World Rainforest Movement

India: Implementation of Tribal Forest Rights Act 2006

India’s Minister of Tribal Affairs promised on 7.12.2007 to the Indian Parliament that the  Scheduled Tribes and Other Forest Dwellers (Forest Rights) Act 2006 which the parliament approved a year ago, will be notified and implemented from 1.1.2008 onwards.

India has around 90 million tribals, called mostly Adivasis, who have lived mainly by sustainable indigenous forest life and whose rights could be ensured by this Act. During the past 60 years around 30 million tribals have been displaced from their homes and livelihoods for ‘development’ projects.
The new Act recognises for the first time that Adivasis and other traditional forest communities who have not had earlier ownership documents for their homes or cultivations, have legal rights to live in the forest by their indigenous livelihoods.
But the implementation of the Act has been delayed for months. It has been opposed even by TV advertisements, where children are holding banners which demand that Adivasis should be displaced from the forests to protect the forests.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and ruling Congress party’s leader Sonia Gandhi consider now whether India will now rapidly determine countless indigenous forest dwellers to become displaced from their home forest in 600 sanctuaries without clarity on their rights – or will India make now first clear, compliant to its new Act, what are their rights  before defining whether and how can they be displaced. To demarcate  in a fortnight ‘critical wildlife habitats’ for 600 sanctuaries would violate requirements of any due procedure and displace possibly millions of people.

The Act provides a proper legal procedure for establishing critical wildlife habitats so that resettlement from them can take place only through communities’ prior informed consent and mutually agreed compensations, based on their rights being duly settled. Also international biodiversity protection commitments require similarly crucial role for the indigenous and local communities and their involvement in sustainable use and conservation of biodiversity.

What will be decided now by the government of India before the new year about possible further evictions of indigenous forest communities, is still unclear. Forest and Biodiversity Program of the Friends of the Earth International, WRM and various other environmental organisations appealed 13.12.2007 therefore to the Indian Prime Minister and to Sonia Gandhi, the chair of the governing UPA Coalition, to ensure the due implementation of the Forest Rights Act.

The process to legalise the traditional and customary rights to Adivasi forest life, to forest homes, forest produce gathering and subsistence farming livelihoods will be in any case full of struggle as the bureaucracy, various elite groups and groups profiting from sanctuary tourism would like to keep control over the forest. Wide protests of forest rights movement groups, united through Campaign for Survival and Dignity, continue in various states around India against the forced evictions and to get the Act duly implemented.

As the Act says, the recognition of indigenous forest dwellers’  rights is needed to correct the historical injustice done to them. This is true not only in India but also  regarding the whole world.

By Ville-Veikko Hirvelä, e-mail: villeveikkoh@gmail.com

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