India's Forest Rights Act
When the Forest Rights Act was passed in 2006 it was intended to address the ‘historical injustice’ to India’s ‘traditional forest dwellers’. But now this vital law is under threat.
Rights under Threat
The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA) legally recognises the rights of communities like the Dongria Kondh to live in and from their forests and to protect and manage their lands. The Act was created to reverse the erosion of their traditional rights by forestry policies, encroachment on their lands by outsiders and the take-over of their forests. But now the Act itself is being undermined.
In December 2012, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a directive watering down the Act. At the heart of the matter is whether tribal people should be able to veto projects, like mines and dams, on their lands. In 2009 the FRA was strengthened by a government order that stated that their consent was needed for such projects, but that has now been weakened.
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Tens of millions of India’s tribal peoples, or Adivasis, depend on forests for their livelihoods, gathering leaves, fruits, flowers, fuel wood, and other products for their own use and for sale.
Members of the Dongria Kondh tribe, for example, collect over 200 foods from their forests, as well as other products for medicines, household goods and for sale. Their intricate knowledge of the forests enables them to find foods year-round, even in times of drought.
Exclusion and blame
Since colonial times, tribal peoples have been excluded from decisions over their forests and have been blamed for degrading forests, for example through ‘slash and burn’ farming and the collection of wood for fuel and building. Forest officials have become accustomed to seeing Adivasis as ‘the problem’ and excluding them from the forests and from decision-making.
When the Act was being debated, one organization ran TV adverts against it, and conservationists and foresters filed nine cases, two in the Supreme Court, to challenge the Act. They did not succeed in stopping the Act from becoming law but have managed to slow its implementation.
Rather than being ‘the problem’, tens of thousands of communities have been protecting their forests for generations. The Forest Rights Act acknowledges this by recognising their ‘right to protect, regenerate, or conserve or manage any community forest resource, which they have been traditionally protecting and conserving for sustainable use’.
Consent: the heart of the matter
The Act was heavily debated before it was passed and, as enacted has left a number of important questions unanswered. One central issue was whether the Act gave village assemblies the right to give – or withhold – their consent to projects affecting their lands.
To clarify this, a circular was issued in 2009 confirming that the written consent of the village assembly (gram sabha) must be obtained before any changes occur to forest lands. This would mean, for example, that mining companies like Vedanta Resources would have to get the written consent of communities like the Dongria Kondh before being able to start projects on their land.
The Prime Minister’s Office has attempted to water down the Act, by instructing the relevant ministries that gram sabha consent is not needed in all cases. Both the environment and tribal affairs ministries have accepted the change. However, the Supreme Court’s verdict on the Niyamigiri mine, restated the right of the Dongria Kondh to give or withhold their consent to the mine.
Rights must mean rights
The Forest Rights Act is not perfect and has not been implemented thoroughly enough, but it is the best instrument that exists for protecting the rights of India’s Adivasi people.
Watering it down in the interests of industry is a dangerous violation of these rights and must be stopped.