Five years after it was implemented, the Forest Rights Act finally takes root. Communities across the country rush to claim rights over forests and their produce, particularly bamboo. But they …
Nobody in Loyendi village keeps track of time. But for its 150-odd residents, December 7, 2012, is a day to remember. “It is our independence day,” says village elder Petra Kanhara. On this day, the village in Odisha’s Kandhamal district got community right over 20 mountains full of forests under the Forest Rights Act (FRA). “Now, the forests and their produces are rightfully ours,” he smiles. Till now, paper mills had exclusive access to the vast bamboo resources the mountains have.
Back in 1967, people of Loyendi, most belonging to the Kondh tribe, became encroachers on their own land when the Odisha government declared the surrounding forest as reserve forest. The government had abandoned them, they felt and wondered why the forest they worshipped so ardently was being snatched away from them.
FRA, introduced in 2006, proved to be the gamechanger. Its two provisions turned the story around. The Act gives communities the right to protect and manage forests under traditional use. It also allows communities to own, manage and sell bamboo, which it calls a minor forest produce. FRA recognises rights for settlement and farming in forest areas, and community rights over minor forest produce. In 2009, all the residents of Loyendi got individual settlement rights.
The turnaround was not easy. The community had to fight an intense battle with the mighty forest bureaucracy, and a paper mill major employed exclusively by the Orissa Forest Development Corporation (OFDC) to procure bamboo from these forests.
Loyendi residents worked in these forests as bamboo cutters, earning Rs 30 in a day. The paper mill, on the other hand, was procuring bamboo at throwaway prices—Rs 180 for a tonne, or 2,400 metres, of bamboo. At the local market, one metre fetches Rs 20. The forests sustain the domestic needs of 25 other villages, besides helping close to 1,000 artisans.
“Years of bamboo harvesting by the paper mill had depleted the forests. We were looking for an opportunity to protect them while earning from them,” says resident Bal- krishna Kanhara.
But even in 2011, five years after FRA was implemented, nobody knew about its provisions. The forest bureaucracy opposed FRA and took no step to popularise it. The campaign by non-profit Vasundhara to sensitise the community on FRA worked to people’s benefit. “The first thing we decided to do was stop the paper mill from taking away bamboo from the forests,” says Binayak Kanhara, president of the forest rights committee, the nodal body to implement the Act in the village.
On January 25, 2011, the gram sabha wrote to the divisional forest officer (DFO), saying it was illegal for the paper mill to cut the bamboo. The DFO shot back, saying there was no official recognition of the village’s community right under FRA. A heated exchange of letters ensued. The forest department argued it had the right to allow harvesting in the forest until the community right was claimed and recognised. “The paper mill officials tried to bribe me. When I refused, they threatened me of physical harm,” says village sarpanch Bishnu Charan Malik who has been instrumental in getting community rights to many villages in his panchayat.
On January 31, the gram sabha wrote to the state-level monitoring committee of FRA, which is headed by the state chief secretary. After this, the response was smooth: forest officials came to Loyendi. After a four-hour discussion, government ordered the paper mill to stop harvesting bamboo. The paper mill winded up in a hurry, leaving behind some 40,000 clumps of bamboo. In February, the village was drafting its community forest right (CFR) claim. Loyendi became the first village in the state to get its community claim title over customary forests by using the traditional tribal system of forest demarcation called sandhi.
The message from this unheard of village now echoes in Kandhamal’s forests, covering close to 90 per cent of the district’s area. Step into any patch of forest here, one will find a community that owns and manages it. Of the 2,415 villages, 1,907 have got CFR over 57,880 hectares of forests, the highest in the country.
Within months, seven villages near Loyendi managed to stop the paper mill from harvesting bamboo. Another 25 understood the importance of FRA which gives people the right to own, manage and sell bamboo. Bamboo cutting almost stopped in the district. The state’s chief conservator of forests rushed to the villages and requested people to allow bamboo harvesting, but the people refused. The paper mill had to withdraw from the district in March 2012.
It’s not just communities living in the forested areas of Odisha that are excited about managing their own forests. There has been a surge in claims across the country (see ‘Rush for bamboo’,) ever since April 2011, when Jairam Ramesh, the then environment minister, gave transit passes to the people of Mendha Lekha to transport bamboo. Mendha Lekha in Maharashtra was the first to get community forest rights (CFR) in 2009. Between April 2011 and November 2012, about 14,000 claims have been made.
In September 2012, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs amended the Forest Rights Act (FRA) rules after several campaigns pointed out its ambiguity. FRA did not specify how villages would manage forests after CFR was granted.
The new rules give gram sabhas the authority to issue transit passes and prepare conservation and management plans for forest resources after their rights over the resources are recognised. It mandates that the administration cannot arbitrarily reject forest rights claims. All villages with forest-dwellers must get forest rights related to protection, regeneration and management of community forest resources.
Now that many villages have received CFR, people have evolved fascinating village-level forest management plans. Villages of Odisha and Maharashtra have already enforced management plans for forests. Loyendi, Priedi and Jamguda in Odisha have taken up community-driven forest fire control activities (see ‘On managing mode’). Mendha Lekha has collaborated with the government to transfer the rural development fund directly to its gram sabha for watershed development in bamboo forests. Pachgaon in Chandrapur district has its own management plan (see ‘Complexities simplified’). “This will revive forest communities’ traditional practices,” says Bhubaneswar-based forest rights activist Sudhanshu Sekhar Deo.
Transfer of authority
“Now that rules have been clarified we expect community to assert its right,” says V Kishore Chandra S Deo, Union Minister of Tribal Affairs.
But people have tough challenges ahead. First, most bamboo forests have paper mills as captive market. In fact, government has drafted policies that favour paper mills. In Odisha, 98 per cent of the extracted bamboo goes to paper mills. In Maharashtra, 66 per cent of the bamboo forests are controlled by just one paper mill. Sixty per cent of the bamboo in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are supplied to paper mills. The rest is auctioned for commercial purpose. “The challenge for the community is to look for a captive market as big as paper mills. I don’t think paper mills will come to the community because prices will definitely go up,” says Santosh Sarangi, commissioner, tribal affairs.
Second, communities, which have no government support, are not well equipped to handle this new business. And lurking around are stakeholders ready to manipulate the market.
In the only district trying to do business in bamboo in the new regime, manipulative stakeholders are all out to claim their share. On December 25, Down To Earth secretly recorded an unusual meeting on the outskirts of Gadchiroli in Maharashtra. Bamboo contractor V K Anand was addressing 200-odd people: “Tendu market has crashed to an all-time low this year. The rates have fallen to half in many states. Do not worry if you do not get a good price. Rates keep fluctuating. You can make up for the loss in the coming years.” Anand tells them about a new auction mechanism for tendu leaves, also a minor forest produce, as people listen to him stupefied.
“We have done it for bamboo. We will do it for tendu, too,” Anand ends his speech gaining people’s confidence. Within no time, he orchestrates a 10-member committee which will auction tendu leaves on behalf of more than 115 villages. Soon, a leading regional newspaper publishes a tender notice under Anand’s name inviting bids for advance sale of tendu leaves from these villages. The notice states that gram sabhas of these villages have authorised him to do so.
Legal experts say only a gram sabha committee can perform functions related to management and sale of forest produce. No one outside the gram sabha can be a member of this committee.
Following strong reactions, on January 5 people saw two notices in the morning newspapers—a public notice by the deputy conservator of forests of Vadsa division, and a modified version of the tender notice.
The public notice asked people not to get “misguided” by an “unauthorised person” who was misusing FRA for personal monetary gains. The modified tender notice this time authorised Hiraman Warkhede, a former MLA, to perform the auctioning. Warkhede had earlier led the fight for CFR in many of these 115-odd villages. He defends Anand, saying, “We take decisions for all the villages as a federation of gram sabhas. Anand is helping us in the process as an adviser.” Anand tried to clear his name, saying trade in tendu leaves is not his business. “I am helping people exercise their rights.”
Here lies the catch. While the contractor claims to have no business interest in tendu leaves, he is quite interested in the bamboo of these villages. “The contractor is eying bamboo of these villages in the guise of tendu deal,” says an agent who trades in forest produce in the region. “Anand is enticing people to be loyal to him so that he can monopolise the bamboo trade.”
The bamboo contractor shifted from Madhya Pradesh to Gadchiroli in 2011 when Mendha Lekha got its community forest rights title. In the absence of other buyers, the village directly sold all its bamboo to Anand. The next year, six villages harvested bamboo. All of it was bought by Anand. While Mendha Lekha sold bamboo through competitive bidding and got a price higher than last year, the other five villages sold bamboo without tenders on Mendha Lekha rates.
Some activists feels people were misguided. “The contractor colluded with a few village leaders to strike the deal. Had people opted for tenders they would have earned much more,” says an activist who did not wish to be named. When Down To Earth visited some of these villages, it found people were not aware of the profits their gram sabha had made from bamboo sales.
Even as people of the two villages were staking claim over bamboo, a third claimant emerged. In February 2012, the country’s largest paper manufacturer, Ballarpur Industries, started felling in the forest without consulting the people of Marda. In 1968, the Maharashtra government had leased most of its bamboo to Ballarpur Industries. In November 2011, the forest department gave the paper mill permission to fell bamboo in all the patches ready for harvest. This included many villages which had received community forest rights. People of Marda wrote to the forest department to stop the paper mill from felling in their forest. When the department did not respond, people forced the paper mill workers to stop the felling and seized the harvested bamboo from the paper mill.
There are issues that still need to be solved, says Ashish Kothari of non-profit Kalpavriksh. It must be found how gram sabhas can ensure equity and sustainability in forest management. Besides, the district administration must take responsibility when people seek help in the new trade. “In none of the rules or guidelines is there any mention of the forest department’s role,” he says.
The administration, on the other hand, is seeking an easy but flawed way out. “It is essential that the forest department is engaged in the entire process,” says Abhishek Krishna, district collector of Gadchiroli. “If a forest guard is made a member of the gram sabha committee, he can guide the gram sabha on sustainable management. The administration can make the forest guard accountable if anything is amiss. The gram sabha can also introduce a talathi (revenue staff) or a gram sevak in place of forest guards,” he says.
“But that would be illegal,” says Madhu Sarin of non- profit Campaign for Survival and Dignity. “Law does not provide for anyone other than a gram sabha member to be part of its committee”.
“Even if the forest guard, who is at the lowest level of the machinery, enters in the committees, he will have most of the control. This is what happened in Joint Forest Management,” adds Kothari.
The forest department should work as an advisory body to the gram sabha and provide technical inputs the way the agriculture department helps farmers. The environment ministry should issue a circular in this regard, Kothari says.
Upadhyay informs that as per FRA gram sabha can complain to the state-level monitoring committee if any government department does not cooperate with it. The committee will have to respond within 60 days, he says.
This season, be it in Loyendi or in Marda, communities are expecting their rights reaffirmed and economic condition improved. It has taken more than 150 years to right the wrongs done to the forest communities. They cannot afford another round of government apathy. “It is better late than never,” says activist Sudhanshu Sekhar Deo. “But it should not be so late that we miss the opportunity.”
Tribal village Pachgaon to follow Mendha Lekha; to hold bamboo sale as protest to gain community forest rights
Improved claim formats; no unfair caveats
Forest department’s role in managing forest resources curtailed
Tribals and forest dwellers don’t need to obtain transit passes to cart away the produce; minimum support price scheme for MFPs to be in place by January 2013
Where titles have been granted, average size of land holdings much smaller than what the Forest Rights Act provides for, says status report on implementation of the Act
Flawed forestland titles to be re-examined, says top forest official
He is not allowed to cart away bamboo poles purchased from village conferred community rights under Forest Rights Act
Displaced from Kuno wildlife sanctuary earlier, the tribe is being evicted again for a dam
Reiterates demand against diversion of forestland for industry, under amended Forest Rights Act rules
Chief Minister Prithvi Raj Chavan says agreement with Ballarpur Industries predates the Act
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