Our forests are burning

People's relationship to the forest

Published: Saturday 15 March 2003

-- we are angry about the recent skirmish inside Kerala's forests, which has seen two people dead officially (unofficially, five). We are also deeply concerned. This incident is the latest in a purple trail of conflicts dogging the Ministry of Environment and Forest's (moef) drive to evict 'encroachers', begun in May last year. A fortnight before Wayanad, a tribal youth was killed in Chattisgarh's Kawardha district while opposing eviction. A year ago in Assam, elephants were hired to bring down 'encroacher' settlements. Find a patch of forest, and you will today stumble into a battleground. And the conflict between the two warring parties -- forest department and local tribals -- revolves around a single point: the right to live in the forests.

Unfortunately, these "eviction" notices use the authority of the Supreme Court (sc) of India as camouflage. The Central Empowered Committee (cec), set up by the apex court to advice it in matters of forest protection, has taken on a flaming life of its own. The committee is stocked with top moef. The administrative and forest bureaucracy have got together. They are delivering judgements left right and centre, without a care for consequences.

Thus, while the sc merely asked states to provide reports on how they planned to settle the rights of people living inside and outside forest fringes, this committee of bureaucracy incarnate has taken the short route by issuing eviction notices to tribal settlers inside forests. It has given state governments less than 6 months to wrap up intensely human issues that have been festering for over 30 years. Is this madness, or sheer idiocy?

The cec has redefined management as lighting fires in forests. In December, at the insistence of a radical wildlife group, the cec visited mangrove forests in the Sunderbans. It ignored recorded evidence of the presence of transit-fisherfolk and passed orders to displace and destroy. Interestingly the island these fisherfolk now are compelled to move to is equally rich in mangrove biodiversity. Who's taking such nonsensical decisions?

Most of India's forests, mangrove swamps, lakes or grazing lands are biodiversity areas with people living in them. Therefore, removal or displacement is not an option at all. The option is only to build co-habitations, with the active involvement of people. We know this. We have debated this to shreds. Yet policy or practice remains unmoved. This can no longer be the case. Now cec must learn -- and learn fast -- that the forest fires they are busy lighting could destroy every last iota of possible conciliation. The conflict between forests and people could become so real and so destructive, that neither will be left standing.

Many riftlines already cut through forests. An estimated 15 per cent of India's forests are under the control of armed naxalites. The forest department cannot even enter these lands, where people prefer extreme justice over the 'protection' of the administration. Ignoring such confrontations by terming them as 'instigated by armed groups' will not do. It will lead to further schism. Immediately after the Wayanad incident, two tribal leaders were caught by non-tribal locals and handed over to the police. In Orissa's Malkangiri district, more than 40 people have been killed in the last two years as tribal and non-tribal fight each other over forest. Politicians across party line have been pushing in non-tribal into the already strained forest to ensure vote bank. In the forests of Assam, politicians encourage people to settle and never hesitate to use force to evict them.

What worries us is that there is no leadership capable or willing to douse these fires. Someone who has the credibility to show that the way ahead would be to secure the interests of forests and wildlife, and of the livelihood security of the poor as well.

This is asking for too much. Firstly, we have a forest and wildlife bureaucracy, which has only one constituency to protect: wildlife chest-beaters and ex trophy-toters. They see animals, not trees or people. The complete take-over of the forest establishment by this narrow interest group is not surprising, but it certainly is the core of the problem. Secondly, our political system is shrill on rhetoric for the need to protect the poor, and silent on how to do this. Electoral politics demands populism. Politicians will use radical slogans of allowing poor people to take-over forest lands. To encroach. To settle and cut forests. Equally, they will use the destitution and alienation of tribal communities for their own selfish purposes.

We say this because no politician -- national or local tribal leaders -- has ever seriously addressed how these extremely poor people will productively cultivate the harsh and poor lands they are shifted to. It is not enough to ask for rights over forest land. It is much more important to ask for rights over the sustainable management of these lands as forests and mangroves swamps. But who will articulate this? Who will fight for this right, when the two camps are distinct and self-serving? And who will steer this discussion, when we have no real leadership in environmental management today?

We have a prime minister -- who could bring different interest groups together -- but is busy and preoccupied with many things. We have a virtually non-existent environment and forest minister. We have a mutant bureaucracy.

Hence our deep concern. We need leadership for our forests. Desperately.

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