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VASUNDHARA - Democratising Natural Resources Governance

Laws and Policies :

2006 saw the historic passage of the Scheduled Tribes and Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act – also known as the Forest Rights Act – into Orissa state law.  For the first time in Indian legal history, under the Forest Rights Act the State acknowledges traditional rights of forest dwellers to conserve and nurture their forest resource.  However, many of the initiatives undertaken by the rural poor are not legally recognised by the State, though there are some provisions in laws and policies which could be helpful to those initiatives.  Further, most of these provisions hold limited scope to recognise and cherish the communities’ efforts, and practical implementation of them may lead to new conflicts.

Following are the laws and policies that relate to our work:

This act defines the procedure to be followed for declaring an area to be a Reserved Forest, a Protected Forest, or a Village Forest.  The state government can assign to any village community the rights over a part of a Reserve Forest; this part is known as a Village Forest.  These rights allow the villagers to fulfill their bona fide needs, and it is their duty to protect and improve the forest.  However, the ownership remains with the state government, which is the main decision-making and regulatory authority. 

This act confers the ownership and decision-making rights over non timber forest products (NTFPs) to local institutions.  It emphasises a more decentralised system of governance to panchayats and gram sabhas in Scheduled Areas.
India is one of the few countries with a National Forest Policy, which has been in place since 1894.  It was revised in 1952 and again in 1988.  The main plank of the forest policy is protection, conservation, and development of forests.  The 1988 revision called for the people’s active involvement in these efforts, as well as in managing the forests.  It also stipulated meeting the basic needs of the people, especially fuel wood, fodder, and small timber for the rural and tribal population. 

With thousands of self-initiated forest protecting groups in Orissa, the state has been a pioneer in implementing the National Forest Policy through the Joint Forest Management (JFM) Guidelines.  JFM involves partnerships in forest management involving both the State forest departments and local communities.  Although schemes vary from state to state and are known by different names in different Indian languages, usually a village committee known as the Forest Protection Committee and the Forest Department enter into a JFM agreement.  Villagers agree to assist in the safeguarding of forest resources through protection from fire, grazing, and illegal harvesting, in exchange for which they receive non-timber forest products and a share of the revenue from the sale of timber products.  Today there are thousands of village-level JFM Committees, known as Vana Samrakshan Samitis (VSS) in Orissa, who get legal recognition of their usufruct rights, share in the benefits of conservation, and receive funds to support their efforts.

This 2002 amendment of this act, originally made into law in 1972, called for two new categories of Protected Areas: Conservation Reserves and Community Reserves.  The 1972 law did not acknowledge the history of communities living in and around Protected Areas, and therefore did not allow their participation in conservation initiatives.  A Conservation Reserve – a biodiversity-rich area – calls for the formation of an advisory committee, called the Conservation Reserve Management Committee (CRMC); its role is to provide inputs to the Chief Wildlife Warden (CWW) on conservation measures.  The CRMC includes representatives from the local village panchayat.  However, the CWW remains the chief decision making authority, who could consult the CRMC in management of this area.

A Community Reserve – a private- or community-owned area with conservation values, where the community has voluntarily engaged in wildlife conservation – calls for the formation of a self-regulated Community Reserve Management Committee.  Comprised of community representatives and one representative from the concerned government department, this CRMC is responsible for conserving, maintaining, and managing the Community Reserve.  The elected chairperson of the committee is the Honorary Wildlife Warden of the Community Reserve. 

Since many community initiatives are present on government-owned lands – and the government does not acknowledge the history of communities living in and around these lands – these provisions are not enough to give them legal recognition.  Furthermore, it is difficult to accommodate diverse, situation-specific institutional arrangements in a uniform configuration.  The Ministry of Environment and Forests has not yet drafted guidelines for implementation of Community and Conservation Reserves, which would define the effectiveness of these provisions.

This act emphasises the participation of local communities in the conservation and use of biodiversity.  Under Section 37 of this act the state government, in consultation with local governing bodies, can declare areas of biodiversity importance as Biodiversity Heritage Sites, which could be used by communities involved in biodiversity conservation.  However, clear guidelines for this category are still awaited.

The Indian Forest Act, 1927 empowers the government to declare any area to be a Reserved Forest, Protected Forest, or Village Forest.  The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 allows any area to be constituted as a “protected area,” namely a national park, wildlife sanctuary, tiger reserve, or community conservation area.  Under these laws, the rights of people living in or depending on the area to be declared as a forest or protected area are to be “settled” by a “forest settlement officer.”  The officer is to enquire into the claims of people to land, and in the case of claims found to be valid, to allow them to continue or to extinguish them by paying compensation.  In Orissa, all the hilly tracts were declared government forests without this process having taken place, and around 40% of the government forests have been deemed Reserved Forests.  Those whose rights are not recorded during the settlement process are susceptible to eviction at any time.  

The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Scheduled Tribes and Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 – also known as the Forest Rights Act – describes it as a law intended to correct the "historical injustice" done to forest dwellers by the failure to recognise their rights.  In addition to the rights of communities over land and forest produces, it also includes provisions for making conservation more effective and transparent, rights over related traditional knowledge, and intellectual property rights.  For the first time in the legal history of India, it acknowledges traditional rights of forest dwellers to conserve and nurture their forest resource.


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