How Change Happens: Supporting tribal people to claim their rights to India’s forests

July 16, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

Next up in the series of case studies in promoting ‘active citizenship’ is Oxfam India’s work in an impossible-to-spell new state. All comments welcome, full case study here [P&C bio-rich forest around bangocase study. v2 12 June 14]

India’s new and heavily forested state of Chhattisgarh is home to some of its most marginalized communities, whose traditional ways of living from forest products are under threat from encroachment by mining and other ‘development’. Oxfam India has supported a local NGO to help forest communities take advantage of the implementation gap between this reality and the provisions of progressive legislation. Early results are encouraging, with dozens of villages winning new forest and grazing rights under the Act.

Forests are critical to tribal people’s lives and livelihoods. They provide jobs and income through the collection of Non Timber Forest Products (NTFPs), such as Tendu leaves (Diospyros melanoxylon), used for making Indian cigarettes (beedi). People consume NTFPs or sell them to government-promoted co-operatives and societies, as well as private traders.

But the use of forest land by tribals is a perennial source of conflict, with their legal rights often ignored by government officials, producing a situation of insecurity and eviction, as mining and industry has encroached on the forest.

However, this process of economic marginalization has prompted a political reaction. The “Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act of 2006 marks one recent effort by the Indian government to correct historical discrimination. The result of decades of struggle by tribals and their allies, the FRA assures their rights over forests and other traditionally accessed natural resources around tribal habitations.

Although there are several tiers of administration involved in implementing the Act, the key level is the Gram Sabha, or village assembly. The Gram Sabha is in charge of receiving and verifying claims under the Act, and appoints the statutory 10-15 person Forest Rights Committee (FRC) containing at least 1/3 women, and 2/3 from Scheduled Tribes.

Legislation is one thing; implementation (especially in India) is entirely another. When the local partner started work, communities and officials alike were largely oblivious to the FRA, and unsurprisingly, there were few efforts to implement it.

Theory of Change

Community planning for conserving the forestThe position of different players on community forest rights stems from a complex interplay of incentives and motives within the different levels of the state and beyond. Those supporting community forest rights for tribals include (unsurprisingly) the tribals themselves, and their civil society allies, but also District and village level officials and those specifically tasked with defending tribal communities, such as the Principal Secretary, Tribal Development.

Other parts of the state machinery are, however, more hostile. The powerful Forest Department sees the FRA as undermining its control and tries to avoid cooperating with those, even state officials, charged with implementing the Act.

According to the local partner, although some local media and individual journalists are sympathetic, most other potential stakeholders are largely uninterested in (or hostile to) the community forest struggle. Faith organizations, especially mission services, are broadly indifferent unless disputes affect their own service delivery in areas such as health and education. The police and judiciary only react when a law and order issue arises, which has so far been avoided.

The private sector is largely present in the area in the form of private traders, seen by tribals and CSOs as highly exploitative and often linked to the ruling political party. Large mining companies, such as Adani Mining, have preferred to keep a low profile, although this may of course hide ‘closed door’ lobbying activities.

The widening gulf between a harsh economic reality and potentially progressive legislation created both an implementation gap and an opportunity. Led by an Adivasi grassroots activist, Oxfam’s local partner, Chaupal Grameen Vikas Prashikshan Evum Shodh Sansthan (Chaupal) is a combination of four people’s organizations, founded in 2005. All four organizations are predominantly tribal people’s organizations, with a a large proportion of their membership from tribal communities. They came together through their work on another popular initiative – the Right to Food campaign.

Chaupal’s work at state level has been a fairly typical NGO combination of coalition-building, brokering links with local and national officials, and information dissemination.

In January 2013, as a first step, Chaupal worked with village communities to make a traditional map of their village and forest area on the ground, which was later paddy huskmapped on paper. Everything was marked out, including canals, schools, trees, rivers etc. Livelihoods dependent on natural resources and all NTFPs along with average quantities harvested were recorded, along with the usage of medicinal herbs, tubers and the types of flora and fauna found in the region. This map was sanctioned and signed by all village members, FRC members, Gram Panchayat members and even people from neighbouring villages.

Parallel to the process of filing claims at the village level, Chaupal had a critical role in advocating with the district level government officials like the Collector (the senior government official) and the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), making them aware of the content of the Act and convincing them of the importance of implementing it.

With support from other donors in addition to Oxfam, Chaupal filed a total of 40 CFR claims. The results so far have been encouraging. On 7th Sept 2013, 34 villages got their NTFP and grazing rights as part of the CFR claims. These were distributed in person by the Chief Minister, Mr. Raman Singh. But although this success was historic, it is by no means complete. In particular, the state seems more willing to recognize individual rights than community rights, which are needed to protect the land from proposed diversion for mining and other non-forest purposes.

But even partial victory was a novel experience for many of India’s tribal communities, and the process by which it was achieved was as important as the immediate gains.

Wider Lessons
Although the Community Forestry Rights Project’s combination of extreme social exclusion, grassroots mobilisation and judicial activism is quintessentially Indian, it provides wider insights about the ability of NGOs and other outsiders to catalyse change.

  • It is essential to have a partner that can bridge the divide, with roots in the tribal communities, and connections in the relevant decision-making bodies.
  • Implementation gaps offer particularly productive areas for advocacy and organization – since the state has already agreed to the principle (in this case of community forest rights), the battle to persuade it to take action is already half won.
  • It is vital to understand the incentives and motivations of officials at different levels of the state. That enables change-makers to identify and build alliances with champions, and weaken opposition.
  • Nothing inspires and empowers more than success: Chaupal has broken the myth that the state government is unwilling to provide CFR title due to pressure of forest, mining and industry lobby.
  • Communities with little literacy and connection to the outside world have shown themselves able to engage and successfully mobilise in procedure-intensive claim processes. They can organise at village level and negotiate with the state.

To read or comment on previously blogged case studies in this series, go to Campaigning on the US Deepwater Horizon oilspillChanging hearts and minds on Violence Against Women in South Asia, promoting Women’s Leadership in Pakistan and NepalLabour Rights in Indonesia, and Community Protection Committees in DRC