‘We’re portrayed as Maoists, jailed for protesting’: 18 Gariaband villages refuse to give up fight for forest rights

Villagers derive hope from success story of 4 villages in state’s protected area granted Community Forest Resource Rights August 9, 2022

By Zumbish
Published: Wednesday 10 August 2022
‘We're portrayed as Maoists, jailed for protesting’: 18 Gariaband villages refuse to give up fight for forest rights
Represantatives of 18 villages of Gariaband, Chhattisgarh at a gathering before the road blockade on June 20, 2022. Source: Protestor who didn't wish to be named Represantatives of 18 villages of Gariaband, Chhattisgarh at a gathering before the road blockade on June 20, 2022. Source: Protestor who didn't wish to be named

Several villages in Chhattisgarh were granted Community Forest Resource Rights (CFRR) last year and this year. Gram Sabhas in the core zones of protected forest areas also received titles. But 18 villages in Gariaband district haven't been so lucky. They've been protesting the delay in the process for years. Down To Earth (DTE) visited the district on June 15, 2022 to listen to indigenous forest dwellers who continue to fight for their rights:

On June 20, hundreds of protestors from Nagesh, Koiba, Bamhanijhola, Kurrubhata and 14 other villages in Chhattisgarh blocked a part of the National Highway 130C. They refused to go home till their demands for CFRR were heard.

They were protesting the delay by the state forest department in issuing the titles to the 18 villages located in Udanti Sitanadi Tiger Reserve’s core zone, Gariaband district.

The rights entitle the villagers, who are dependent on forest resources, to lawfully use such produce for consumption and economic benefits. The title is an official recognition of the area of forest land they will have access to. The land parcel is demarcated in congruence with the 'traditional boundary' identified by the indigenous people of the area, who are awarded CFRR titles.

“The right has been long denied to us,” said Arjun Nayak from Nagesh village, one of the villages spearheading the chakka jam. The villagers have been unable to access electricity, land for animal grazing and construction activities because they’re in a protected area, he added.

“We handed over the list of our demands to forest officials. It includes demand for CFRR to 18 villages collectively fighting for it,” Nayak said. 

Read more: How the struggle for forest rights united a nagar panchayat & divided another in Chhattisgarh

Five days ahead of the road blockade, DTE met the residents of Bamhanijhola, Koiba, Nagesh and Kurrubhata. Gathered at a local chowk within the reserve’s core area, they shared their struggle for CFRR.

Deepchand Somwanshi from Koiba said:

They can deny us facilities, rob us of economic benefit in the name of ‘protection’ of the core zone. But they can’t take away our movements, our struggle for CFRR.

Forests contribute up to 80 per cent of local residents’ annual income, according to estimates of the state government.

Of these 18 villages, 12 have successfully applied for CFRR and the rest are in the process of applying. But none of them have received the titles yet.

Instead, they have become victims of police harassment for demanding the basic facilities or protesting against officials of the forest department and the tiger reserve, the residents claimed. “The police arbitrarily arrest us and portray us as Maoists,” shared Somwanshi. 

Tikam Nagwanshi from Kurrubhata village concurred. He was allegedly jailed for a short duration earlier for protesting against the state government over demands of the adivasis in their area. Now he is at the forefront of the fight for CFRR. 

“Once the rights are recognised, we will make them reflect ground reality as well,” said Nagwanshi, 61, the headman of his village. 

Read more: How Nagri, a modern nagar panchayat in Chhattisgarh, fought for its traditional forest boundary

Officers of the Jungadh police station responded vaguely to questions about such incidents at CFRR protests. “They were let go immediately after the arrest. That case file is lost,” said one of the police officers about an incident in 2015. That year, 21 people from these villages were picked up for organising a road blockade.

“We will keep mobilising residents of these 18 villages to protest until we get CFRR like the core zone villages of Dhamtari district,” Nagwanshi told DTE.

There are five villages, including Jorataraai, Karhi and Masalkhoi, in the core zone of the same protected area that falls in Dhamtari district. They received CFRR titles at the end of 2021.

Chhattisgarh-based Forest Rights activist Alok Shukla came up with an observation. “The involvement and interest by district administration or the will or reluctance of a local political leader played a vital role in giving CFRR titles in the state. The success of FRA varied from district to district because of it,” he said.

This example from Gariaband itself bears testimony to what Shukla said.

“We are not giving community rights to the 18 villages in the core zone of the tiger reserve to save the wildlife in the protected area,” Amitesh Shukla, MLA of Gariaband’s Rajim constituency, told DTE during the Gariaband visit.

The state has identified 12,500 of its 20,000-odd villages for granting CFRR, of which it claims that 3,646 villages have been awarded titles in the last four years.  

On August 9, 2022, the state granted CFRR to four villages in the core zone of another tiger reserve — Achanakmar. Three more core-zone villages in Dhamtari also received the titles the same day. Overall, 10 Gram Sabhas were given forest rights that day, according to a press release by the Government of Chhattisgarh.

The stories of success of villages in the core-zone in their fight for CFRR gives them hope, said the protesting representatives of the 18 villages who have refused to give up. 

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