Wildlife NGO group gets flak for seeking curbs on forest rights of indigenous people

Application moved in Supreme Court by three wildlife NGOs seeks to reverse rights granted under Forest Rights Act, allege tribal rights activists and NGOs

By Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava
Published: Friday 11 April 2014

The Dongria Kondhs of Odisha, who have been protecting the forests of the region, won a major battle last year against multinational metals giant Vedanta that wanted to mine the hills for its bauxite reserves. One of the reasons for the union environment ministry rejecting the mining proposal in Niyamgiri was that it would violate the rights granted under Forest Rights Act (Photo: Sayantan Bera)

Several forest rights groups, conservation non-profits and ecologists have got together to condemn the move by a group of non-profits that has asked the Supreme Court to restrict implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006.
According to a statement issued by the forest-rights group Campaign For Survival and Dignity (CSD), three wildlife non-profits— Bengaluru-based Wildlife First and Maharashtra-based Nature Conservation Society (NCS) and Tiger Research and Conservation Trust (TRACT)—have filed an application before the apex court in January, seeking re-examination of the rights granted to forest dwellers under the Act and curb their rights in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. In an open letter (dated April 6) addressed to the three organisations, more than 30 non-profits and individuals working on tribal rights and conservation biology, have said that the move may “facilitate the accelerated loot of this country's natural resources”.

FRA was enacted by Parliament in 2006 to “undo a historic injustice” done to the forest dwellers by denying them rights to resources from forests which they had been protecting for generations. It recognises the rights of the forest dwellers over forestland and forest resources which they have traditionally been using as part of their culture and livelihood. However, implementation of the law in the past five years has been plagued with various problems with state governments rejecting majority of the claims or not recording the recognised rights in the land records.

Wildlife First, NCS and TRACT had filed a petition in the Supreme Court in 2008, through their representatives, Praveen Bhargav, Kishore Rithe and Harshwardhan Dhanwatey, respectively, questioning the constitutional validity of FRA. The case has been pending since then. The present application has been filed by these representatives in the same case. CSD has quoted the text of the application in its statement.

List of demands by wildlife NGOs

Verify claims: In the present application, says CSD, Wildlife First, NCS and TRACT have asked the court to direct the Central government to constitute a committee of independent experts or the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India to examine the procedure adopted for identifying genuine claims and grant of forest rights in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh so that forestland can be recovered from “ineligible claimants” and “encroachers”.

The application also says satellite imaging be made mandatory for verification of claims under FRA. 

Voluntary resettlement: The application also asks the court to direct the government to permit voluntary resettlement of people residing within national parks and sanctuaries without insisting on settling their rights under FRA.

Curb extraction of minor forest produce: It also asks the court to put a stay on the commercial extraction of minor forest produce from the national parks and sanctuaries. FRA mandates that no forest dweller can be resettled from the land under his/her occupation unless his/her rights under the law are settled. It also recognises the rights of the forest dwellers to manage own and sell minor forest produce.

Demands regressive, say critics 
CSD has criticised these prayers made in the application point by point.

Voluntary resettlement does not happen: CSD says that several independent committees have already examined the implementation of FRA and “contrary to the implied scaremongering in your petition, what has emerged is that millions of people are actually being deprived of their rights”. On the petitioners’ prayer that voluntary resettlement should be allowed without insisting on settlement of rights under FRA, CSD asked: “How can any decision be ‘voluntary’ when you want people to have only two options: face continued illegal harassment and repression, or accept whatever you are offered in the name of resettlement?” 

More powers to bureaucracy: On the use of satellite images for verification of claims, CSD says it would “empower the bureaucracy which has been responsible for massive destruction of forests and violation of forest dwellers' rights.”
Livelihoods at stake: On the petitioner’s demand for stay on extraction of MFP from national parks and sanctuaries, CSD says until FRA came into existence, forest officials did not permit forest dwellers to sell even the small quantities of produce they collected for their survival. “Now, when communities across the country are experimenting with collective, democratic management of non-timber forest produce (NTFP) for their livelihoods—at times with the support of conservationists—you want the court to reinstate a misguided, illegal and brutal ban which has no scientific basis?” the letter asks.

‘FRA a tool to check loot of resources’: “We are shocked that you could file a petition like this at a time when the Central government is seeking to accelerate clearances and industry is piling on pressure to make forest, biodiversity and resource destruction easier,” the letter further states. It says that across the country a significant force that has stopped this resource loot are local communities fighting to protect their natural resources and habitats, often by using FRA provisions. “Your petition seeks to gravely undermine one of their primary weapons,” says the letter.
The letter cites examples from places where FRA has been effectively used by local communities/gram sabhas to strengthen protection and management of forests, such as in Niyamgiri, Gadchiroli in Maharashtra, and protected areas such as the BRT Hills in Karnataka. The letter says the prospects for conservation under FRA need to be appreciated by conservation groups and organisations.

Appeal to withdraw petition:
The letter calls for withdrawal of the petition against the FRA and the present interim application filed by the three groups. The letter has been endorsed by the organisations such as CSD, Kalpavriksh, Vidharbha Nature Conservation Society, Vasundhara, All India Forum of Forest Movements, Mahan Sangharsh Samiti, Society for Promotion of Wasteland Development, scientists and ecologists from Nature Conservation Foundation and Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment and several independent researchers.

When contacted, Praveen Bhargav refused to comment on the application and its content cited in the CSD statement, saying the matter was subjudice. But he later issues a written response on April 10 to the open letter, in which Bhargav says he wishes to counter some of the "ill-informed and malicious" statements made against the petitioners.

"The most serious accusation is that, through our Interlocutory Application in the Supreme Court in the matter of the Forests Rights Act, we are facilitating the loot of the country’s forest resources by the corrupt forest bureaucracy and corporates. The other serious accusation is that although we have chosen to contest the FRA, we have not opposed the illegal diversion of forest land for development projects," he says. He adds that Wildlife First had publicly opposed policies that unduly benefit corporate interests, through petitions to the Government, media articles and other interventions. Wildlife First has also fought tough battles against corrupt forest officials facilitating the loot of natural resources, and consequently was forced to face 14 criminal cases, all of which were quashed by the Karnataka High Court after a eight-year battle, with the Court making strong observations against the forest officer concerned.

Bhargav has, however, refrained from commenting on the wildlife NGOs' demands against FRA and the Forest-Rights group's criticism of those demands.

Act: The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006

Letter: Don't facilitate corporate loot: Open letter to anti-FRA petitioners

Letter: Joint statement on Anti-FRA case in SC

Report: Community forest rights under Forest Rights Act: citizens' report 2013

Report: Our forest our rights: implementation status of Forest Rights Act – 2006

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