Bamboo rising

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 face a double challenge: the forest bureaucracy refuses to help communities prepare forest management plans, and contractors manipulate the market for their benefit. Is this the new battle in implementation of the Act? Richard Mahapatra from Odisha and Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava from Maharashtra unfold the plot

By Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava, Richard Mahapatra
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Bamboo rising

bambooNobody 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.

People of Loyendi rejoice after the village in Odisha received community rights over customary 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.

New jungle rules
Priedi village in Odisha’s Kandhamal district has a new set of rules, says panchayat head Bishnu Charan Malik. Immediately after the village got community right over the surrounding forests, its gram sabha announced that responsibility of dousing forest fires now rests on each resident of the village.

A five-year ban has also been imposed on sale of bamboo shoots. “The paper mill would denude our bamboo forests. We, too, were hampering regeneration by taking away the shoots,” says Malik. “This new forest management plan has already been implemented. But we do need to get it officially approved,” he says.

For a village that made a large part of its earnings from bamboo shoots, will sustainance not be difficult? To compensate the loss, Malik has pushed for Rs 20 lakh worth of works under the rural employment guarantee programme.

This will ensure Rs 25,000 to each resident per season for the next five years. By this time, the bamboo bushes would have grown enough to sustain 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.

Loyendi’s message

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.

  Step into any patch of forest in Kandhamal district and one is sure to find a community that owns and manages it  
“The surge in demand for this right is dominantly community-driven,” says Jitendra Kumar Sahoo of Vasundhara. “We expect some 10,000 CFR claims the next year,” says Santosh Sarangi, commissioner, tribal affairs. “Community right is a great economic and livelihood incentive,” he adds. People couldn’t agree with him more.

Bamboo is an incentive for local communities. “Whether we sell it or we don’t is another matter. That bamboo has become our resource is reason enough for villages to claim community right over forest,” says Rabindra Kanhar, resident of Priedi village, the second village in Odisha’s Kandhamal to get CFR (see ‘New jungle rules’).

“Within a year of getting the right, there is significant inflow of money to the community. Remember, we have not abused the forest,” says Trinath Patra, president of Kalahandi Jungle Mancha, a district-level federation of forest-dwelling people. Jamguda in Kalahandi was the first village in Odisha to get community rights over 49.7 ha of forests, in 2010. Jamguda came into prominence in June 2012 when forest officials stopped Member of Parliament Bhakta Charan Das from taking away a few pieces of the first harvest of bamboo from the village.

Now as bamboo flowers, Jamguda’s gram sabha has taken up selective harvesting. Bamboo is of no use once it flowers. “Within six months, Jamguda has earned Rs 20,000 from selling bamboo locally. The forest department still does not allow transport of bamboo outside the village,” says Nilambar Patra, president of forest rights committee.

With the forest under community control, life revolves around it. For the first time the village has its own development fund. “This is how community control over forest will unfold: development without destruction,” says Das.

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  • Dear Richard Thanks for

    Dear Richard
    Thanks for Covering the very timely relevant story in Down to Earth for mainstreaming the understanding on assertion of rights by Gram Sabha over Bamboo. I am really glad to see your initiative to highlight this kind of good practices as example of community empowerment under an empowering law (FRA). My long association with this process making me excited to see this as learning for others to adopt. I got a best experience ever that community has tremendous potential and wisdom which can change the system of governance than the generic arm chair intellectuals. I wish this piece of story of experimentation would sensitize larger audience, forest rights activists and people in the system.


    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Richard & Kumar

    Dear Richard & Kumar Sambhav,
    Thanks for covering such a wonderful story on Minor Forest Produce, focusing on Kendu Leaves & bamboo post FRA.

    Forests and NTFPs as a natural resources were never meant to seen as a livelihood factors for the tribal people and other forest dependent communities in pre- and post-independence era. In colonial India, it was all about commercial exploitation and revenue and thus recognized no rights and concessions for forest dwellers. At the same time no protective legislation were enacted to focus on forest as a critical livelihood option. On the contrary they made it very clear that forest is primarily meant for commercial uses i.e, timber extraction and revenue maximization.

    But now the situation has changed. FRA has been proving the best weapon for the tribals and other traditional forest dwellers to restore their traditional rights over forest and forest product using their age old traditional knowledge.

    The road is open to eradicate poverty in just few years which the state has failed to do even in last sixty five years of our gaining independence. Gram Sabha has been empowered with most of the decision making process including the authority to issue Transit Permit. Now there is not to pay any fees, charges and even royalty on the Kendu Leaves, bamboo and other MFP that tribal and forest dependent collect, process, store and transport it to buyerÔÇÖs destination to complete the sale.

    As rightly pointed out in the cover story better late than never... I am sure there will be more success stories like Kandhamal, Jamguda & Mendhalekha in the country.

    I could not able to contact Mr Kumar Sambhav as I was in field when he was collecting some information on Kendu leaves for this cover story. still the report is wonderful and hope Down to Earth would cover more such reports.

    Chitta Ranjan

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Good articulation of small

    Good articulation of small but extremely important battles for peoples' collective rights over forest and its produce. Power to people and their innovative ways of ensuring justice...

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Community rights are being

    Community rights are being vested to undo historic injustice. The goal is to handover management of the livelihood resources to respective communities. On one side, the people and activists are struggling to ensure the rights. And on other side, the vested interests joining hands and trying to grab the resources by any means. The responsible concerned departments like Tribal development, Revenue , Forest and Panchayat are not playing their role as specified in letter and spirit of the Act. The civil society organisations, environmentalists are not equipped to take challenge...The tribals and forest dwellers have got independence after long dark era! They should get every support to empower themselves and enjoy rights sustainably. We all should ask people on various posts constitutionally accountable for securing tribals' rights and their development.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • It was presumed that the

    It was presumed that the forest people know about the forests better and will safeguard it. Now they are expecting the learned government officers belonging to British colonial department to support them.

    But it looks like there is a struggle going on for exploiting forest resources, for the industries.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply