Recently, 21 villages that have inhabited Odisha’s Simlipal Tiger Reserve for generations, much before the forest was notified as a tiger reserve, developed and submitted management plans for their Community Forest Resources (CFRs) to the district administration, which have been approved.
Tiger reserves, as is widely known, are the most protected forests in India. Historically, higher protection of forests and wildlife has meant greater alienation of forest communities from their forest resources. For long, forest officials have denied the applicability of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) inside a tiger reserve and the recognition of rights inside tiger reserves has been abysmally poor. In light of that, the fact that there is a part of the country where communities have come forward to assert their management and protection rights inside a tiger reserve becomes significant.
In April 2015, 43 villages inside Similipal received title deeds recognising their right to “protect, manage, regenerate or conserve any traditional community forest resource which they have been traditionally protecting and conserving for sustainable use” (See Section 3(1)(i) of the FRA), also called Community Forest Rights (CFR). This is only the second time in the history of the FRA that CFR have been recognised inside a tiger reserve, the first being Biligiriranga Swamy Temple (BRT) in Karnataka in 2011.
Support from local administration
However, exercising CFR might prove to be a challenge. For instance, in the BRT tiger reserve, though the Soliga community prepared its CFR management plan, it never received approval or support for it and was, therefore, never able to assert these rights. What stands out for Similipal is the active cooperation and support from the district administration to facilitate the entire CFR recognition and management process. The administration has taken upon the responsibility to coordinate with the forest department to ensure support to the CFR management plans.
“The rights of people were already recognised when the Act came into existence. We are only regularizing them through a formal process now. We don’t think there will be any resistance from the forest department in the operation of these plans because we have organised multiple meetings with them, where the department’s concerns have been addressed and the myth that these rights would destroy forests and ecology has been broken. We are implementing the Act in its true spirit, taking along every stakeholder. Such an approach is healthy for both forests and ecology,” said Rajesh Prabhakar Patil, District Collector of Mayurbhanj district, where Similipal lies.
A community approach to forest management
It is not difficult to imagine that the community-based management plan would be quite different from the currently operational working plans of the forest department. “The working plans of the department are very timber-centric with hardly any space for community needs or their traditional systems of management. The CFR management plan, on the other hand, attaches more importance to Non-timber forest products (NTFPs) and forest foods, which sustain forest dwelling communities. They have been developed in accordance with the traditional knowledge and governance systems of the communities,” says Hemant Kumar Sahoo, a researcher from Vasundhara, Odisha.
Bilapaka is one of the 43 villages to have received the CFR titles. A look at the Bilapaka Gram Sabha’s management plan puts Sahoo’s point into perspective. The plan mentions the usage of traditional methods of water diversion and harvesting from streams using stone and mud breaks for agricultural fields. Jackfruit plantation is encouraged in the plan, as the trees of this species are known for their water retention ability and enriching soil nutrients. Jackfruit is also a source of food for tribal communities. The forest department’s plan typically has timber species like teak slotted for plantation. Other rules in the plan include protection from forest fires, sustainable harvesting of minor forest produce, ecological monitoring. There is also a greater participation of women in the development of CFR management plan.
The CFR rights and authorities also empower forest communities to stop any activity or project in their community forestland which is harmful to the forest. For instance, the Odisha Forest Department had initiated a programme to protect the sacred groves of forest communities by putting a fence all around the groves. Funds to the tune of several crores of rupees were sanctioned to the Forest Department for the same. The project met with resistance. “The communities believe that their deities can come in any form into their groves – as a tiger or a snake. Fencing the groves would upset the deities. Such an idea of fencing and protecting is not a part of their culture,” Sahoo adds.
Protection and management rights of Gram Sabhas are the most crucial component towards a decentralised system of community-based forest governance, as envisioned under the Forest Rights Act, 2006. Though the Soligas have not been able to exercise their management rights, the mere act of recognition of their rights which allowed them to coexist with tigers, led to an almost doubling of the tiger population in BRT between 2010 to 2014. Similipal could also set an example.