Women from various corners of the country intervene to prevent forest dwellers’ evictions

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MAKAAM (Mahila Kisan Adhikaar Manch), a national alliance comprising of individuals, women farmer organisations, civil society groups, NGOs, and academics, referring to the controversial February 13 Supreme Court order which seeks to evict forest dwellers, has pleaded for environmental sanity , quoting women forest dwellers as saying, “We are the true custodians and protectors of the forests; recognize our roles as environmental soldiers.” Text of the statement:

The Campaign

Women forest dwellers have been organizing meetings and yatras as part of the MAKAAM campaign for protecting and asserting their forest rights. From Rajasthan and Maharashtra, Gujarat, Kerala, Telangana and Uttarakhand across to the North East in Manipur and Nagaland, women forest dwellers have been rising in agitation and voicing their anguish at the Feb 13th Supreme Court order which threatens to evict them along with 8-10 lakh more forest dwellers from their traditional abodes and livelihoods rights. There is indignation at the statements about forest dwellers being the cause for deforestation and destruction of the forests. “We protect the forests like own children, we would not destroy the forests. Forests are our life source, the forest and we are one! Let the courts come and see how we live” they proclaim.

Despite provisions of joint titles for IFR (individual forest rights) included in the FRA, women are often denied such rights. The absence of gender disaggregated data renders it impossible to ascertain and monitor progress of womens’ rights as embedded in the Forest Rights Act. Nor are they encouraged to participate in the decision making process although studies have pointed to improved livelihoods as well as forest conservation when women take on decision-making roles in forest management.

The Urgency

We urge the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) to fulfil their responsibility and fully implement the Forest Rights Act 2006. The Supreme court judgment of February 13th (currently in abeyance) in a petition by a group of self-proclaimed conservationists with the Supreme Court has created an atmosphere of panic and fear for tribal and other forest dweller communities across the country.

In view of the immediate threat to forest dwellers’ and adivasis’ rights from the Supreme Court case, and to mark the World Environment Day MAKAAM Mahila Kisan Adhikaar Manch launched a month long campaign on 10th June2019 to draw attention to women forest dwellers contribution to forest conservation and management, and the atrocities being meted out to them by state and other agencies.

Started with state level meetings and a twitter campaign for #ForestRight4Women which received significant traction, the campaign has wound its way through village and district level meetings and rallies, interactions with state officials and evidence gathering on cases of wrongful rejections to its current stage sending postcards to the Prime Minister to compel him and his government to attend to womens’ call for justice in the matter before the court hearing on July 24th results in mass evictions.

Why Women are Demanding a Hearing

We seek to challenge the discourse constructed by pseudo conservationists that people are themselves the destroyers of the forests, women protect and carry their legacy of knowledge and practices of living with the forests. “The forests are where our birds nest and our food comes from, we are connected to the forests as a life giving source. Can you imagine a life without the forests? Where would we go? What would we do?”, says Gemti bai of Sirohi district Rajasthan.

“Tell those (foresters that) we have protected the forests all these centuries, they should come and learn from us, we are the real foresters, it is our home!” says one of the women sitting in the dharna and commenting on the mono-plantation approach of the forest department. “How would you feel if they came and took away your home and called you thieves in your home, would you sit silent? Would you watch while (they) chop all the trees as if it is only dead wood? These are life!” asks Chanda ben of Dahod, Gujarat.

“Our goats our animals have grazed in these forests, now we can neither take the goats nor fetch grass from these forests, they (FD) dig trenches around us to prevent us from going into the forests” the women explain while pointing to their traditional pathways across the forests. “Our children and animals fall into the trenches they have dug around our homes to prevent us from moving about freely in our villages and forests”, women report from Telangana.

“These heartless people are destroying our lives and the environment by doing this digging and fencing as the species are not able to move about freely, but do they even care?” decries activist MangeLal who works with these communities. “We pick the berries and fruits with care to avoid destruction of new shoots, we pick the dry wood and leave the new wet branches to flourish, who will destroy an entire tree or bush?”, says Samli bai with her baby strapped on her back as she carries a bundle of dry twigs in her arms. “By giving us a small patta they are taking away the entire forest and destroying it, for some business mans greed. It is all of us who will suffer! Your children, our children. Do they not understand?” another older woman laments.

The Forest Rights Act was formulated to correct the centuries of historical injustice perpetrated against forest dwellers by denying them the rights to the forests and ignoring the environmental role they play in the protection and conservation of the forests. The Act creates titles but more importantly it restores the dignity to the forest dwellers of their knowledge and ways of life within an ecological rhythm, and recognizes their rights to livelihoods as well as to management of the forest resources. The Supreme Court judgment is a mighty blow to this tradition, and the women express anguish that those sitting in judgment are unaware of this reality.

Thousands of women are writing postcards to the prime minister to intervene on their behalf to prevent the evictions and to represent their interests from various corners of the country- from Kerala and Telangana, Manipur and Rajasthan to the courts and protect their rights to address the historical injustices of displacement denial and oppression they have been experiencing on their person and against their communities.

We have written to the prime minister, perhaps when we remind him with our postcards he will listen and the government will listen to our appeal to recognize our rights rather than threatening us with evictions and all sorts of schemes that displace us from our forests and the resources on which our lives have depended for centuries.

Women from Uttarakhand (Khatima) and Gujarat (Dahod) raise cases where they have been sexually and physically harassed by forest department officials and restrained from accessing their forest lands, and instead the forest department has falsely filed cases against them; elsewhere women are raising the issues of destruction of their crops and houses by forest department using JCBs and heavy machines despite statements by senior officials and assurances by the Forest and Environment Minister in parliament itself that FD will not threaten people with eviction.

Women in Telangana have won legal victories to restore their rights, but continue to be threatened by the manoeuvrings of the forest department as it seeks to adopt strategies to divert from the FRA and to invoke other means to divert forest lands and dispossess communities. “The biggest threat today is the fact that the government itself is willing to give our lands and squander our resources for profits to the corporate and mining lobbies, exclaim people who have been displaced in Chattisgarh and face threats of eviction in Jharkhand and Odisha.

“We are gathering these evidences and have sought time from the Ministry of Tribal Affairs and SC and ST Commissions to represent these issues again before them” proclaim women leaders from these forest dwellers’ sangathans. “We women will not budge, for us there is no option. Our lives are woven in with these lands, the future of our children is at stake”, say women emphatically.

“Policy makers and the judiciary must ensure justice, that is why we are running this campaign”, explains Shubhada Tai of Gadhchiroli. “We appeal to the courts and to the law makers to recognize women forest dwellers as the true protectors of the forests and to work on solutions beyond this impasse tooo ensure ecological wellbeing and dignity as well as restore the means of livelihood for those who live most closely with the forest”.

“We must ensure their rights as citizens and implement the laws meant for their protection… Instead new proposals to amend the Indian Forest Act and the CAMPA legislation only pose bigger challenges and nneed to be unequivocally rejected”, says Richa from Rajasthan, who is also a coordinator of MAKAAM

Our collective voices must reach the government, they must see the sense and talk to us, say Kumari bai and Navlli Bai. “We are not the encroachers, we are the protectors!” Is anybody listening to these women’s voices for ecological justice and environmental sanity? Only time and the decision in the Supreme Courts pending judgment will tell.

The specific demands being made by these brave women of MAKAAM are:

  • An appeal to the Supreme Court for an annulment of its February 13, 2019 eviction Orders annd recognition of women and forest dweller communities and especially the women as the riightful protectors and managers of the forests .
  • Ministry of Tribal Affairs at Central and charged state departments must take full responsibility of reaching out to tribal and other forest dependent communities and ensure the implementation of FRA 2006 in its letter and spirit. They should educate tribal communities and other forest dwellers through local dialects/languages, about their forest rights and facilitate processes for securing the same.
  • In the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, structures should be strengthened at every level and participation of women at least as envisaged by law should be ensured.
  • For community rights, federation of Gram Sabhas should be formed at block and district level and the equal and substantive participation of women in these structures should be ensured. Funds should be made available for Gram Sabha for which a trilateral agreement can be made between the government, the Gram Sabha and a credible assisting organization.
  • Leadership of women should be promoted and ensured at all costs.
  • The funds from the CAMPA scheme should be given to the Gram Sabhas so that they will be able to carry out the forest conservation work, and such funds should be used keeping women’s priorities to create local diversity-based forests and not monoculture plantations.
  • Priority should be given to single/differently-abled women in terms of personal rights and immediate action as Targeted Beneficiaries and Areas through the Forest Rights Committee while also ensuring participation of other women.
  • The government should ensure the implementation of the Forest Rights Act in conjunction with PESA.
  • Every possible help should be given to ensure that indigenous tribes, PVTG, Noomadic groups get their domicile rights.
  • Gender disaggregated data with regard to claims as well as representation in decision making bodies- Gram Sabha as well as district and block levels- should be maintained and put out.

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