India's tribals at loggerheads with new tree-planting policy, say campaigners

(This version of the story corrects date of FRA law to 2006 in para 14)

NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Millions of tribal people in India are being denied their rights to forest land and resources and forced from their ancestral settlements due to a recently enacted law promoting an increase in tree cover, an indigenous rights group said on Wednesday.

The Indigenous Peoples Forum (IPF), which represents tribal groups in eastern Odisha state, said the law passed by parliament in July last year has resulted in communities being displaced from their homes in favor of tree plantations.

The Compensatory Afforestation Funding (CAF) Act provides $6 billion to state forest departments to increase forest cover after decades of environmental degradation across the country.

“In India, tribals continue to have their rights violated, said in a IPF statement marking International Day of the World’s Indigenous people.

“Tree plantation policies incentivise forest officials to commit atrocities against tribal and other forest dweller by encouraging and funding tree plantations on lands that are the basis for tribal livelihoods, culture and survival.”

The IPF cited instances in districts such as Kandhamal where forest officials were going ahead with projects despite protests from village leaders and that afforestation funds were being used to force people from protected areas.

Government officials from the ministry of tribal affairs were not immediately available for comment.

India’s tribes make up around 10 percent of its 1.3 billion population. Many live on the margins of society in remote villages where they eke out a living from farming, cattle rearing and collecting and selling forest produce.

Literacy, child malnutrition and maternal mortality are among the worst in the country.

Neglect by the authorities and a Maoist insurgency in the country’s central tribal belt have exacerbated their plight.

But the biggest threat has always been to their land.

A lack of documents proving land ownership has meant that tribal people are often treated as criminals, exploited by wealthy land owners and money lenders, or face extortion by officials, experts say.

Many also live in mineral-rich regions such as Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, and risk being driven from their homes due to mining projects.

In 2006, India passed the Forest Rights Act (FRA) which recognizes the right of tribes to inhabit land their forefathers settled on centuries ago. But critics say the law has been poorly implemented and many people are unaware of it.

The IPF said that if fully implemented, the FRA would provide 200 million people in 170,000 villages with more than 40 million hectares of land. Yet till date, only 3 percent of this has been realized, it added.

The government’s afforestation not only violated the FRA, but also undermined India’s international commitments to the protection of its indigenous people, it added.