India’s Forest Dwellers Evicted in Name of Conservation

Saurus cranes glide through a forest in the Indian state of Gujarat. July 21, 2018 (Photo by Santanu Sen)
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DELHI, India, April 16, 2019 ( News) – India’s Supreme Court has ordered the eviction of up to eight million tribal and other forest-dwelling people in what campaigners have described as “an unprecedented disaster,” and “the biggest mass eviction in the name of conservation, ever.” Over one million forest-dwelling households are affected by the order.

The move comes with the national enforcement of the Forests Rights Act, which gives indigenous land access to those who can prove their ancestral link to the land in 16 states. But without the proof, evictions are ordered.

The ruling came in response to a petition submitted by wildlife and conservation groups, who questioned an existing law that recognizes forest dwellers’ rights. According to the groups, people are instead encroaching into protected land.

The groups have demanded that where tribespeople had tried and failed to secure their rights under the Forest Rights Act, they should be evicted.

Subscribing to the classic paradigm that tribal communities degrade the forest environment, the Bangalore-based NGO, Wildlife First, petitioned the Supreme Court to serve the eviction order.

In addition to Wildlife First, the groups petitioning the court include: Wildlife Trust of India, the Nature Conservation Society, the Tiger Research and Conservation Trust and the Bombay Natural History Society

Other groups have debunked these arguments, saying that indigenous people are best placed to protect the forests and keep mining and industrial developments away.

Since the Forests Rights Act was passed in 2006, India’s forest department has conducted a massive exercise to weed out those who were not “traditional forest dwellers.”

Groups campaigning for the tribal people, among the poorest, most marginalized people in India, say that many of them would not have understood the need to produce the documents proving their right to the land to the assessing committees.

That claim has been rejected by wildlife groups who point out that millions of claims were filed on this issue, of which about 1.2 million were accepted, saying there was widespread grassroots awareness of the need to stake their claims and how to do it.

Stephen Corry, head of Survival International warns of triggering an “urgent humanitarian crisis.”

In an unusual move, the national government failed to appear in court to defend the tribespeople’s rights, and the Court therefore ruled in favor of the evictions, which it decreed should be completed by July 27.

India’s Khangchendzonga National Park in the state of Sikkim covers a unique diversity of plains, valleys, lakes, glaciers and spectacular, snow-capped mountains covered with ancient forests. Khangchendzonga National Park is inhabited by nearly half of India’s bird diversity, wild trees, orchids and rhododendrons and one third of the country’s flowering plants. But the indigenous traditional knowledge of local plants and the local ecosystem is on the verge of disappearing. January 9, 2015 (Photo by USAID) Public domain

Many tribes have already been evicted after their lands were turned into tiger reserves. Now millions more face eviction.

The order affects more than 1.1 million households, with experts estimating this could mean more than eight million individuals will now be evicted, and the number is likely to rise, as some states have not provided details as to how many tribespeople will be affected.

Survival International’s Corry declared, “This judgement is a death sentence for millions of tribal people in India, land theft on an epic scale, and a monumental injustice.”

“It will lead to wholesale misery, impoverishment, disease and death, an urgent humanitarian crisis, and it will do nothing to save the forests which these tribespeople have protected for generations,” Corry warned.

Corry questions whether the largest environmental groups such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) will condemn the Court’s ruling or not.

“Will the big conservation organizations like WWF and WCS condemn this ruling and pledge to fight it, or will they be complicit in the biggest mass eviction in the name of conservation, ever?” asks Corry.

Debi Goenka, the head of the group Conservation Action Trust a South African NGO, told “The Guardian” newspaper that human rights activists and other groups who opposed the court order seemed to think that India could live without its forests.

“What they don’t realise,” he said, “is that, barring two, all of India’s rivers are forest-dependent. Satellite imagery has shown tribal encroachments into protected forests. Can a country survive without forests? If they think India can survive without forests and without water, so be it.”

On February 28, India’s Supreme Court put the evictions on hold and ordered the states to show evidence of whether due process of the law had been followed when claims were rejected. Since the order for evictions Indian and international conservation civil society organizations have signed petitions objecting to the violation of indigenous human rights in the name of conservation.

For Wildlife First and the other petitioning groups, Praveen Bhargav said after the February 28 ruling, “We welcome the apex court’s decision to scrutinize evidence of all claims. We believe that this will ensure greater transparency as the judicial scrutiny by the Apex Court will also include evaluation of claims based on satellite imagery analysis by FSI (Forest Service India) as ordered earlier.”

“We hope that this order by the Apex Court will ultimately deliver justice to India’s forests and wildlife which do not have a voice or a vote as well as legal claimants,” Bhargav said.

Dr. Indrani Sigamany, an Indian research consultant and capacity building specialist working with social justice and poverty alleviation, said, “The human rights drama playing out in India currently challenges both concepts that the World Commission on Environmental Law is committed to, namely, strengthening the legal foundations of the conservation of nature and sustainable development.”

“The current crisis that the tribal communities and other forest dwellers in India are facing raises two major questions, said Dr. Sigamany, “Is the Supreme Court order a violation of existing indigenous rights? How can the competing issues of conservation and indigenous rights, work in harmony within the Indian context to ensure both forests and the livelihoods of their inhabitants are protected?”

“Legally ordering evictions contradicts the evidence of forest people’s role in conservation, as well as violates the legal framework of the Forest Rights Act,” said Dr. Sigamany. “The FRA legally enshrines community forest rights, customary land rights, and rights of indigenous communities to protect and manage forests.”

Featured Image: Girl of the Dongaria Kondha tribe carries firewood in the Niyamagiri Hills in the state of Odisha, India. These hills are covered with one of India’s most pristine forests and surrounded by wildlife sanctuaries. Nov. 6, 2006 (Photo by Rita Willaert) Creative Commons license via Flickr

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