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'Rights, Not Favors': Citizenship Lessons from India's Forests

April 10, 2018
By: Janhavi Mittal

Cries of Maharbani Nakko, hakk havet (keep your favors, we want our rights) rend the early-morning sky as 40,000 farmers and forest dwellers from Maharashtra arrived in Mumbai a little before midnight on March 11, 2018. Commencing from Nashik, and covering 180 kilometers in less than six days, the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) led rally offered not only spectacular images of blistered, bloodied feet but a new unrelenting solidarity between the urban poor, forestry, and farming communities. Dubbed the Long March to Mumbai, the semi-success of the rally and the nature of its demands are unprecedented.

Farmers march towards Maharashtra Vidhan Sabha as part of the Kisan Long March, Maharashtra. Credit: TheInnocentBystander, (CC BY-SA 4.0).
Thriving, not just surviving: the AIKS rally marches towards the Maharashtra Vidhan Sabha. Credit: TheInnocentBystander, (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Of the seven key demands, the call for the proper implementation of the 2006 Forest Rights Act (FRA) is particularly significant. By underscoring FRA’s importance, the rally highlighted the colonial legacy of state usurpation of forestry commons and the new threats posed to this rare progressive forestry legislation. The onus of its poor implementation is often justly attributed to an incompetent forestry bureaucracy. However, part of the blame also lies with new domestic legislations like the Compensatory Afforestation Fund (CAF) Act, and forest centered climate change mitigation strategies, implemented through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) sanctioned Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) programs.

What is the Forest Rights Act?

FRA, also known as the Scheduled Tribes and Traditional Forest Dwellers Act, covers over 86.5 million ha of Indian forests and has the potential to benefit one-fifth of the Indian population. Drafted in 2006 by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA), as opposed to the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Climate Change (MoEFCC) — FRA is the largest decentralized democratization effort of forestry governance in the world.

An inspiring win: The Dongria Kondh tribe (pictured in exhibition) of the bauxite rich Niyamgiri Hills effectively mobilised the FRA to resist mining operations by Vedanta Aluminium Ltd. Credit: Ramesh Lalwani. (CC BY-NC 2.0). Image resized and cropped.
An inspiring win: the Dongria Kondh tribe (pictured in exhibition) of the bauxite rich Niyamgiri Hills effectively mobilised the FRA to resist mining operations by Vedanta Aluminium Ltd. Credit: Ramesh Lalwani. (CC BY-NC 2.0). Image resized and cropped.

A result of wide-scale public mobilization of agrarian and forest dwelling communities, along with civil society organizations, this watershed legislation recognizes 14 types of pre-existing rights of forest dwellers — including both individual and community forestry resource rights (IFR and CFRs) — over all categories of forestland. In doing so, the FRA is an acknowledgement of the historic wrongs meted out to Adivasi communities by the colonial state and postcolonial India.

Additionally, FRA promotes community ownership and management of forestland and resources through politically representative Gram Sabhas (village assemblies) instead of elite committees nominated by the forestry departments. Making consent mandatory for forestry governance rather than consultation with the Gram Sabhas, FRA made a move away from other decentralized but less democratic directives, like the Joint Forest Management plan (1990).

FRA is also an attempt to rectify India’s troubling history of exploitative conservation policies. Extending its scope to include ‘Protected Areas’, the FRA secures traditional forest dwelling communities against displacement while also acknowledging their immense success as environmentalists.

Implementing forest rights: The case of Maharashtra

While much critical ink has been spilt on the poor implementation of the FRA, the state of Maharashtra in Western India is touted as its prime success story. This is why the Long March’s emphasis on FRA’s improper implementation is pivotal in examining the old and new challenges to this pro-poor legislation — the implications of which extend well beyond Maharashtra.

The Citizen’s Report, produced by Community Forest Rights Learning and Advocacy group, assessing the Promise and Performance of 10 years of the Forest Right Act in Maharashtra, highlighted some of the challenges brought forward by the rally as well. One notable finding is the uneven implementation of the FRA to only some districts of the state.

Leafing the way: Tribal communities in Gadchiroli drying tendu leaves– this year they bypass the powerful contractor lobby to claim full autonomy over this valuable CFR. Credit: Subodhkiran, (CC BY-SA 4.0).
Leafing the way: tribal communities in Gadchiroli drying tendu leaves– this year they bypass the powerful contractor lobby to claim full autonomy over this valuable CFR. Credit: Subodhkiran, (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Gadchiroli district demonstrates the FRA’s checkered history in Maharashtra. The success of individual and community claims filed over land and other resources such as tendu leaves, has led to a considerable increase in the shared economic wealth of the district. This, however, is quite exceptional and can be attributed to a long history of indigenous activism in the region that helped frame the FRA. Continuing this tradition, grassroots activists and civil society organizations are now instrumental in its implementation through awareness raising of community forestry rights (CFR), individual forestry rights (IFR), and mobilizing of Gram Sabhas to file mass CFR and IFR claims.

However, recourse to the FRA has not been as effective in protecting the cultural and traditional relationships of indigenous communities to their forestland. Disregarding the principle of consent, forestry officials imposed mining operations in the Surajgarh hills contending that the FRA applies only to forestry resources and not complete land access.

Re-inventing the Forestry Raj

The example of Gadchiroli reveals both administrative and legislative hurdles to the FRA. Much of this can be attributed to the existence of two parallel ‘forestland regimes’– a formal and informal network of actors, authorities, and institutions — that differ drastically over the governance and ownership rights of forestland and natural resources.

The FRA, under the protection of the MoTA, represents a progressive forest regime comprised of pro community environmentalists, forest dependent groups, and grassroots activists, whereas the ‘empire forest regime’ — largely supported by the MoEFCC– seeks to undermine FRA through colonial forestry laws that favor state control of forestry commons for the purpose of resource extraction and land grabbing.

The MoEFCC’s bureaucratic approach to governing forests is visible in its preference of laws and programs similar in spirit to the Indian Forestry Act of 1927, characterized by both state sanctioned forest grabs and exclusionary bourgeois environmentalism. A recurring feature is the hollowness of token consultations with forest department nominated village councils that lack genuine collaboration with the impacted communities.

Again, Maharashtra provides an example of the overlapping and contradictory forest regimes in India. Re-defining ‘community forests’ as ‘village forests’ in 2014, the state government tried to implement Maharashtra Village Forest Rules that hampered the autonomous functioning of democratically elected Gram Sabhas and denied them the management of community forest resources. Despite initial attempts to defend the FRA, the state-level MoTA’s acquisition to the pressure put by the MoEFCC at the central level and the state government, set up a dangerous precedent for overruling the FRA, both in Maharashtra and across the country. As the federal structure of the country is misused to undermine the effectiveness of the FRA, the rally’s pressure at the state level has a national resonance.

Green India solutions to ‘Wicked problems’

Threats to the FRA are further accelerated by climate change ‘solutions’ focused on carbon offsetting, that treat forests as a lucrative commodity in climate mitigation.

Climate experts have often dubbed ‘climate change’ as a wicked problem, one so embedded in social, economic, and political structures that proposed solutions to it spawn further ‘unforeseeable and unwelcome side effects.’ Promoted by neoliberal agencies like the World Bank, the impact of financializing forests as a source of climate mitigation is bitterly predictable. As the Oakland Institute’s continued work on ‘carbon violence’ in Uganda has demonstrated, some of the most precarious people on the planet bear the burden of carbon trading schemes from which they never benefit.

India’s push for compensatory afforestation and re-forestation at the UNFCCC confirms two main fears about Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) programs that use forests for climate mitigation — ‘carbonization’ and ‘centralization’ of forest governance. Green India Mission — an attempt to sync forestry governance with climate governance as part of the 2010 National Action Plan on Climate Change — claims a synergistic approach to forest management. However, apart from some perfunctory lip service, there is little that links forestry related climate mitigation with biodiversity concerns or the rights of forest dwelling communities. Its choice of carbon offsets over biodiversity is visible in the continued preference of setting up compensatory plantations in the name of afforestation, when preventing deforestation would avoid ecological degradation and habitat loss for traditional forest-dwelling communities.

Furthermore, the MoEFCC finds itself in a double bind over its attitude towards REDD+. On one hand, it justifies carbon driven financialization of forests as a supplement to industry favored finance forestry policies that are already in place. On the other, the MoEFCC refuses to hold itself answerable to the social imperatives of the UNFCCC, arguing that pre-existing safeguards around biodiversity and forestry conservation, such as the Forest Conservation Act, the Wildlife Act, and the Joint Forestry Management committees are adequate. Notably, claims of a pre-existing decentralized governance structure do not translate into democratic governance, particularly as the distribution of funds accumulated from carbon credits enhances the power of forestry bureaucracy over forest dwelling communities.

REDD+ ready? The threat of the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act

The MoEFCC’s claim that India’s forestry governance makes it REDD+ ready is only more cause for concern. Nowhere is the tendency towards authoritative governance more obvious than in the Compensatory Afforestation Fund (CAF) Act, 2016 and the recently released draft rules for implementing it.

Around the same time as the inception of the FRA in 2006, the MoEFCC strengthened the idea of ‘compensatory afforestation’ — requiring a fine be levied on industries partaking in the felling of forests. The fine was to contribute towards equivalent projects of reforestation, although paying little heed to the qualitative and complex ecosystems of felled forests. The CAF Act enables the central government to disperse the funds accumulated so far — almost to the order of 500 billion rupees (7.71 billion dollars) — to state forestry departments to carry out afforestation projects.

The CAF Act is not the first legislative attempt at financializing forestry in India. The principle of compensation can be traced to the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) of 1980 that mandated an equivalent amount of non-forestry land be diverted for every deforested land. In the absence of an equivalent amount of non-forestry land, twice the amount of degraded forestry land is to be considered as adequate compensation. Although the CAF Act is in violation of the FCA as it doesn’t necessitate that compensatory afforestation take place within the same state, it is remarkably similar in spirit in overlooking the economic, nutritional, and cultural rights of traditional forest dwelling committees as their consent is of little significance.

Using a familiar underhanded neoliberal trick of presenting decentralization as democratization, the CAF Act encourages states to compete for setting up afforestation plantations in order to dip into this centralized fund. By making state forestry departments the beneficiaries of these funds and facilitators of dubious forms of afforestation, the grip of forestry bureaucracy is both entrenched and doubled — the community rights over forestlands are subordinated, as well as new ‘non-forestry’ land is brought under the control of state forestry departments.

With 70 percent of the CAF plantations set up on pre-existing forestry land, the CAF Act is one of the greatest threats to the Forest Right Act. Contrary to the Union government’s assurances, the draft rules for implementing CAF, released in February 2018, clearly water down the protections of the FRA that prioritized consent of community elected Gram Sabhas. A report by Amnesty International points out how this is done at two levels. First, the draft rules project a false equivalence of democratically elected Gram Sabhas with consultation committees such as Van Suraksha Samitis (Forest Protection Committees) and ‘Village Forest Committees’, appointed by the forest department. Simultaneously, by resorting to an older, narrower definition of Gram Sabhas against a more inclusive conception mandated by the FRA, their democratic composition is undermined. Furthermore, in areas where the claims to community forests remain unsettled, neither consultation nor consent is given much importance.

Forestry from Above

Covert distortions are not entirely new to India’s domestic forestry policies, particularly when it comes to defining a forest. A detailed critique of the CAF act highlights the strategically vague and ever-expanding definition of forests, based on an unsound quantitative parameter of ‘tree cover’ rather than qualitative land use practice of local communities.

A definition of ‘forests’ based on tree cover is not only bad ecology, but also a ‘win-win’ for industries and industry biased forest bureaucracies. This definition establishes a fluid boundary between forests and non-forests — enabling easy clearances for forestry felling and acquisition of ‘non-forestry land’. The latter is particularly insidious as the Trojan horse of ‘afforestation for public purpose’ is deployed for the dilution of land acquisition laws — allowing ‘land banks’ to be set up in disputed or community owned land.

Such ecological shortsightedness is apparent in Green India Mission’s reliance on a forestry survey mechanism, which gauges carbon benefits through a monitoring of forest covers, with little demonstrable ability to address biodiversity or livelihood concerns of the local communities. The recently released Draft National Forest Policy (DNFP) of 2018 reinforces these fears. While the DNFP announces a new focus on climate change mitigation through sustainable forestry, it offers little explicit support for the FRA. What renders its commitment to people’s participation most suspect is the clause that advocates for a ‘public — private’ partnership model that would hand over reserved forests, particularly degraded forest land, to private industries for setting up plantations.

This would affect the gains of the FRA in three main ways. First, this public-private model sets out to undermine the autonomous authority of the Gram Sabhas in the name of joint participation. Second, the use of public forestland for commercial monocultural plantations of timber, poplar, and eucalyptus at the inevitable expense of pro-community forms of afforestation through fuel and fodder development, has little ecological merit. Finally, permitting industries to extract raw materials through state forestry resources undermines a direct relationship between industries and forest dwelling communities, at significant economic expense to the latter.

Jal, Jangal, Zameen (Water, Forests, Land)!

As the draft rules for CAF Act and the National Forestry Policy galvanize debate about threats posed to the community management of forests and enhanced scope for land grabs, the importance accorded to the FRA at the AIKS organised rally, now spreading to other states in India, reinforces the need of grass root engagement with forestry policies and the role of forest dwelling communities as political actors. The spectacular coming together of the urban and rural poor, the farmers and landless agrarian laborers with forest dwellers offers a valuable lesson to the state government and the MoEFCC that the ecological justice of Jal, Jangal, Zameen (Water, Forests and Land) cannot be reasoned away through dubious compensation.

This lesson must be held on to steadfastly if India is to resist an international climate reductivism that treats forests as carbon sinks and financialized climate-mitigating tools. India’s history is one of oppressive financial forestry that is only exacerbated by increasing REDD+ readiness to carbonize forests. Oppression of indigenous and forest dwelling communities, land grabbing, and violation of community and individual forest and forestry access rights through financialized forestry is a far cry from the purported aims of climate justice. It is therefore critical for the Indian government to implement and strengthen the FRA against parallel colonial and neocolonial carbon driven forestry schemes.