Premise of SC ruling on forest dwellers wrong: UN Special Rapporteur

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people, says tribals are treated like squatters all around the world

By Ishan Kukreti
Published: Wednesday 20 March 2019
Forest rights
Photo: Getty Images Photo: Getty Images

The United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Victoria Tauli-Corpuz has come out in support of forest dwellers of India. She criticised the exclusionary form of conservation that the petitioning wildlife conservation societies in the Supreme Court advocate.

Some national wildlife conservation groups along with former forest department bureaucrats had brought a petition to the Supreme Court seeking to invalidate the Act, claiming this was necessary to protect wildlife and forests.

On February 20, the Supreme Court ordered the time-bound eviction of 1.1 million families whose claims under the Forest Rights Act had been rejected by the authorities. The ruling could affect at least 11 lakh people directly, and persuade tens of millions more not to apply for their rights under the Act.

“The basic premise of this ruling, which treats tribal people as illegal residents of the forest, is wrong — indigenous peoples are the owners of their lands and forests,” she said in a statement released on March 19, 2019. “This is a phenomenon seen around the world. Indigenous people and local communities are treated as squatters when in fact the lands belong to them, and they have protected and stewarded their holdings for generations,” she added.

UN Special Rapporteurs are people working on behalf of the UN within the scope of “special procedure” mechanisms and have a specific country or thematic mandate from the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Although the Supreme Court has put a temporary stay on the evictions, millions of peoples’ lives have been thrown into limbo by the court decision.

Earlier in February, around 30 conservationists across the country had issued a joint statement against the order.

“We do not regard this order as pro-conservation. On the contrary, it is a real setback for conservation in India. The rights of local communities are an integral part of any sustainable and just model of conservation, as is now recognized in international law. Furthermore, the Forest Rights Act not only recognizes these rights, it also legally empowers communities to protect their forests and wildlife as well. It is the first and only law in India that gives those who live in and with forests the power to protect them.” the statement reads.

Interestingly, many studies by international organisations like World Resources Initiative and Rights and Resource Institute (RRI) have found that wherever customary rights over forest land of local communities have been legally recognised by governments it has led to lower forest degradation as well as improved carbon sequestering. Yet local communities have secured legal ownership rights over just 10 per cent of the world’s land, despite having customary rights to at least 50 per cent. 

“The FRA also represents a core strategy for mitigating climate change and meeting India’s commitments under the Paris Agreement, as community rights recognition under the FRA has already led to an upsurge in community-led conservation and restoration of forests,” said RRI’s Asia Director Kundan Kumar.

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