While receiving community titles has kindled a cautious feeling of security among villagers, the politics surrounding protected areas continues to be precarious.
It is estimated that communities live in more than two-thirds of India’s protected areas. Since their land and forest rights were never settled, villagers are largely viewed as encroachers by the State. Environmental and wildlife conservation remains a hotly-contested arena, often enforced through the eviction of tribal communities.
The Contentious Politics of Conservation
This trend of exclusionary fortress conservation is not unique to India. A recent global analysis on protected areas explains: “Historically, protected areas have been established as part of broader processes of expropriation of community lands, and have therefore been a flashpoint for conflict between conservation agencies and traditional peoples.”
In India under British rule, large tracts of land were declared as reserved forests and subsequently exploited for commercial purposes. The perpetuation of such policies by the post-colonial State, along with the establishment of protected areas without acknowledging the claims of the original inhabitants, has led to stark results.
Research shows that local communities living inside of protected areas “often live in a state of deprivation, poverty, and in conflict with protected area managers, who usually perceive them as responsible for the loss of wildlife.”
Over the past decades there have been attempts to shift from a model that views forest-dwellers as incompatible with conservation. Notably, in 2005 the Government of India established the Tiger Taskforce to strengthen tiger conservation. The Taskforce reported: “The protection of the tiger is inseparable from the protection of the forests it roams in. But the protection of these forests is itself inseparable from the fortunes of people who, in India, inhabit forested areas.”
The enactment of the Forest Rights Act in 2006 was a major step to rectify the historical injustices faced by tribal and other forest dwelling communities. The Act seeks to shift forest governance by empowering Gram Sabhas as the primary decision-makers over their customary forests. It also recognizes the critical role communities can play in conservation, and applies to all forested areas – including wildlife sanctuaries, tiger reserves, and national parks.
In Simlipal, the first earnest attempts to implement the FRA began in January 2013. Over the next several months, local NGOs trained government officials and community members on the law and assisted communities to map their traditional boundaries with the help of GPS technology and cadastral maps. In Mayurbhanj district, where Simlipal lies, the process was led by District Collector Rajesh Patil who mobilized local officials to ensure the law was implemented properly.
“Forest-dwellers, many of whom are tribals, have traditional rights to enjoy the benefits from forests,” Patil said. “These rights have not been recognized for so many years. One reason for poverty is the lack of rights to the land. The forest is their only source of livelihood, and previously forest-dwellers had no path to pursue that.”
While successful implementation of the FRA has been limited to a few areas of the country, many believe the Act represents vast unmet potential for transforming the lives of marginalized forest-dwelling communities. A recent study reveals that 150 million people, living on at least 40 million hectares of land, are eligible to receive land rights under the law.
A New Model of Community-Led Conservation
Beyond the immediate economic benefits of being able to collect and sell forest produce, one striking outcome of Community Forest Resource (CFR) titles granted in Simlipal is the intensified efforts villagers have taken to protect their forests.
Every month a rotating cadre of four community members patrols the forests, preventing illegal logging. In Bilapaka village, Maheshwar Naik told me, “We have all come together and taken an oath to protect our forest.”
Meanwhile in Saharapat village, community members see their newly-won rights as a pathway towards progress for future generations. “Now that we have received a title, we know it is our responsibility to protect the forest. We plan on protecting and developing our forests for our children,” resident Chetan Prasad Singua said.
Such examples of community-led conservation are not limited to Simlipal. Recently in Kerala, two tribal groups the Kadars and Malayans announced a self-imposed ban on fishing during the monsoon season in order to prevent the depletion of the fish population. The moratorium is part of the communities’ CFR management plan, drafted after receiving titles under the FRA.
The reality is that in a densely populated country like India, it is impossible to effectively conserve landscapes without the cooperation of local communities. In Odisha, where Simlipal lies, there is already a rich tradition of community forest management; where over 10,000 communities have been actively sustaining forests for the past several decades.
Yet despite the freedom and independence community members describe from receiving CFR titles, the actualization of these rights remains a work in progress. Across the country, institutionalized resistance to the full realization of the FRA and reluctance to cede authority to Gram Sabhas representing local communities has plagued implementation. In certain villages in Simlipal, villagers are now able to sell the produce they collect from the forest. But elsewhere, villagers complain that they are still prohibited by the Forest Department to do so. In November 2015, reports indicated that the village of Jamunagar was relocated from within Simlipal despite receiving a title under the FRA, raising questions about respect for the law even after implementation.
While the ecological benefits of community management of forests and natural resources are well documented, the next several years in Simlipal will allow for a better understanding of how local communities can lead conservation efforts inside established protected areas. What is readily apparent now is the need for adherence to existing laws that recognize the role communities play in conservation and respect their dignity in the process.
In India, the displacement of people from wildlife sanctuaries has a long history. It remains to be seen if the Simlipal story can present a new model– one where coexistence between communities and the landscapes they sustain takes precedence over conflict and forced deprivation.
Gaurav Madan is Senior Associate, Asia Program at the Rights and Resources Initiative, an international coalition advocating for local communities and Indigenous People’s land and forest rights across the world, including India.