Thursday, April 23, 2009

Forest Rights Act: A blueprint for future conservation.

By Tushar Dash

The Forest Rights Act has been opposed by those who fear it will pave the way for the destruction of forests and wildlife. But in Orissa there is evidence that the Act is in fact being used by local communities to strengthen their conservation initiatives

The Badrama Wildlife Sanctuary in Sambalpur district is one of 18 protected areas in the state of Orissa. Around 30 villages are located inside the sanctuary area, inhabited mainly by tribal communities that depend on the forest for their livelihood. As in other forest areas of the state, the livelihoods of these forest-dwellers had been severely disrupted because of the absence of legal recognition of their right to access common forest and land resources.

Badrama Abhyaranya Vikas Parishad, a people’s organisation formed by youth from villages inside the sanctuary area, has been working on issues like non-settlement of rights of tribal communities, restrictions on collection of minor forest produce, recognition of community conservation initiatives, and participatory management of protected areas for a number of years and has tried to evolve a framework to balance conservation and livelihood.

The Forest Rights Act of January 2008 has created an opportunity not only to secure local communities’ right to access forests but also to set out a rights-based framework for conservation and natural resource governance. Under the aegis of the Parishad, people from around 30 villages inside the sanctuary area, who are actively involved in the protection of forests and wildlife, have used the Act to strengthen their conservation initiatives. The villages already have forest protection groups with well developed rules and regulations for the protection of forests and sustainable use of resources.

In these villages, the rights determination process has gone hand-in-hand with another process – the setting up of conservation and development committees in each village, under Section 5 of the Act. This section empowers the gram sabha and the community to protect, conserve and manage community forest resources and also to stop activities that are detrimental to local resources. They also plan to chalk out community biodiversity management plans to protect and use forest resources and biodiversity sustainably. These plans will be based on existing traditional practices, knowledge, rules and regulations on conservation developed and evolved by each community. When the plans are developed, the Parishad hopes to advocate for mainstreaming them in the management of the sanctuary and adjoining areas. This will necessitate changes in the existing management and working plans formulated by conservation agencies of the government.

The Parishad also aims to explore how other provisions of the law, like the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA), National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), Biological Diversity Act (BDA), and government watershed and soil conservation programmes can be used with the Forest Rights Act to strengthen community conservation initiatives and make productive use of community forest resources. For example, volunteers from village-level committees are actively involved in fire management work during the ‘fire season’. They are now demanding that conservation-related work such as forest fire management be included in the NREGS so that productive work can be generated out of the conservation process which, in turn, could provide incentives to the local community to participate in the community conservation process. Such integration could also lead to the realisation of ecological objectives of the NREGA that are neglected in the implementation plan and programmes. In addition, the organisation will try to influence panchayati raj institutions to integrate community-based resource management plans with the local governance agenda.

Badrama is not the only example in Orissa where the Forest Rights Act has helped the community conservation process. There are over 10,000 self-initiated forest protection groups in the state that have been fighting for legal rights over the community conservation process. Using this Act, community conservation groups in other parts of Orissa have also claimed rights over community forests and resources that they have traditionally been protecting. In Nayagarh district, forest protection groups have claimed rights over community forests under their protection. As have groups in other areas where the community forest management (CFM) process has been struggling for recognition and has held out against the joint forest management (JFM) process which often conflicts with the community conservation approach and practices. The Forest Rights Act now provides an opportunity for various community conservation groups to assert their rights over conservation in line with their own diverse management practices.

While the Act has directly helped the conservation process by recognising the rights of communities to conserve and manage community forest resources, it has also built hope for endangered communities to renew their efforts to save forests and resources threatened by massive industrialisation and mining. Niyamgiri, in Orissa’s Kalahandi district, is a case in point where primitive tribal groups like the Kutias and Dongrias have long protected the sacred forests and have fought to assert their traditional rights over them, in order to save them from unsustainable development projects. The Forest Rights Act’s particular provisions on the rights of primitive tribal groups, traditional and customary rights, and rights over community forest resources have given these people a chance to claim rights over sacred groves and sacred hills that are on the verge of destruction thanks to ongoing development projects in the area.

There are many such examples of how the law has created an opportunity to address issues of livelihood and the rights of forest communities. More importantly, the important issue of forest conservation.

Since its enactment, the Forest Rights Act has been challenged on grounds that it does not have any conservation potential and that recognition of rights would adversely affect forests and wildlife. But, as seen in the above examples, the emerging situation at the grassroots level is encouraging. The fact is that, until now, the conservation potential of the Forest Rights Act has either been overlooked or not yet fully explored. By securing the rights of communities over common property resources, the law has not only secured livelihoods for communities, it has also provided a framework for the protection, conservation and sustainable use of natural resources. This framework of rights and empowered conservation can be sustained and strengthened if, in addition to community and civil society efforts, the government focuses on the emerging opportunities.

The latest status report released by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MOTA) reveals that only 271,352 individual claims and 20,172 community claims have been filed at village-level committees so far. This means that the Act has reached only 20% of dependent communities; most have been left out of the process.

What is worrying is that community rights, which form a key component of the Act, are lagging behind. In many places, implementing agencies have not responded positively to community claims and have dealt only with individual rights. This suggests that there is a clear lack of commitment on the part of the implementing agencies to ensure rights over common lands and forest resources to the community. There is a need to renew work on this neglected aspect of the Act.

The following are some areas that require collective work among communities, civil society and government authorities.

* There are a number of empowering provisions in the Forest Rights Act that have not yet been fully explored and implemented. There is a need to focus on rights such as a) right of protection and conservation of community forest resources, b) right of access to biodiversity, and community rights to intellectual property and traditional knowledge related to biodiversity and cultural diversity, c) other traditional and customary rights of forest communities, d) rights of primitive tribal groups and pre-agricultural communities.

* Community rights secured under the Act, along with the empowered authority vested in the community and the gram sabha to protect forests and biodiversity, have brought about significant changes in the paradigm of conservation governance by laying a framework for rights-based conservation that encourages community participation and ownership and includes community conservation practices. This is a landmark shift in the process of conservation governance; its importance and potential must be appreciated by the government, conservation agencies and the community at large. Future conservation strategies need to be worked out on the basis of this changed framework. Ironically, government agencies have not yet come to terms with the conservation opportunities offered by the Forest Rights Act, let alone begun working on them. In Orissa, the government has recently embarked on a capacity-building programme which aims to cover all JFM committees within the next one decade, and will involve a huge investment. Government and conservation agencies need to appreciate opportunities in the Forest Rights Act, in the form of CFR rights and the empowered role of the community in conservation, and go beyond the JFM approach to strengthen the self-initiated community conservation process in the state. This would also require a role change for conservation agencies, in the changing scenario.

* There is a need for creative integration of laws like the Forest Rights Act, the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act, the Biological Diversity Act, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and programmes for watershed development and soil conservation to provide greater space for community conservation groups to assert their rights over community forest resources and evolve ways for productive and sustainable use of resources.

* Even after the enactment of the Forest Rights Act, forest clearances have been issued on forest land in areas claimed to be community forest resources. As the process of recognition and vesting of rights continues, and communities claim rights over common forest resources, the government authorities must refrain from giving away common resources over which communities have a substantial claim. Consultations must be held with the concerned gram sabha and with the Ministry of Tribal Affairs before any forest clearance for development projects goes ahead.

* Finally, the political leadership must realise the importance of the Forest Rights Act in solving longstanding issues of rights, livelihood and conservation. It is unfortunate that in the 2009 elections, the issue of forest rights and implementation of the Forest Rights Act does not figure in the priorities of any political party as is evident from the election manifestos released so far, both at the state and national level.

(Tushar Dash works with Vasundhara, a Bhubaneswar-based research and policy advocacy body focusing on natural resource governance)

InfoChange News & Features, April 2009

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