Forests, Conservation & Indigenous Communities: Connecting the Dots

Forests, Conservation & Indigenous Communities: Connecting the Dots

Experts across the world are finally accepting the inherent connection between forests, conservation, and recognition of rights of indigenous communities. Bipasha Majumder takes a look at India’s legal framework vis-à-vis these communities

A tribal village in Odisha (Image credit: Bipasha Majumder)

Even before Andrew Waugh measured and declared it as the world’s tallest mountain in 1857, the ancient tribes of both Nepal and Tibet already knew the significance of Mt. Everest. Similarly, we know now that Mt. Kailash and Lake Mansarovar, venerated by many communities since centuries, is the place of origin of three of the world’s mightiest rivers.

In 2017, New Zealand’s Maori tribe won the recognition for Whanganui River to be treated as a living entity. The third largest river of the country is considered an ancestor by this tribe, who have been negotiating with the government for 140 years to provide it with the same legal status as humans.

In India, the particularly vulnerable tribe Dongria Kondh of Odisha, fought hard to protect the Niyamgiri hill range, considered a deity and a source of many rivers, from getting mined. In Surjagad, Maharshtra, another particularly vulnerable tribal group of Maria Gond is fighting to save their dense and bio-diverse forest of Surjagad hill range, again considered sacred, from a hoard of mining companies.

In Brazil’s Amazon rainforest region, only the area (Xingu Indigenous Park) protected by many tribes continues to be dense and green, while the rest of the area has been totally decimated through logging.

Experts across the world (including World Bank) are beginning to accept the role of forest dwelling communities in the conservation of forest ecosystems and biodiversity, an easy and cheap way of mitigating climate change. A study by World Resources Institute (WRI) and Rights and Resources Initiative states that land held by indigenous and local communities tends to be less impacted by deforestation than in land held privately or by the government. In Brazil, community held forests have a deforestation rate 22 times lesser than in other areas while in Mexican Yucatan, it’s 350 times lesser. Another report by WRI, which studied two community-owned indigenous territories of Brazilian Amazon and Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala, found that over a 20-year period, the two regions will prevent the release of 5.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide or emissions equivalent from a billion cars. The economic benefit of which has been calculated to surpass $160 billion.

Forests, Biodiversity, and India

According to MoEF&CC’s 2014 report, India is one of the world’s 17 megadiverse countries with 7-8% of all recorded species to be found here. Divided into 10 biogeographical zones with various ecosystems ranging from high mountains, deserts, wetlands, mangroves, plains, tropical and alpine forests, coastal, and coral reefs etc., India has over 45000 plant species, and 91000 animal species with over 30% endemism (species which can be found only in a particular region). Every year, new species of plants, animals, fungi etc. are still being discovered – in 2017, 499 new species of plants and animals were discovered across the country – while many species are already on the edge of extinction. Of the 34 biodiversity hotspots across the globe, four can be found in India itself: the Himalayas, Western Ghats, North East, and the Nicobar Islands.

Despite rapid urbanisation, we are still a country dependent on natural resources and climatic conditions. However, around 8% of the country’s population (Census 2011) are tribal communities who are directly dependent on forests and natural resources for their life and livelihood. In a Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO of the UN) article, the authors mention that of the 45000 plant species, 7500 are used by forest-dwellers for medicinal purposes (including ailments like jaundice, blood pressure, stomach worms, snake bites, bone fractures and even inducing abortion); around 3,900 are used as food (root, tubers, leafy vegetables, bulbs and flowers, and fruits); 300 species used in preparation and extraction of chemicals (used as insecticides/pesticides) etc. Through various socio-cultural practices such as nature-based taboos, sacred groves, nature worship, rotational farming etc., these forest-dwellers have helped in conserving and maintaining the balance of these forest ecosystems. Many of the local varieties of grains including millet and rice, which have recently seen resurgence in cities, have been made possible because of their preservation and continuous use by these communities.

Radical Indian Laws and the Forest Dwellers

Prior to the British, the tribals and the forest-dwelling communities not only had full access to the forests, but were also managed and conserved by them. The British, however, had looked at our forests as a source of revenue driving their timber trade, and hence considered the tribals and other forest-dwelling communities as encroachers. By merely adopting the Indian Forests Act of 1927, the title of which says “An Act to consolidate the law relating to forests, the transit of forest-produce and the duty leviable on timber and other forest-produce”, independent India carried forward the legacy of injustice against these communities and kept them away from what was rightfully theirs.

Panchayati (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act – PESA, 1996: The first shift towards recognition of this population group came with the National Forest Policy (1988), which emphasised the inter-dependence of these communities with forests and natural resources. But it was the enactment of PESA in 1996 that gave legal recognition to this community and their local customs. Even though it came 50 years late, PESA is a unique legislation that recognises the traditional practice of local self-governance through gram sabhas (village collective of all adults). It endows extraordinary powers to gram sabhas in tribal areas (Fifth Schedule of Indian Constitution), especially in the decision of managing and using their land, natural resources, and forest produce.

Forest Rights Act – FRA, 2006: In the 90s, a misinterpretation of a Supreme Court order led to large scale evictions of tribals and forest-dwellers from forests as they did not have any legal rights over their land. This eviction resulted in country-wide protests in the late 90s which ultimately led to the enactment of the Forest Rights Act in 2006. FRA has been considered a landmark and a radical Act, as for the first time it gave legal rights over land and natural resources on which these communities are dependent. The provision of Community Forest Rights (CFR) legally recognises the traditional boundary of each village and gives its ownership to the gram sabha. It also expects the community to use, manage, and conserve this area according to a plan drawn up by them. FRA also recognises the right of women over land, as well as other nature-dependent communities such as nomadic tribes, PVTGs, fisherfolks etc.

If implemented in its true spirit, both FRA and PESA’s potential is huge: shift of forest governance back to the community, improved food and livelihood security, promote inclusive decision making as it allows gram sabha to decide what they want to do with their land and natural resources, provide a means to tackle climate change through protection of forests and regeneration of degraded forests, and also move towards the global dialog on Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) of communities.

Both the government and CSRs can continue to debate and discuss India’s role and road-maps on the SDGs and climate action, but it will all be largely empty if they underestimate the importance of tribals and forest-dwelling communities in reducing or slowing ecological degradation, and/or recognising the vast potentials of these Acts. CSRs whose focus is largely on ecological sustainability, mitigating climate change, and livelihood security can do well to strengthen these processes and use modern techniques to preserve the practices and knowledge of these communities in conserving and protecting resources on which we all are dependent.

There you go!– a short film by Survival International gives an absolutely accurate picture of how the government/development sector have largely looked at these communities so far. A must watch.

Bipasha MajumderBipasha Majumder shifted to the social sector after working in advertising and media for a decade. She loves traveling to the grassroot, talking to the communities, understanding their issues first hand and writing about her experiences. Currently she works as an environmental researcher, and content and documentation specialist for various NGOs and CSR projects.