tribal communities be able to protect forests and use them in a sustainable manner when even stringent laws, in the face of vested interests, have not been completely effective?

Increasing human-animal conflict is already a huge problem, one bound to increase if forest dwellers are given land rights. How can one presume that corruption is prevalent only in forest departments and will not afflict gram sabhas? There is no guarantee that these lands will not be resold to commercial interests.

While there are examples of forested areas where tribals have fought large corporations, there are also several examples where encroachment and poaching have been instigated by locals. Consider the Kawal Sanctuary in Andhra Pradesh where locals have encroached large tracts of forest and destroyed thousands of trees.

Our forests and wildlife are indeed the inheritance of our children – ads showing their loss if the FRA is implemented have got it right. Wildlifers and social activists need to work together to fight the common enemies – large-scale commercial projects, international poaching gangs and real estate and timber mafias. There is no universal formula and the focus must be to work on a case-by-case basis. The power balance is overwhelmingly against forests and wildlife and the decisions we take will decide their and our fate.