Asian Centre for Human Rights

Dedicated to promotion and protection of human rights in Asia


[The weekly commentary and analysis of the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) on human rights and governance issues]

Embargoed for 4 May 2005
Review: /71/05

Forest Rights Bill vs Environmental Extremism

By - Suhas Chakma, Director, ACHR

A Nicobari tribal woman and her son

As the ongoing Budget session of the Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament of India) ends on 13 May 2005, there is no sign that the Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill, 2005 will be placed before the parliament. As soon as the Law Ministry cleared the bill for the cabinet’s approval, the Ministry of Environment and Forest raised objections. Many environmentalists have joined the refrain. The rights of the Scheduled Tribes are once again being opposed in the name of conservation of nature based on age-old prejudices.

I. Colonial fallacies: Tribals as destroyers of forest

The Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) reportedly expressed reservations on the ground that implementation of the bill will result in the depletion of the country’s forest cover by 16 per cent. Jum cultivation is often blamed for soil erosion, depletion of forests and low

productivity at the neglect of the symbiotic relationship between nature and indigenous peoples. Nor commercial exploitation of forest by logging companies and complicity of forest officials are addressed.

Disproportionate soil erosion by shifting cultivation is a fallacy. Studies have shown that land clearing in traditional shifting cultivation had the lowest amount of erosion and sediment loss from the system compared to any other form of land clearing and tillage system. Similar results were found in Sarawak, Malaysia and Thailand. The reasons for low erosion despite farming on steep slopes are very short periods with exposed soil (after burning, before plant establishment), limited or no tillage, and traditional measures such as placing unburned logs horizontally on the slope.

The low productivity of shifting cultivation systems is not more inherent to these systems than any other farming system. Rather, the lack of productivity improvement is the result of a consequent neglect of shifting cultivation in agronomic research. Shifting cultivators often have poor access to agro-chemicals because of poverty, inadequate extension systems and a general disregard of their farming practices by authorities. While yields of staple crops such as rice, maize, or cassava, are often quite low, many other plants are intercropped in the Jum fields and collected from the secondary forest, making overall productivity much higher. Precise quantification of total productivity in shifting cultivation is very difficult, however.

Many indigenous communities such as the Nagas and majority of the indigenous groups of Arunachal Pradesh do not cut the major forests for jum cultivation and only clear the minor forests and burn it for shifting cultivation.

If carried out using traditional techniques, shifting cultivation appears environmentally more sustainable than most permanent farming systems under humid tropical conditions. Most studies on shifting cultivation have focused on the effects of management practices and very little research has been devoted to agronomic improvement of crop production in the system, mainly because the system has been considered inherently primitive and even anti-development. It is because shifting cultivation is more frequently compared with forestry activities or even natural forests rather than with other farming systems.

II. Conservation of wildlife: Blaming the victims of trafficking, not traffickers

After the recent reports of the reduction of tiger population in Sariska wild life area, a red herring has been raised to state that the Draft Forest Bill will further reduce the tiger population in the country.

This notion is akin to blaming the victims of trafficking and not the organized criminal groups who force hundreds of thousands of women across the world into contemporary forms of slavery.

Are the poor Scheduled Tribes to be blamed given the existence of stringent Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 for the reduction of tigers? That organized criminal gangs and poachers are responsible for the reduction of tiger populations have been confirmed by conservationists, forest officials, police and other related agencies. In October 2003, custom officers in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China reportedly intercepted a record haul of 31 tiger skins and 581 leopard skins being trucked to the capital Lhasa. [1] A report of the Centre for Environment and Science after visiting score of villages inside the Sariska Tiger Reserve in March 2003 blamed the forest officials for the loss of the tigers. It found that concerned forest officials were complacent and negligent in their duty and that enabled the poachers to kill the endangered species. [2]

Why only Sariska? Poaching by organised networks of smugglers remains the most serious and major cause of decrease in the population of the endangered species including the tiger throughout the country. For example, at the Kaziranga National Park in Assam, some 41 rhinoceros were killed by poachers in 1986, 27 in 1987, 26 rhinoceros killed in 1996. An average of 9-12 poachers are shot by staff every year [3] , 60 were killed during the 1990s. [4]

III. Development monologues

The development monologues have raised question as to whether the failure to develop the Scheduled Tribes in the last 50 years can be compensated by the Draft Forest Rights Bill. The question has been raised as to whether North East India has developed anything “apart from apparent cultural westernization”, after hundreds of crores of development funds went down? The same question can be raised with regard to Bihar or Uttar Pradesh or Chattisgarh, not to mention about the security related expenditure in the North East due to inability to address the root causes of the conflicts in the region.

The issue has always been the denial of justice. According to 1991 census, the population of the Scheduled Tribes in India was 67.8 million, about 8.1 percent of the total population of the country. And they also constituted 55.16% of total displaced people. A large number of people have been evicted for conservation of nature. The failure to provide rehabilitation consistent with constitutional provisions such as "land for land" for rehabilitation of the evicted Schedulted Tribes (as provided in the 5th and 6th Schedule of the Constitution of India) has compelled many indigenous peoples to seek recourse with minor forest produce.

Obviously, tunnel vision is not helpful.

IV. The Forest Bill - a fine Balance between rights and responsibility

Does the Forest Rights Bill give blanket access to forest areas?

The Draft Forest Bill is clearly states "The recognition and vesting of forest rights to forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes where they were scheduled, in respect of forest land and their habitat is subject to the condition that such forest welling Scheduled Tribes have occupied forest lands or acquired rights before 25 October 1980".

In fact the Draft Forest Bill does not address the concerns of hundreds of thousands of Scheduled Tribes who have been turned into encroachers because of the differentiation between the pre-1980 and post-1980 encroachments. The National Commission on Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribe noted that as a result of the Forest Conservation Act, 1.48 lakh persons, mainly tribals, occupying 1.81 lakh hectares of lands in forest areas in Madhya Pradesh suddenly became encroachers on October 24, 1980, and thus liable for eviction. [5] In addition, a large area of cultivable lands of indigenous tribal peoples have been categorised as encroachment areas despite the fact that these cultivable lands existed prior to the promulgation of he Forest Conservation Act 1980.

The question also arises as to whether the Scheduled Tribes will have unhindered access to forest areas with impunity.

The Draft Forest Bill entrusts the forest right holders with duties and responsibilities for prevention of activities that adversely affect wild life, forest and the bio-diversity in the local area, protection of catchment areas, water bodies and other ecologically sensitive areas, intimation to the Gram Sabha and/or forest authorities of any activity that adversely affects the wild life, forest and the bio diversity. The bill also requires the Gram Sabha to stop any activity that adversely affects the wild life, forest and the biodiversity. More importantly, the bill recognizes any activity not specifically permitted under it as offence and provides for penalties. First offence will attract a penalty of up to Rs 1,000 and second offence will mean temporary or permanent termination of rights.

Apart from exclusion of the forest dwellers who are not Scheduled Tribes, the bill seeks to strike a balance of rights vis a vis duty. The Bill can further be strengthened by recognising the rights of all forest dwellers irrespective of whether they are Scheduled Tribes or not. Since 25 October 1980 has been set a deadline, the exclusion of non-Scheduled Tribes forest dwellers is discriminatory.

V. Mainstreaming rights perspectives: The challenge for the conservationists

Indigenous/tribal peoples are often accused of encroaching their own lands on which they have been living for centuries - for simply not registering the lands.

International conservation organisations have gradually been recognising the role of the indigenous peoples for protection of bio-diversity. In 1994, the World Conservation Union adopted revised categories of protected areas, which accept that indigenous peoples may own and manage pro­tected areas. To accommodate the economic activities of resident peoples, the IUCN gives particular emphasis to the need to in­crease the number of protected areas in its Categories V and VI, 'Pro­tected Landscapes/Seascapes' and 'Managed Resource Protected Ar­eas'. [6]

In May 1996, the World Wide Fund for Nature (International) adopted a new policy on indigenous peoples and conservation. It recognises the rights of indigenous peoples to the use, owner­ship and control of their traditional territories, approves the current draft of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and emphasises the principle of free and informed consent in all inter­actions between indigenous peoples and conservation organisations The World Conservation Congress at its meeting in Montreal in November 1996 also adopted resolutions recognising the rights of indigenous peoples and their role for conservation of nature. [7] The 5th World Parks Conference in September 2003 made commitment to involve local communities, indigenous and mobile peoples in the creation, proclamation and management of protected areas.

Time has come for many Indian environmentalists to take rights based approaches to conservation of nature.

[1] . ‘Tibet is hub in tiger trade’ The Deccan Herald, 30 April 2005

[2] . Sariska tigers missing or dead? The Hindu, 12 March 2005

[3] .

[4] . Ibid

[5] . People's Democracy, Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Vol. XXVII, No. 01, January 05, 2003

[6] . International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs Document No. 97, Indigenous Peoples and Protected Areas in South and South East Asia – from Principles to Practice, Copenhagen, November 1999.

[7] . Ibid.

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