Local civil society organisations play a vital role in helping forest-dwelling communities assert and exercise their collective rights
The Forest Rights Act is a progressive law, geared towards protecting the rights of forest-dwelling communities to access and manage forests.
Sections 3(1)(i) and 5 of the law — that deals with the recognition of collective rights of the community to forest resources — vests decision-making powers to the gram sabha or village committee.
The passage of the rights-based legislation and the recognition of collective rights along with the demarcation and handing over of community forests is just the beginning of what appears to be a significant victory by itself.
The challenge in the implementation of the Forest Rights Act is not limited to recognition of rights, according to our study published in the journal Forest Policy and Economics.
Asserting and exercising rights often requires challenging the political process — including vested interests and state establishment — preventing the Forest Rights Act from achieving its goals.
Such scenarios create a space for the emergence of non-state actors such as civil society organisations (CSOs) that perform various roles to facilitate the process of implementing the Forest Rights Act in a post-claim phase.
Local CSOs played a vital role in demanding the rights of forest-dwelling communities in east Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region, according to the study.
Once the Forest Rights Act was enacted and rights recognised, these CSOs switched gears from agitation to constructive work, to aid communities to assert and exercise their rights.
The CSOs are actively involved in awareness and capacity building, wherein they organise training and workshops to mobilise communities to exercise their rights and carry out responsibilities towards sustainable forest use and its management. Some CSOs go beyond generic awareness building exercises and focus their efforts instead on empowering particular sections of the village communities, such as youth and women farmers.
They have also helped build particular skill sets among local villagers, such as stock mapping and preparing forest management plans.
One of the challenges of implementing the Forest Rights Act is that it contradicts other forest management legislations.
The Indian Forest Act and Biodiversity Act, for example, give precedence to wildlife conservation without clear provisions to safeguard the rights of forest-dwelling communities.
Implementing these laws along with the Forest Rights Act creates bottlenecks.
CSO intervention under such circumstances involves constant negotiation and confrontation with state actors in order to ease such bottlenecks and seek suitable ways of reconciliation.
Marketing non-timber forest produce
In addition to acknowledging forest management and access rights of the local communities, community forest resource rights in the act make provisions to support the livelihood of local forest-dwelling communities by allowing them to harvest and trade their non-timber forest products (NTFPs).
The forests of Vidarbha are blessed with a number of valuable NTFPs: The most economically valuable ones by far are tendu leaves and bamboo.
The entire process of NTFP harvesting was managed by forest departments before the passing of the law.
The process included sales and marketing including identifying and contracting buyers, auctioning NTFPs at the best prices, setting wages for NTFP harvesters (village workers), determining the dates of harvest and regulating the movement of the product.
The transfer of ownership and selling rights of NTFPs to forest-dwellers under the law meant gram sabhas could directly engage with contractors and companies for financial transactions.
CSOs have enabled communities in exercising their rights on NTFP trade by mediating interactions with contractors and the Forest Department.
In addition to the sale of tendu leaves and bamboo, CSOs also promote alternative livelihood opportunities through the marketing of forest products such as honey, herbs and fruits.
Protect rights, leave politics out
In a post-claim world, the communities can only exercise their rights if there exists a mechanism to train, empower and build necessary capacity for them to defend their rights as and when required.
The process of exercising rights or even knowing what those rights are, demarcating community forest resource areas and organising sale of NTFP in the market is quite arduous.
It requires handholding communities and help them navigate through these processes.
Local CSOs help aid communities make this transition.
The state should ideally facilitate this transition by creating parallel avenues for building capacity to enable communities to exercise their rights.
CSOs, however, have taken up this role due to the lack of existence of proper implementation mechanism at the state level.
They work directly with communities to conduct training workshops that help educate and build capacity.
This also includes interacting with bureaucrats and market systems to seek their cooperation to create a conducive environment on behalf of communities.
It is important to acknowledge that CSOs are not mandated to carry out their activities.
They do this despite facing limited resources, restricting their outreach.
While CSO-supported villages might be the best-case scenario where community rights are exercised, there are downsides too.
There is no mechanism to monitor the activities of CSOs or hold them accountable, to see if they are helpful or counterproductive to the communities.
The idea behind raising these concerns is not to criticise the activities and contributions of CSOs, but to show that their involvement in implementing decentralization might seem like a necessary crutch.
CSOs can help provide a short-term solution, where their work can be treated as a pilot project to help policy makers understand how to implement the Act in the post-claim phase.
It is, however, incumbent upon the state to protect the rights of minority communities and make them capable of fully asserting and exercising their rights without letting any vested interests block their way.
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