The Chhattisgarh Community Forest Rights Project, India | Oxfam

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  OXFAM ACTIVE CITIZENSHIP CASE STUDY www.oxfam.org   THE CHHATTISGARH COMMUNITY FOREST RIGHTS PROJECT, INDIA By Duncan Green We have lived here for three, four generations. Since my childhood I have seen how the Forest Department comes and cuts down trees. These trees have grown with us, some of these trees we have planted ourselves and have let them grow. They are like our children. We are not allowed to take even firewood but they cut down our trees. We feel very bad. Prem Sai, a community member of Bule village, Sarguja district, Chhattisgarh India’s new and heavily forested state of Chhattisgarh is home to some of its most marginalized communities, whose traditional ways of living from forest products are under threat from encroachment by mining and other activities. Oxfam India has supported a local partner NGO, Chaupal, to help forest communities to take advantage of the implementation gap between this reality and the provisions of progressive legislation, the Forest Rights Act (2006). Early results are extremely positive, with dozens of villages winning new forest and grazing rights under the Act.  2   BACKGROUND India’s new state of Chhattisgarh was constituted on 1 November 2000, with 16 districts carved out of the state of Madhya Pradesh. Forests cover almost 44 percent of its total area. Eighty percent of Chhattisgarh’s population lives in rural parts and 32 per cent of its population is ‘tribal’ (‘scheduled tribes’, in India’s official language, are among the poorest and most marginalized people in the country). 1  Forests are critical to tribal people’s lives and livelihoods. They provide jobs and income through the collection of Non Timber Forest Products (NTFPs), such as tendu leaves (Diospyros melanoxylon), used for making Indian cigarettes ( beedi  ). People consume NTFPs or sell them to government-promoted cooperatives and societies, as well as private traders. The forest has proved itself as a provider for the entire year, particularly during the lean agricultural season. Collection and selling of forest produce provides employment for up to 40 days a year, but is even more important in terms of monetary benefits, including wages and bonuses provided. Apart from cash flow, NTFPs provide food security (fish, mushrooms, fruits, tubers, foliage), medicines and usufruct rights, which would otherwise need to be paid for. However, agriculture production, which has been affected by rising input costs (seed, fertiliser, labour and electricity), has seen a decline in forest regions. 2  But the use of forest land by tribals is a perennial source of conflict. Their legal rights are often ignored by government officials, producing a situation of insecurity and eviction, rooted in the injustices of India’s development model. The government’s own research throws light on the deepening marginalization of tribal communities. Having lived for generations in a close and dependent relationship with nature in mostly resource-rich areas, they are paying a devastating price for India’s chosen path. Violation of their land and forest rights, often leading to their displacement or dispossession; exploitative economic relations with the world at large; and the erosion of their cultural practices are some of the harsh, yet common realities in the life of the tribal community. Dispossession by mining and industry has increased. According to the government, 21,000 hectares of land were diverted from Chhattisgarh’s forests from 2006 to 2012; the highest of any Indian state, along with Madhya Pradesh. 3  Much of this was for coal mining. However, this process of economic marginalization has prompted a political reaction in the opposite direction. The ‘Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers’ (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act (FRA) of 2006 marks one recent effort by the Indian government to correct historical discrimination. The result of decades of struggle by tribals and their allies, the FRA assures their rights over forests and other traditionally accessed natural resources around tribal habitations (such as forest products, fisheries, grazing, nistari   (usufruct rights) and conversion of forest villages into revenue). Under the Act, tribals can access, own and manage forest and other natural resources. Individual rights over forest land are for cultivation, whereas community rights apply to cultural practices, bona fide livelihood needs through sale and collection of NTFPs, grazing, fisheries, water bodies and management of forest resources.  Although there are several tiers of administration involved in implementing the Act, the key tier is the Gram Sabha, or village assembly. The Gram Sabha is in charge of receiving and  3   verifying claims under the Act, and appoints the statutory 10- to 15-member Forest Rights Committee (FRC), including at least one-third women and two-thirds from scheduled tribes. Legislation is one thing, implementation another. When India’s Committee on the Forest Rights Act, set up by the central government to review implementation, visited tribal villages in Chhattisgarh in May 2010, it disputed the state government’s claims that the FRA had been fully implemented, and found that the state had particularly failed to promote the community rights promised under the Act.  A broader baseline study commissioned by Oxfam, 4  covering four states (Orissa, Jharkhand and Maharashtra, as well as Chhattisgarh) in 2013 found a massive ‘implementation gap’ between the provisions of the FRA and what is actually happening on the ground. Across the four states:   only four percent of people are aware of the FRA;   62 percent of the panchayats (village clusters, lowest tier of government administration) have not even initiated the process of preparing lists of hamlets/habitations, unrecorded or un-surveyed settlements or forest villages, which is an essential first step in lodging claims under the Act;   96 percent of panchayat representatives were unaware that the FRA requires consent for the diversion of forest land into mining. This has contributed to a general degree of inaction, with few measures taken by the government at any level in the eight years since the FRA came into being. Only nine percent of the target community has benefited from other government schemes. BUDGET Oxfam India has provided a total of Rs 2.2m (US $36,000) to Chaupal for its community forestry work (November 2011 to March 2014). THEORY OF CHANGE Power Analysis The position of different players on community forest rights stems from a complex interplay of incentives and motives within the different levels of the state and beyond. Those supporting community forest rights for tribals include (unsurprisingly) the tribals themselves, and their civil society allies, but also District- and village-level officials and those specifically tasked with defending tribal communities, such as the Principal Secretary, Tribal Development. Other parts of the state machinery are, however, more hostile. The powerful Forest Department sees the FRA as undermining its control and tries to avoid cooperating with those, even state officials, charged with implementing the Act. The State government has signed a Rs 430bn (US $7bn) memorandum of understanding with the mining and industry sector, largely concerning minerals, such as coal, iron ore, bauxite and other precious minerals on or underneath forested land. According to a report 5  by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), the state has already lost 15 percent of its forest to mining.  4    According to Chaupal, although some local media and individual journalists are sympathetic, most other potential stakeholders are largely uninterested in (or hostile to) the community forest struggle. Faith organizations, especially mission services, are broadly indifferent unless disputes affect their own service delivery in areas such as health and education. The police and judiciary only react when a law-and-order issue arises, which has so far been avoided. The private sector is largely present in the area in the form of private traders, seen by tribals and civil society organisations as highly exploitative and often linked to the ruling political party. Large mining companies, such as Adani Mining, have preferred to keep a low profile, although this may of course hide ‘closed-door’ lobbying activities. Change Hypothesis Oxfam’s understanding of the process of change under way in Chhattisgarh is that the widening gap between economic reality (marginalization of forest communities, steady encroachment of mining interests) and politics (passing of the FRA, creation of FRCs, increasing levels of organization and assertiveness of tribals and other disenfranchised communities) creates both an implementation gap and an opportunity. Further gaps exist in the way the FRA has been implemented to date, with higher level committees exerting political pressure to reverse positive decisions at local level, and the Forest Rights Committees often lacking representation from tribal communities. The gap between rhetoric and reality is particularly acute in the area of community rights, which, though guaranteed by the FRA, have largely remained invisible in the implementation process in the state. Oxfam’s change strategy Oxfam’s local partner is Chaupal. Led by an Adivasi grassroots activist, Chaupal Grameen Vikas Prashikshan Evum Shodh Sansthan (Chaupal) is a combination of four people’s organizations, founded in 2005. All four organizations are predominantly tribal people’s organizations, with a large proportion of their membership deriving from tribal communities. They came together through their work on another popular initiative – the Right to Food campaign. Chaupal’s previous campaigns on the right to food and the right to work had established good links with village panchayats, which helped overcome the panchayats’ initial reluctance to work on forest rights. 6  Oxfam has supported Chaupal’s work at state level through a fairly typical INGO (international non-government organization) combination of coalition-building, brokering links with local and national officials, and information dissemination.   These include supporting the formation of the Community Forest Rights (CFR) Manch (Platform) of like-minded organisations, including Oxfam partners, to discuss the challenges and difficulties at state level and to devise new and joint strategies; creating a direct link with the state tribal department for follow-up and coordination; helping with timely dissemination of information, like government orders, presentations, circulars etc.; and working at national level to raise pertinent issues, including with networks such as the CFR-LA and forest rights e-groups. Chaupal’s work falls into four interlinking areas:   community mobilization;
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