Forest Rights Act: Schoolchildren Understand Coexistence, Why Can't SC?

On the eve of a Supreme Court hearing on a writ petition questioning the constitutional validity of the Forest Rights Act, over a million Adivasis face an uncertain future.

On February 13, with four hearings having taken place in the wilful absence of a government lawyer to defend the FRA, a three-judge bench ordered the eviction of over a million Adivasis and other traditional forest dwellers across 17 states. In a woeful distortion of justice, an Act that contains no eviction clause has perversely resulted in the potential expulsion of lakhs of this country’s citizens from their own land.

The court’s inability to understand the need for coexistence in and around forests sharply contrasts how deeply conscious tribal communities, including their children, are of the issue. At a recent workshop with children at the government school at Mangala Panchayat in Bandipur, our facilitator asked them to discuss in what ways the world had changed and in what ways it had stayed the same. Environmental issues were at the forefront of their answers. Most of these students were from the Jenu Kuruba and Soliga tribes. Some talked about the need to manage pollution, others discussed sustainable transport, still others talked about plastics. All of them discussed these problems in very immediate terms, relating these global issues to concerns about their place of origin, and accepting that they too needed to change to coexist well with nature.

Also read: The ‘Other’ in the Forest Rights Act Has Been Ignored for Years

On the other hand, most of us are able to appreciate the need for sustainability and coexistence only in highly abstract and theoretical terms, acknowledging the need for our species to coexist with nature. But when it comes to specific issues and problems related to wildlife and natural resource management, we’re either unable to compromise, and either vilify the wildlife itself, casting it as intrusive or dangerous, or we conversely attempt to create a fortress around conservation areas, into which no one, including historic forest dwellers, can enter. Coexistence as a principle drops by the wayside.

However, research and policy lessons from all over the world tell us that dynamic coexistence is the principle upon which conservation efforts must be built and that such coexistence cannot be obtained through policies and practices that exclude people, particularly indigenous communities, from environmental governance. In India, the FRA, passed in 2006, is the main instrument through which coexistence as a principle of environmental management is built into how we govern our natural resources.

Its preamble outlines two key issues. First, it promotes a symbiotic relationship between Adivasis and forests, saying:

The forest rights on ancestral lands and their habitats were not adequately recognized in the consolidation of state forests during the colonial period as well as in Independent India, resulting in historical injustice to forest dwelling scheduled tribes and other forest dwellers who are integral to the very survival and sustainability of the forest system.

Second, the act also stipulates a set of responsibilities for forest dwellers and tribes, including “the responsibility and authority for sustainable use, conservation of biodiversity and maintenance of ecological balance, and thereby strengthening the conservation regime of the forests while ensuring livelihood and food security of the forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers.”

However, the FRA has been unfairly represented by several wildlife conservationists as placing the interests of people over the environment, and being the very instrument that will decimate a conservation edifice built upon the principle that forests should be inviolate preserves. The FRA, in this view, amounts to nothing more than a land grab and indigenous people are no more than encroachers on forest land.

Nothing could be further from the truth. For one, the FRA is the exact opposite of a land grab. No new land titles can be granted under the Act. To even apply for access under individual forest rights involves establishing presence in the area that dates to before 2005. Second, emerging research shows that tourist presence rather than Adivasi access has been having a negative impact on forests and their animals.

A study conducted by the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, for instance, found high markers of stress in faecal matter correlated with vehicular disturbance in the tiger reserves, suggesting that unsustainable wildlife tourism causes distinct physiological stress in tigers in protected reserves. It would make more sense to focus on tourism management as a key element of forest management – reducing tourist numbers, for example – instead of focusing on curtailing the ability of forest dwellers to access the forest.

Further, research from around the world now also acknowledges that indigenous people are not encroachers but that they are our most able stewards of forests. In fact, the first peoples’ loss of zoological and botanical knowledge has been a major handicap in devising effective solutions to forest management.

Our own fieldwork has shown us multiple examples of this. When we asked Adivasi communities how they cared for the forest, they provided us with detailed accounts of the principles they learned from their elders about historical and cultural practices that keep in mind the sustainability of the produce. For example, they were taught effective methods to collect lichen, ways to remove parasites from trees used for non-timber forest produce collection, and principles for harvesting tubers sustainably.

Also read: An Archaic Conservationists’ Bias Haunts the Forest Rights Act

One Adivasi man told us:

I used to go into the forest often with my grandfather. We collected lichen from the trees. My grandfather taught me to only collect lichen that was within our reach, he would instruct us to leave the rest. He also taught us to make very small cuts on the truck of the tree to be able to climb. The cuts would literally just give us a toehold. He would also teach us how to harvest the tubers from the forest and replant the eyes and a bit of the shoot, for it to grow back. If we saw five honey combs on the tree we were only allowed to collect three or four and leave the others undisturbed. I also learned about the different calls of animals, alarm calls or other vocalisations. We never entered the forest without remembering the gods of the forest.

When it was passed in 2006, the FRA was heralded as an example of enlightened forest management policy. It ought to be a matter of national shame that the effective implementation, indeed the very future of the FRA, is under such threat today. It is also of the utmost irony that the consequence of the SC order is going to be felt entirely by people who barely eke out subsistence-level livelihoods, and will have the altogether inauspicious result of completely separating forest lands from communities best equipped to take care of it.

Meanwhile, of course, tourist access to forest areas will continue unchecked. We need to remind ourselves – if schoolchildren in a remote rural school can understand and appreciate coexistence as a core environmental management principle, so should we. And so we need to do everything we can to protect the FRA.

Nithila Baskaran lives and works in the villages around Bandipur National Park. She started the Vanam Foundation, which focuses on education and works with Adivasi communities. Shiv Ganesh is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He studies and writes about communication and collective action in various parts of the world including India, New Zealand, Sweden and the US. Kashika Sharma has a MSc in ecology and environmental science and has studied human-animal conflicts in the villages around Bandipur.