MUMBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Almost four times as many individual as community claims have been lodged under a landmark Indian law to protect the rights of forest dwellers and tribal communities, sparking criticism it is being exploited for financial gain and leading to deforestation.
The Forest Rights Act (FRA) gives indigenous people and forest dwellers rights to manage and govern their traditional forests and resources. The law recognizes individual and community rights of those who have lived there since before 2005.
More than four million individual claims and about 1.1 million community claims were filed as of Aug. 31, according to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs. About 1.7 million individual and 47,443 community claims have been distributed, it said.
The high number of individual claims is cited by some conservationists as a reason to oppose the law, amid an ongoing clash between activists and environmentalists over its impact.
They say states are under pressure to accept even bogus claims and that individual claims must not be allowed as many are motivated by financial gain.
“People are predictably keen to claim individual rights as this enables them to encash real estate and other financial opportunities,” leading conservationist Bittu Sahgal wrote in a blog this week.
“No rights can be championed, nor wildlife saved, if the forests at the center of the tussle vanish,” he said, adding that deforestation and denting of wildlife numbers was evident in states including Assam, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Bihar.
Under the law, at least 150 million people could have their rights recognized to at least 40 million hectares (154,400 sq miles) of forest land, the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) has estimated.
But few states have implemented the FRA fully and more than half of all claims for titles have been rejected, data shows.
States have held back from implementing the law because they view it as an obstacle to development projects, with consensus required from village councils for any project that requires forest land to be cleared.
Conservationists who are in favor of the law say it must be implemented in full, and that disregarding it or undermining it “will greatly damage environmental protection”.
In a recent letter to the environment minister, more than 40 conservationists and environmentalists said the FRA empowers forest communities to be a part of the decision-making process, and “therefore encourages a bottom-up approach to natural resource governance”.
But, they said, evictions and harassment of rights holders had led to a situation of “continuous conflict” in forest areas.
They said settling individual rights was not leading to deforestation as these rights largely correspond to historically settled or cultivated land that does not contain forest cover.
Last month, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs said it was concerned about the large number of claims that are rejected and asked all states to speed up the clearance of claims.
“Communities are pivotal in the reversal of destruction and degradation of India’s forests,” Kundan Kumar, RRI’s Asia director, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“The government should pay heed to the combined wisdom of India’s conservationists,” he said.
Reporting by Rina Chandran, @rinachandran, Editing by Jo Griffin. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.