SC order on evicting forest dwellers: Protecting indigenous communities’ rights is key in fight against climate change

Several tribal communities in India protect forests, based on their self-perception of these areas being under their custodianship. Community-led movements across the country make it clear that lawmakers, bureaucrats or governments are not the ones who are saving forests.

Karthikeyan Hemalatha March 13, 2019 20:18:56 IST
SC order on evicting forest dwellers: Protecting indigenous communities’ rights is key in fight against climate change
  • Several tribal communities in India protect forests, based on their self-perception of these areas being under their custodianship

  • Experts agree that the Supreme Court’s 13 February order is not just a major land rights crisis, but also a big blow to India’s effort to mitigate climate change

  • A World Resources Institute report said when indigenous people have weak legal rights, their forests tend to be vulnerable to deforestation and thus become the source of carbon dioxide emissions

Armed with sticks and knives, the women of Dengajhari — a small village some 80 kilometres south-west of Bhubaneswar — take turns to patrol the Patharogondo, a forest hill nearby. Tired of their forest being cut down for timber, the community began patrolling in the early 70s. Soon after, the forest began to flourish, enough for them to depend on it for their livelihoods.

“When I asked the villagers why is it that women go for patrolling, and not men, they replied: ‘Men get beaten up. The timber mafia wouldn’t dare touch us (women). It is only more trouble for them’,” said Ashish Kothari, member of Kalpavriksh — an environmental NGO based in Pune. Kothari was also involved in the drafting of the Biological Diversity Act, the National Wildlife Action Plan (2000) and also coordinated India's National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP) process.

“Whether it is Odisha, Maharashtra, Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Nagaland or anywhere else in the country, many such communities are protecting forests (and other ecosystems), based on their self-perception of these areas being under their custodianship. However, in other places, their ability to do so has declined and they need help to rebuild using laws like the Forest Rights Act (FRA), PESA (Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, and MGNREGA. Unfortunately instead of doing this, the government is intending to displace them,” he added.

SC order on evicting forest dwellers Protecting indigenous communities rights is key in fight against climate change

Representational image. Reuters

Community-led movements across the country makes it clear that lawmakers, bureaucrats or governments are not the ones who are saving forests. In this light, the Supreme Court’s 13 February order that threatens to evict over 10 lakh forest dwellers is not just a major land rights crisis, but also a big blow to the country’s effort to mitigate climate change, and a direct contrast to India’s commitment to protect its forests as part of its 2005 Paris Agreement, experts say. The apex court has now put the order on hold and has given states time till 10 July, 2019 to submit details on whether tribals got a fair opportunity to claim their rights.

By absorbing carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas — and locking it in soil, forests act as carbon sinks. When the forests are cut down, not only is the absorbing capacity of the region lost, the stored carbon dioxide is also released into the atmosphere which adds to global warming.

In the Paris Agreement, along with reducing greenhouse gas emission intensity of the country’s GDP by 33 to 35 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, and committing to ensure that 40 percent of power capacity will be from non-fuel sources, India also committed to create an ‘carbon sink’ of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030.

While the country is well-ahead of its schedule for the first two goals, it lags behind in improving forest cover. According to a report by The Wire, though India has reported enhanced tree cover over the past 10 years, it includes plantations and trees outside forest areas. “Data from India’s draft Biennial Update Report shows that the carbon sequestration from forests has actually gotten worse between 2010-2014. Carbon removed from the atmosphere by forests is included in the emissions inventory as part of a broader category called, “Land use, land-use change, and forestry” or LULUCF,” read the report.

Several research-based reports across the world have given evidence that indigenous people are the best custodians of forests and biodiversity as they live in harmony with nature and see themselves as integral part of the ecosystem. “There is enough evidence that indigenous people are the best custodians of forests and biodiversity around the world. They live in harmony with nature and as an integral part of the forest ecosystem. Recognising their contribution and role in finding solution to combat climate change, the Paris Agreement under the United Nations acknowledged the rights of indigenous peoples and established a platform to involve them in the policy-making process,” said Harjeet Singh, global lead on climate change at ActionAid International. “Denying them their right to natural habitat will jeopardise the cultural and ecological fabric built over centuries by human and wild,” he added.

Across the world, indigenous communities have legal or official rights to at least 513 million hectares of forests — which is about one-eighth of the world’s total forest cover. Together, these forests contain approximately 37.7 billion tonnes of carbon, about 29 times the annual carbon footprint of all passenger vehicles in the world.

“With deforestation and other land uses now accounting for about 11 percent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions, weak legal protection for forest communities is not just a land or resource rights problem. It is a climate change problem,” read a report by the World Resources Institute titled Securing Rights, Combating Climate Change. “When indigenous people and local communities have no or weak legal rights, their forests tend to be vulnerable to deforestation and thus become the source of carbon dioxide emissions,” the report found out. The report also concluded that legal rights for communities and government protection of these rights not only lowers carbon dioxide emissions and deforestation, but also improves the carbon storage capacity of their forests. The report quoted a study that measured carbon levels in 30 community forests across seven countries, including India. “The 30 community forests showed an overall average increase in forest carbon storage of 4.9 tonnes per hectare per year,” it read.

Forest rights experts call it unfortunate that a minority of 'conservationists' seems to still consider forest-dwelling communities as a greater threat than 'development' projects, even though thousands of hectares of good standing forest is sacrificed for the latter every year. “It is well known that the various procedures under the FRA have not been followed in a vast number of cases of 'rejection', including those of appeal. Additionally, one must take into account the extremely difficult conditions under which forest-dwellers have to claim their rights. It so much easier for a district or forest officer to dismiss the claim, than it is for the right-holder to make it,” said Kothari.

“This is not to suggest that all occupants of land are legitimate claimants under the FRA. But unless the conditions of inequality, injustice, and lack of process are dealt with, the eviction will be unjust and unwarranted for the vast majority. Our forest governance remains neo-colonial, our wildlife protection practices remain exclusionary. This must change,” he added.

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