Fighting for land rights and community control over forests in Sub-Himalayan Bengal, India.
Though the historic FRA (Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Recognition of Forest Rights Act 2006, better known as Forest Rights Act 2006) clearly provides for land rights and full community control over forest resources in every Indian forest, governmental process in North Bengal (the sub-Himalayan region of West Bengal in the eastern tip of the country) has so far skirted the community control issue, mainly because recognizing community powers over forests will also mean recognizing the reality of reduced Government control. Empowerment of communities and democratization of forest governance therefore remain high-flowing words found all over government policy documents, and not much else. The participatory management concept practiced by the government-owned forest department under the brand names of Joint Forest Management (JFM) remains a typically non-transparent, bureaucratic and undemocratic affair; the forest officials always remain in control.
Forest communities of North Bengal are trying to develop forest-based livelihood activities in the forest villages along with institution-building. Several activities are being promoted under the aegis of Gram Sabha, which according to the FRA is the nodal agency responsible for community forest governance at the grassroots: fully community owned sustainable tourism initiatives, local value addition and better marketing of Non-Timber Forest Produce, creating value-rich and usable village forests, promoting traditional farming as well as artisanship, etc.
The financial support made available for the present project will be used mainly to generate educational and campaign material that would be used in spreading the message of community governance and informing forest communities of the rights under the Forest Rights Act of 2006. The objectives of the project can broadly be thus stated:
- Strengthen community institutions for democratic forest governance;
- Enrich value base (both biodiversity and livelihood) of the forest systems being brought under community governance;
- Initiate meaningful community action in conservation as well as strengthening forest-based village economies;
- Promote community conservation of forests as effective climate mitigation strategy;
- In short, bringing the 2006 Forest Rights Act to life and making it work for forest communities.
Many forests first need to be restored in usable values for the community for a meaningful community governance process to start, especially considering that the entire North Bengal forests have been badlymauled in the forestry practices continuing for about last two centuries, and that in many areas standing forests contain only timber-bearing monoculture plantations and little else. Robust processes of community governance can not only successfully resist local timber mafia and forest department’s unsustainable operations, but also dubious international processes like REDD, REDD-Plus etc. in the long run. The result will be a net gain for the climate and the planet: through people’s action. The present project thus assumes strategic relevance in the context of climate change.
It is expected that the project will contribute in developing at least some instances of functional forest governance processes: creation of village-level governance frameworks as envisaged in the project and following up their implementation can provide a qualitative narration for success of this project.
PROJECT UPDATE FEBRUARY 2014
Work is taking place in Northern West Bengal where forest dependent communities are re-establishing their rights over the forest despite repressive measures by the state: in Chilapata forests, the Gram Sabhas, autonomous village insitutions formed under Forest Dwelling Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, in short Forest Rights Act or FRA, and belonging to indigenous forest communities have successfully stopped the government-run forest department from logging more than 20000 mature trees from forests under community control. This led to unforeseen repression by state agencies: police raided the village where the Gram Sabha was directly involved in the ban on logging, and false cases were slapped on leading activists and Gram Sabha members. However, a local court gave all activists bail, and the bail order carried defence argument about FRA.
There has been a re-run of this in December 2013 and January 2014, when another village community from an adjacent forest area again stopped a logging operation by forest department. Once again, there has been a great mobilization of hundreds of Gram Sabha members including large numbers of women, who literally hugged the trees. Once again, there has been a case by the local police, turning the community action into a criminal offence.
In North Bengal, three Gram Sabhas in the forests of Himalayan foothills in Kurseong have effectively taken control of their forests and started a collective trade in forest produce. Elaborated Rules for forerst governance had been framed and communities are mobilizing themselves to protect and conserve forests.
In the valley of river Teetsa, communities organized under Gram Sabhas battled a environmental disaster in the offing throughout the monsoon months of July and August, as water in an illegally built dam near their village rose steadily, and threatened to drown the two villages located on the highway that goes to Sikkim. The battle here was for proper land-for-land compensation, and adequate diaster management works until that is done. Because the communities here had no land records to show, the dam (part of a hydro power project) builders were refusing compensation. The Gram Sabhas helped communities to demand land rights under FRA. The movement is still going on.
From June 2013 to January 2014, community meetings have been held in more than 100 villages, and larger, forest division level meetings were held in all six forest divisions in the project area. Forest communities of the area organized a big march and public meeting in February 5, 2014 in Alipurduar Town in Jalpiguri district, to press their demands for complete community control over forests, which was followed by a two-day strategy session. Several thousands attended the first programme, and 150 representatives from various villages were present during the second.
The process in Northern Bengal was constantly in touch with similar community processes in other parts of India: representatives from the area attended various meetings in Kolkata, Delhi and elsewhere.
These include close interactions with Gram Sabhas in order to make those fully functional and capable instituions of forest governance, forming of women’s teams in every village to increase women participation in Gram Sabha activities, develop micro-plans for resource use and livelihood solutions in at least 20 Gram Sabhas over next six months.