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  Environment Asia Opinion

Who Owns The Forests?

Posted: 2008-02-25
From: Submitted
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Ullash Kumar in India writes that it is necessary to understand that large tracts of the mountainous region are under the tight control of rich forest mafias and big companies. These are the people who are the real encroachers.

by Ullash Kumar R K

Land is the source of food security for the people. Only those who possess land are sure of a better future. Ensuring continued possession of land and land for the landless are therefore fundamental. When the community loses their land, they lose their language, culture and political power as well. Land is the base for work and production. Language springs from land. Land is not mere soil. Land, in addition, include the people of the land, the language they speak, the technologies they use for production, the different tools they utilize in their work, songs, music, art, literature and traditions. These emerge only in association with land. The trees, plants, creepers, grass and all other things, living and non-living in nature carry out the wonderful act of making land fertile. If these are destroyed, all living beings including humans cannot exist in peace. The lands become desolate turning into a desert!

The mountain ranges play a prime role as far as forests are concerned. Precipitation into copious rainfall is aided by these mountain ranges. They store water below ground to be released as streams, rivulets and rivers to the plains, turning the plains rich and fertile. They form the source of major rivers as the Cauvery. The natural forests are the source of a nation’s wealth. People use the forest for their livelihood as naturally as possible. The forests and the lands adjoining the forests are considered the commons of the community and therefore their right. These were not the property of private persons. The British imperialist, in the process of conquering our country, converted the forests for the first time as property for exploitation. Forests and the lands that were protected by people for the first time became commodity for trade. A historic injustice unfolded when virgin thick forests that cannot be reproduced were destroyed and lorry loads of timber were smuggled out, when people’s lands were grabbed. To cover up this looting, the people who collected firewood and the Adivasis who revered the forests were squarely blamed for forest destruction. This was just to divert attention.

It is grossly unjust and terrible to describe the people who protect and depend on the forest as `encroachers’ after the forest was departmentalized by the forest department. It is necessary to understand that large tracts of the mountainous region are under the tight control of rich forest mafias and big companies. And these are people who are not related to the region. These are the people who are the real encroachers. The lands that they grabbed are today the big plantations. This fact is camouflaged when the forest department destroys crops and properties threatening lives of the Adivasis who are the traditional inhabitants of the region as well as other poor and marginal farmers- all in the name of forest eviction and forest protection.

In the Gudalur part of Nilgiris, big land grabbers have decimated the evergreen forests. Thousands of acres have been thus grabbed. In Nov 1995, Godavarman Thirumalpad of Nilambur Kovilakam, the erstwhile janmi of Gudalur, approached the Supreme Court to protect the forests. He send a post card, this is the famous 202/95 case, which is very famous till date. Taking this as a PIL case, the Supreme Court asked all the State governments what steps are taken to protect the forests from encroachments. This was taken as the cue to evict forest dwellers all across the country under the guise that the Supreme Court has ordered their eviction, which it had not. Instead of evicting illegal encroachers as the forestland grabbers and big companies to protect the forests, the forest department embarked on evicting the forest dependent people and adivasis brutally- all in the name of implementing the (non-existent) Supreme Court order. This resulted in the death of hundreds. Lakhs are pushed to the edge of starvation. It is feared that the right to life is to be dangerously violated for about 1.5 crore of people. These are to be carried out illegally twisting the laws. And the media also presented the wrong picture. Small farmers being evicted became news everyday. But the big companies and estates remained as it is and destroyed more forests.

Six circulars were issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 1990. It is made clear that those whose livelihoods are dependent on the forests shall not be summarily evicted. Moreover, the orders instructs that the claims of these people to the land should be properly enquired into and settled forthwith for the progress of the nation and lives of the people. The real task is to expose those who have swallowed large part of the forests and to recover these lands. Take over of fertile lands in the third world by those in the developed world is a major threat posed by globalisation today. If the lands are lost, livelihoods are lost. All that makes up life is lost. Identity is lost. These are being experienced. Therefore rights to the land means rights to life.

We can compare the situation that is happening in forests with what is happening in a city like Bangalore today under the guise of urban restructuring and development. Most of the cities identities are getting lost by the day, be it the trees and boulevards or the heritage buildings and also house and establishments. Today the city people are driven to the wall. This is exactly what happened in the forests too.

Before the British descended upon this land, forests were the rights of villages and communities. These came under the control of upper castes in many parts of the country. However, these were yet to be transformed into private properties. The rights to land were reorganized under the caste system. The landlords collected rent from the low caste tillers of the land who were the cultivators of crops. The forests that did not belong to individuals were declared to belong to the British. This colonial situation continues till date despite independence from the British. The British always wanted to own the rich timber resource that we had, most of the good wood was shipped to London, to transport their loot, they made the railway and road networks in India.  After independence we continued the colonial rule only thing we had Indian leaders. The forest department functioned as a revenue department. The forests were always looked upon for revenue and game. The British finished off the rich flora and fauna we had. Most of Tigers in India were shot by them for game. Like if you look at the census of Tigers in 1900 we had about 40,000 tigers in India, in 2008 we find only 800 left, so what is wrong, who kill the tigers? The people or forest department?

The British were bent on collecting revenues. They introduced a system to systematically increase the revenue through taxation. Those who controlled large tracts of land were made responsible to pay tax for the land. The zamindari, inamdari and mirasdari system was introduced all over the country. In the process of extracting tax for as much as the land as possible, most of the ancestral lands of the Adivasis came under the control of  a few zamindars. Large parts of the forests and lands adjoining the forests were made the property of individuals. In order to pay the revenue for the land, many of them leased out the land to others for 99 years. It is these lands that subsequently became large land holdings and estates of individuals. Subsequently restriction of land holdings was introduced. These laws intended to reduce the concentration of land in a few. But they were not properly implemented.

Officials documents that confer rights to these lands are issued. These were issued in the form of metal plates and papers. These were called `chembu patta’ and paper patta. The British were the first to issue such paper documents. These became the all important ownership records. The age old relationship between people and land began to be reshaped and redefined. Ultimately those who have land records came to enjoy the lands. In this situation, it becomes extremely important for people to create records of rights in order to enjoy their rights to land. In addition, physical evidence as a tree that you have planted long back and the presence of a family deity in the land are also proof.

The forests that constituted the wealth of the people were blindly destroyed for the rapacious profits of the British. This onslaught on the forest were bitterly resisted by the Adivasis and other forest dwellers. There are numerous instances when they drove away those who destroyed the forest. However, the British snapped the natural age old ties of people with the forest as the forest was brought under their control. The system established by the British has been carried over through to the post-independence period.

Crores of rupees were mobilized through the destruction of forests. For instance, the earnings of the forest department was Rs 1300 crores in 1970 from the destruction of the forests. Similarly many who have no relationship to the forests such as big companies and other rich people were allotted thousand of acres of pristine forests so that they could be destroyed and grabbed. These were permitted by the forest department to be converted to plantations. Adivasis and the poor were blamed for forest depletion in order to cover up this scam. They were subject to illegal eviction in violation of all democratic principles. These alienated the original settlers from their lands and also from their livelihoods. They were pushed to the wayside.

A nationwide resistance movement has emerged against this illegal and unjust eviction. Many people’s movements united to launch the Campaign for Survival and Dignity for sustained struggle and legal battle. The representative of this platform met the Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh on 5th November 2004 and explained the situation along with suggesting ways to solve the problem. This was followed by a national level conference at Delhi on 7-8 Dec 2004.

A protest dharna commenced at Jantar Mantar in Delhi from 7-27th March 2005. As a result of all these political pressure due to widespread protests a law was enacted in the parliament to rectify this historic injustice meted out to the forest dependent Adivasis and forest dwellers.  Finally the act came into force on Jan 1st 2008 under the title Forest Rights Act.

The former hunters from the affluent class have turned wildlife lovers as though in repentance to earlier sins. They are now claiming that the wildlife destruction is carried out by the local people.

All the forests should be under the control of society. It is because the forest lands were grabbed by the government that in the adivasi region, amidst naturally abundant wealth, the adivasis have a bare existence without any rights. None of the political parties and major movements have sought any substantial changes except for some concessions. The people become disillusioned in this dire situation. They lose confidence in the system. They want that the lands that they cultivate for instance should be recognized to agricultural lands.

The situation demands immediate change. The Adivasis know that a stable livelihood is more from reestablishing their relationship to the forest than cultivating land. The symbiotic relationship means sustainable livelihood. The break up of this relationship has resulted in the destruction of forests. The people should reestablish control over the forest. This is the only solution to the welfare of the people and the forests. Sec 4 M (2) of the Panchayat Raj (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act 1996 stipulates ownership of minor forest produce. Till date, this provision is yet to be translated into reality.

Eviction of people from their ancestral land in the name of removal of encroachment leads to loss of land. They are not provided alternatives for survival or employment. It is now proper to aim at ownership of minor forest produce and towards control over forests as a short to a long term agenda for the movements. Strong organised activities to ensure control over forests and lands as of now should be launched. It would only be a historic duty to ensure land to the landless. Adivasis, dalits, small farmers and landless should unite to achieve land rights. This alone would be the first step to rectify historic injustice.

It is people’s land, only people who have connection with their land and forests can protect and care for the forests. The Forest department, environmentalists and outsiders can never ever protect the forests of her flora and fauna no matter how much ever money comes in under Project Tiger or Project Elephant or in the name of conservation. Make people feel it is their land and forests, the forests will remain safe for ever.

Resistance struggles of forest dwelling communities    

It was with the Mal Paharia revolt in 1772 that the struggle against colonization commenced. Some important revolts since then
1864: Revolt in Andaman
1869-70 : Santhal unrest in Dhanbad
1872-73: Datla revolt
1879: Naga revolt
1879: Koya revolt, Makangiri, Orissa
1883: Sentinelese islanders attack in Andaman
1889: Sardari agitation of Mundas, Bihar
1891: Meitei Revolt in Manipur
1892: Eastern Lushai uprising in Assam
1895: Birsa Munda’s arrest
1911,13,14: Bastar Adivasi revolt
1920-21: Tana Bhagat rebellion, Bihar
1922: Koya rebellion in eastern Andhra
1932: Rani Guidallp’s non-christian Naga revolt
1941: Babejhari revolt in Adilabad
1942: Lakshman Naik’s Korapur revolt in Orissa
1942-45: Andaman tribal revolt
1946-48: Warli revolt in Maharashtra
1940: Jharkhand Movement
1947: Naga insurrection
1967-70: Adivasi revolt in Srikakulam
1967-71: Naxalbari revolt

Forest Destruction

British Policy was to extract revenue from forest. Timber was the prime target.

Income earned by the governments

1869-70 : Rs 56 lakhs
1924-25 : Rs 5.67 crores
1951-52 : Rs 35 crores
1970 : Rs 1300 crores
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