THE Soligas’ long struggle ends in victory. After bearing the brunt of wildlife protection measures for years, the inhabitants of the Biligiri Rangaswami Temple Wildlife Sanctuary in Karnataka can now access and manage the forest resources. On October 2, 25 gram sabhas of Soligas got community forest rights (CFR) recognised under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006. The tribals can now collect, own and dispose of minor forest produce (MFP) from the reserve. Besides protecting and regenerating forest resources for sustainable use, they can also hold customary practices like worshipping sacred places.
The sanctuary, home to about 30 tigers, was declared a tiger reserve in January this year. This was met with protests by Soligas, who feared eviction. About 20,000 in number, Soligas’ lives for generations have been inextricably linked to the BR Hills.
But thanks to FRA, as much as 60 per cent of the reserve, which includes parts of the core area, will be under the management of the Soligas. “Of the five ranges of the reserve, our CFR rights cover three. We have applied for the rest,” says C Madegowda, a community leader.
Soliga in Kannada means children of bamboo. The very name suggests their harmonious existence with nature and traditional knowledge to manage forest ecology by collecting forest produces in a sustainable manner. In the past four decades, however, their rights have been eroded by the state. The area was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1974 which led to forcible settlement of the Soligas into hamlets. Shifting cultivation and hunting were also banned. In 1980, their traditional practice of setting litter fires, which has ecological significance, was banned (see ‘Let the wind chase fire’, Down To Earth, July 16-31, 2011). In 2006, the state forest department banned collection of MFP, such as honey, lichen, gooseberry and amla, in the sanctuary. “This was the ultimate blow to Soligas as up to 62 per cent of their earning came from the collection,” says Nitin Rai of non-profit Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE).
The Soligas turned to FRA to regain their rights. After the implementation of the Act in 2007, the first thing they did was file community rights claims for MFP collection. Later they applied for other CFR claims. The claims for individual rights for land were filed in 2009.
While 1,516 Soliga families were given land rights within a year, CFR claims faced much resistance from the forest department. “The officials rejected our claims several times, saying collection of MFP from wildlife sanctuaries is not permitted under the Wildlife Protection Act. For the last two years we have been meeting officials almost every week, demanding community rights,” says Madegowda.
Even on the day the CFRs were distributed to the Soligas by the district administration, forest officials were not present at the function. “This shows that a tough battle lies ahead for the communities in implementing their right to manage forest resources in the reserve,” says Rai. This is perhaps the first case where mass CFR claims have been recognised by the government in a protected area, he adds. “Now the government must shift to a community-based management model for the reserve,” suggests Rai.
The Soligas are now working on a proposal to jointly manage the tiger reserve with the state using their traditional knowledge. “Soligas have great traditional knowledge of their forests which will be beneficial to both the forest and the communities,” says Rai.
They propose a three-tier management structure: a hamlet-level forest management committee (deriving its legal backing from FRA), three taluka-level committees and one at the sanctuary level.
"While the village-level committee will have representation of all adult members of the hamlet, the taluka- and sanctuary-level committees will be represented by village committees, the forest department and civil society groups," wrote Rai along with Shiba Desor and Ashish Kothari of non-profit Kalpavriksh, in an article summarising the outcome of a workshop organised by the Soligas and civil society groups to finalise the proposal for community-based management of the reserve in July this year. The Soligas, in consultation with civil society groups, have also proposed that village-level committees should have the power to penalise members who breach the rules framed by the committee. But offences of criminal nature would be reported to the forest department or the police, the trio wrote.