The State Chapter of the Campaign for Survival and Dignity (CSD), which struggled for the enactment of Forest Rights Act, 2006 across the country, has opposed the Compensatory Afforestation Fund (CAF) Act, 2016, enacted by the BJP government. CSD called this Act as anti-tribal and anti-forest dwellers. CSD is of the view that the Act allocates Rs 42,000 crore worth of compensatory afforestation funds to the forest bureaucracy to replace forests lost to development projects nationally, but these funds has been undertake for forcible plantations on individual and community forest lands.
This represents not only a failed model of ecological restoration of degraded lands, but also overturns the transformative potential of the Forest Rights Act 2006 in recognizing the historical rights of adivasi and forest-dwelling communities, CSD believes.
It should be noted that the Forest Rights Act (FRA) brings 47% of India’s forests land under the democratic and sustainable management of Gram Sabhas, recognizing community and individual rights and their exclusive authority to manage customary forests. Estimates suggest that only 3% of the actual potential of FRA has been realized through formal recognition of Community Forest Rights (CFR).
In Odisha, at least, 32,711 villages are eligible for CFR rights recognition as they have forest land within their revenue village boundaries. These villages are concentrated mostly in the tribal districts of the state. At least 23,00,000 (ha) hectares of forests can be recognized as CFR in the state. However, in last ten years only 6 per cent of this potential has been achieved.
The CAMPA or CAF Act threatens this potential by completely bypassing the FRA, and the Odisha government which is due to receive Rs 6,000 crore as CAMPA fund, is the highest in comparison to any other state.
CAMPA funds have already been used on a wide scale in Odisha to set up plantations under schemes such as Ama Jungle Yojana which promotes Vana Surakshya Samitis (Joint Forest Management Committees) of the Forest Department that conflict with Gram Sabhas recognized under FRA as the authority. A study of the impact of these CAMPA plantations on the rights and livelihoods of communities reveals that the funds are a tool to grab lands, forcibly dispossess and illegally relocate communities from their traditional livelihood resources.
Under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, compensatory afforestation (CA) can be undertaken on non-forest lands in the same or adjacent districts to the diverted forests, and only if these are not available, it should be done on degraded notified forests on twice the area of the diverted land.
Information from the government’s own e-greenwatch website reveals that 70% of these plantations are, instead, set up on forest lands, including by destroying dense natural forests, as for instance in Kandhamal. Out of 22 villages surveyed in Kandhamal and North and South Forest Divisions of Kalahandi, plantations were set up without the consent of Gram Sabhas in violation of FRA.
Where Gram Sabhas are more assertive, and claim CFR rights, the Joint Forest Management Committees (Van Suraksha Samitis), dominated by forest bureaucracy, are revived to undercut their authority. However, these entities no longer enjoy any legal status after the enactment of the FRA.
Women experience the most adverse impact, since this greatly constrains their access to Non-Timber Forest Produce (NTFP) and places them under the constant fear of arrest and harassment. In the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG) areas, such as the Kutia Kondhs in Kandhmal, their already fragile livelihood base is affected by monoculture teak plantations.
Whereas earlier their food basket comprised 22 different kinds of millets, today that stands reduced significantly after being replaced by monoculture plantations. About 60% plantations in Odisha are of commercial species, such as teak (41%) and acacia (9%), which are of no value to the local communities or ecology.
As for the November 8 Guidelines issued by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change ( MoEFCC) on creating Land Bank for compensatory afforestation, CSD believes that it would lead to serious conflicts in coming days, badly affecting the life and livelihood of the tribals living in tribal areas of the state, which constitute about 45 per cent of the state’s geographical area. Here, 50 to 85 per cent land are recorded as government land, over which local communities have physical possession for generations. Their rights should have been recognized either under FRA or other revenue laws.
Besides, it is to be noted that Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) reports testify rampant mismanagement and irregularities in the use of CA funds by the Forest Department. Plantations enjoy a very low survival rate of zero to 75% for lack of oversight and maintenance, while the funds are also used to finance laptops, luxury cars and guns for the forest bureaucracy.
There are reports of the Forest Department files false cases against protesting villagers, coercing them to sign on blank papers as consent for plantations. Besides, CSD has alleged, CAMP fund has been used for illegal eviction of tribals and forest dwellers from protected areas.
CSD has decided to launch a state-wide protest along with like-minded organizations, demanding that the Government of India repeal the CAF Act, 2016. CA projects can only be implemented after recognizing and vesting of tribals’ rights under FRA. CA funds must directly be transferred to the Gram Sabhas, whose are legally empowered to manage and conserve forests. All CA activities must be done with free, prior and informed consent of Gram Sabhas. Ironically, though CAF Act was passed in 2016, its rules need to be framed and passed by Parliament.
*With Campaign for Survival and Dignity