Rights, governance and conservation

ATREE’s work in forest governance examines the relationship between rights, use and forest conservation. This effort has been largely influenced by the implementation of the Recognition of Forest Rights act 2006 which aims to vest forest dwellers with rights to land, resources and forest.

Exploring alternatives to protectionist approaches

In India, where environmental degradation is widespread, biodiversity conservation has tended towards exclusionist and protectionist approaches. This is a colonial bequest, reflected in various government policies on resource access and use, conservation management and protected areas. The Indian Forest Act 1927, Wildlife Protection Act 1972 and its subsequent amendments reflect this top-down approach. Against this backdrop, and catalysed by several grassroot adivasi movements for civil and political rights, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs enacted the Recognition of Forest Rights Act (RFRA) in 2006. The RFRA is an unprecedented legislation that identifies adivasi and other traditional forest dwellers as inhabitants and historical role-players in the shaping and stewardship of ecosystems that, over time, have been enclosed due to protected or reserve area definition. It offers possibilities of secure tenure and rights-based resource use, taken away from forest and forest fringe communities when the area they were occupying was ‘protected’ and ‘reserved’.

Role of governance in conservation

The RFRA has opened up spaces that have the potential to promote an alternative, from-the-grounds-up conservation strategy. The RFRA challenges the concept of ‘fencing in’ or ‘keeping out’ human influences from biodiversity rich areas of the country.

Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra representative
"Few people understand the plight of indigenous and local communities. Their culture, traditional knowledge systems and practices and skills were discredited. But it is these communities who have been protecting the country's forests and biodiversity."
At Collaborative Management of Protected Areas and Forests workshop organized by ATREE, Mysore, 22 and 23 February 2010.

However there is a conditional challenge in its implementation: the onus of proving domicile is squarely on the indigenous tribes and forest dwelling community, which is socially, economically, and politically on disadvantaged ground, often lacking even the minimum literacy standards needed to understand the rules and interpret claim forms and processes. NGOs have had to step in to disseminate awareness of the Act and of community and individual rights, support the community in documenting claims and facilitate the processes for implementation of the Act along with local government, Forest Department and CBO/ NGO participation. Stakeholder meetings with communities, Forest Department and local institutions have revealed that the Forest Department too requires orientation and sensitization in order to roll the logistical machinery for implementation. (Read report on the Collaborative Management of Protected Areas and Forests workshop held at Mysore in Feb 2010).

Mr. Narayana Swamy, DCF, Kollegal,
"The indigenous and local communities have always had a harmonious relationship with the forests…in fact these communities are the first to notice any changes, positive or negative in the forests, which they bring to the notice of the authorities. In a way they are the eyes and ears of the forest department. The Recognition of Forest Rights Act is a huge step forward in empowering them."
At Collaborative Management of Protected Areas and Forests workshop organized by ATREE, Mysore, 22 and 23 February 2010.

Soliga - ATREE collaboration for RFRA implementation
ATREE advocates the role of self governance and community participation in conservation management and governance through Panchayati Raj institutions, which now seems feasible under the RFRA.

A major output of ATREE’s research in BRT WLS over the last decade has been the production of a map of Soliga cultural sites, forest classifications and sacred sites.

Soligas have started using this ‘counter map’ as evidence to claim rights under the RFRA. The map has been widely distributed amongst state and civil society agencies.

ATREE has developed partnerships with Soliga Abhivruddhi Sangha and Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra in BRT to ensure the dissemination of policies and information. ATREE has also initiated support for implementation of RFRA at Kanakapura, and MM Hills, in Karnataka and in Darjeeling, West Bengal. The focus so far has been on disseminating information, forming ground partnerships with implementing organisations that work with communities, holding stakeholder meets and initiating dialogue on the policy level on RFRA and its implementation.


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