Indigenous Peoples

India’s Forest Rights Act recognizes indigenous and community forest lands

26/05/2016 - 

Indigenous peoples over the world face serious challenges in having their rights to land, territories and natural resources recognized. There are few countries in the world that have the institutional and legal mechanisms to enable indigenous peoples to secure their tenure rights – including access – to traditional land.

In India since 2006 the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dweller's Act (commonly known as the Forest Rights Act or FRA) has recognized the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities to live off the forest and to use and govern forest resources, including the right to hold forest lands that they had been using, residing in, or cultivating.

The FRA represents a landmark legislation that provides the legal framework for major institutional reform in the governance of forests in the country, recognizing pre-existing rights and re-empowering communities to manage their customary resources.

It has enormous implications for an estimated 150 million people in 170,000 villages within or near forests, including almost 90 million indigenous peoples. At least 40 million hectares of forestland (more than half of India’s forestlands) could be registered as community forests under statutory community management, and doing so would bring back the biodiversity that has been destroyed over the years, providing greater food security and strengthening the livelihoods of millions of people.

However, 10 years after the adoption of the Act, barely 1.2 percent of the eligible area has been recorded and recognized; the challenge is to speed up the process of securing the rights of indigenous peoples and other forest dwellers to these areas.

Recently, during a seminar at FAO headquarters, Madhu Sarin, a fellow of the Rights and Resources Initiative and contributor to the Campaign for Survival and Dignity (which mobilizes communities for claiming and asserting their rights under the Act over the past decade), explained the main constraints related to the FRA: “This is a central law but India has a federal structure thus implementation has to be done by each state, and there is a huge difference between the states, as they are adopting different procedures for the recognition of tenure rights.”

However, there have been also encouraging achievements: "Before the existence of the FRA, the Indian Forest Department would harvest trees and retain money earned from the sale of timber. Now the community is harvesting forest resources such as bamboo and using it for income-generating activities. The money earned stays in the village, which in turn allows them to pay higher wages to their own members who participate in the harvesting, compared to wages paid by the government. In addition, the FRA recognizes communities' right to decide how to manage their own forests so many of them are developing their own management plans and submitting them to the district administration to be incorporated in the working plans of the Forest Department. Indeed, the implementation of the FRA is not just about obtaining titles, but it is re-empowering the indigenous and other forest dependent communities, changing the entire atmosphere and context,” Madhu explained.

FAO is already working with the Khasi, Naga, Karbi, Miso and other scheduled tribes in Northeast and Central India to support the implementation of this law. A capacity building programme specifically designed for indigenous peoples, to strengthen their capacity to participate and contribute effectively to the wider ongoing dialogue on tenure-policy, is currently being carried out.

“We do not have much knowledge of our rights, and trainings are an effective tool; more people should be involved at the grass-roots level,” said Ajit Ekka during a workshop in Jharsuguda, Odisha.

A concrete indicator of the effectiveness of FAO’s work in support of the recognition and protection of the legitimate tenure rights of indigenous peoples and others, would be the increase in the area that is recorded and recognized. This would benefit millions of people in India and could be achieved if FAO works in strict collaboration with the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, which is in charge of the implementation of the FRA, and with other agencies working on this issue. 

FAO is seeking to strengthen this work and is trying to put together a bigger initiative to support the institutional strengthening of the government agencies that have a role in the implementation of FRA, as well as the local networks and community institutions, to mainstream the Act and increase the number of the Community Forest Rights granted. 

To this end, last week FAO welcomed a delegation of ministers from the Ministry of Tribal Affairs in the Maharashtra State to discuss how to build the way forward. Vishnu Rama Savara, Minister for Tribal Development Department, shared his view about the importance of the Forest Rights Act for Scheduled Tribes in India, the challenges for its implementation and how it can improve the livelihoods of local communities and indigenous peoples.

You can watch the interview clicking here