Forest Rights and Climate Change

Akhilesh Chipli is a voice in the wilderness crying out for the forest dwellers, who for generations lived in harmony with nature and now have to contend with land mafias and ruthless middlemen trying to steal their land. Chipli explains the intentions of the Forest Rights Act (2006) and how it has gone wrong, giving forest land to people who would destroy it instead of protect it, with dire results. 

The biggest crisis facing the human race right now is climate change. Ironically, it is also the one which is most neglected. The Industrial Revolution, which began during the mid-18th century, led to unrestrained deforestation in the name of development. It is obvious that man is solely responsible for this. Paradoxically, most people have little knowledge about climate change and its consequence. Every living being on the planet is in some way or the other part of this situation. This condition, collectively created by humanity, has to be resolved through the combined efforts of everyone.

Forests, called “raj bhoomi,” were considered as a protected resource in pre-independent India. After independence, with the intention of increasing its hold on forests, the government enforced the ‘Protected Area’ policy. This destroyed the traditional rights of native forest dwellers. Native tribal communities who lived in the forests for many generations were considered invaders of the forest. This led to severe discontent among these native communities. Consequently, there were many debates and arguments about forest rights, which took a serious form. In due course, as the forests and their resources dwindled, the government understood the role played by native communities, their traditional methods and practices, in protecting and propagating forests and their resources. Giving them due importance, the Forest Rights Act was passed in 2006 by the Central government.

This act was intended well, recognizing the significance of tribals and native communities who were part of the forest for generations. They are rightfully considered as the authentic ambassadors of the nation’s important resource –forests. Unfortunately, the implementation of this act has been marred and its effects are resulting in more harm than good. Here is an in-depth study conducted in a small area.

Poor implementation of the Forest Rights Act: the case of Sagar taluk

Sagar taluk in Shivamogga district of Karnataka is a land of biodiversity. It is also a land that stands bare, owing to hydroelectric projects swallowing its dense forests. It total population is about 2.5 lakhs, including the town area. Sagar has more natural resources than flatland regions. But post-independence development work of hydroelectric power plants, the Green Revolution, and population growth have all taken a toll on its natural resources. In the 60s, when the rule of “land to the tiller” came into force, many people found that they now owned enough land for their families. Generations later, these land areas have been divided and now they are left with very small pieces of land. Most cultivation was rainfed and hence not so profitable. The only means to increase the faming land was to encroach forestland.

Sagar taluk had 69,000 hectares of forest area. Owners of small farmlands cut down the forests, encroached them and converted them into farmlands. This happened gradually. ‘Bagar hukum’ policy was enforced in 1989-90. This policy would help the farmer, who had eaten into forestland by making that piece of land rightfully his. This was a policy framed by the state government. One of the stipulations under the policy was that there should be no more than four trees in any such farmland. Accordingly, if one wanted to benefit from this, he had to reduce the number of trees on his land! Officially, the forest area has remained the same, but in reality, thousands of hectares of forest have been converted to farmland.

The Forest Rights Act (2006) is proving to be a bane for whatever is left of the rainforests in Sagar taluk. The primary intention of this act was to protect the interests of native tribal communities who lived in the forests for hundreds of years, but for reasons not fully understood, they now do not have any land rights. The act intended to protect these people, who would protect the forests in turn. The natives are dependent on minor forest products for their livelihood. There are many stipulations under this act, which helps in not displacing these communities. One of them is that ‘members who belong to the mentioned tribal community should have been living in the forest before December, 13, 2005.’ Other traditional tribals should also have been living in the forest for 3 generations before this date (in this case, three generations means 3 x 25 = 75 years). These people should be dependent on forest products or living on forestland. There are a few guidelines to be followed in this regard:

  1. A Gramsabha should be held to decide about forest rights. The first Sabha should have a committee comprising of 10-15 members and should discuss plans for implementing forest rights.
  2. This committee should visit the claimed site for inspection, after notifying the forest department and the applicant.
  3. During the time of approving the claim, the forest department officials should provide information to the forest rights committee, district level committee, Gramsabha, etc. If there are any false claims, they must be notified in a written format.
  4. A few main points are:
    • Forest Officials should inspect the site in person, in detail, and give their clear opinion to the Gramsabha or Forest Rights committee. All available documents should be checked before giving their opinion.
    • While considering statements from elderly people, they have to make sure that they are above 75 years of age and of sound mental health.
    • When the committee visits the site, Forest Department officials and revenue officials must be present.
    • The Gramsabha’s duty towards protecting forest biodiversity and forestland, officers’ duty – all details have to be outlined and made available in every Gramsabha.
    • Wells, cemeteries and other holy places that are ancient can be considered witnesses when arriving at an agreement.

Sagar taluk has about 3,179 tribal people. 1,70,000 applications have been submitted under the Forest Rights Act in Shivamogga district. Among these, 95% were not eligible. People who already owned land also applied.

While applying, the above guidelines have to be followed. The government has directed that all applications have to be considered. It is documented that even forward castes and other upper caste people applied. Once the forest department approves the application, it then goes to the revenue department. Here, it has to be verified that the applicant is more than 75 years of age. Policy guidelines say that a person of 97 years can be considered as a witness. He needs to be mentally healthy. People of that age do not have any documents to prove their age.

Another witness could be any old structure near the farmland, like a ‘veeragallu’, ‘mastigallu’ or ‘choudikatte’ (all ancient religious small structures). Farmers of Kargal village, near the world famous ‘Jog Falls,’ have claimed in their application that they could consider Jog Falls as a witness.

Sagar taluk has received 15,500 applications. There are only 617 applications from scheduled caste people. Members of the same family have applied separately for the land. The government is intending to process and approve all applications. If a minimum of 5 acres is distributed per family, 15,500 x 5 = 77,500 acres of forestland will become farmland.

Sagar taluk has 19,308 Scheduled Caste people and 3,971 Scheduled Tribe people. There are only 12 applications from these people. There are 546 other applications. The majority of the populations in Sagar are forward caste people – Edigas, Havyaka Brahmins and Lingayats. Most applications are from people who already have farmland and who are already cultivating.

Meanwhile, middlemen like real estate agents are operating in a manner that is against the intention of the policy. They are sweet talking non-eligible people into applying. They help in felling the trees and clearing the land and give ideas about how to work around the policy guidelines.

Overall, this policy has been responsible for large forest areas being cleared. Sagar’s 29,000-hectare area is covered with forest. It also has 7,100 hectares of MPM acacia ‘forest’ (planted by the forest department). Forest area lost to the ‘bagar hukum’ policy has yet to be taken into account. Except for the ‘reserved forest,’ the forest boundaries under the forest department are not marked. Hence it is difficult to measure the extent of encroachment.

Further to forest rights, Sagar taluk’s 35 grama panchayats formed forest rights committees in every village. All applications were received, without considering the eligibility of the applicant or the correctness of details mentioned in the application. The government is putting pressure on forest and revenue departments to process and approve all the applications. Now the procedure to grant forestland to these applicants is happening.

Encroachment of forestland in Thyagarthi, Sagar. Photo: Akhilesh Chipli

The Forest Rights Act and climate change

Let us see how this will affect climate change. The Forest Rights Act (2006) says that the beneficiary cannot harm the forest or the forest animals. The policy was framed to protect the forests and its native inhabitants to coexist in harmony, with both protecting each other. Unfortunately in spite of these intentions and the understanding of the guidelines by the Forest Rights Committee formed by the Gramsabhas in Sagar, there are forces that are bent upon cutting down trees and acquiring the forestland.

The economic value of a tree in the present context of modern society can be defined as follows:

A 50-year-old tree weighing 50 tonnes will contribute, approximately (in Rupees):

Value of oxygen in one year 2,50,000
Control of air pollution 5,00,000
Rainwater absorption 2,50,000
Preventing soil erosion 2,50,000
Food for animals and birds 2,50,000
Fodder for cattle  70,000
Total 15,70,000

These are scientifically proven facts. The aggregate effect in economic terms of felling trees is mind-boggling. There are now a total of 15,000 applications – which can eventually lead to about1-lakh acres of forest becoming treeless. If a minimum of ten 50-year-old trees is cut, about 10 lakh trees will be cut down. Not only economic value, but other far-reaching effects will also be drastic. No trees to convert carbon dioxide will mean more carbon dioxide will be added to the atmosphere. Meanwhile, the motor vehicles in Sagar taluk have reached about 1,50,000 in numbers – which are emitting carbon monoxide into the atmosphere. On one hand, we are reducing the trees, which absorb carbon, and on the other hand we have increased the emission of carbon dioxide.

During the 1980s, a similar massive forest cut down happened when the ‘bagar hukum’ policy was enforced. Trees were cut, burnt and taken out. Rainfall has reduced by 40% in the past 10-12 years in Sagar taluk. Political interests, not thinking beyond a few years, greed, competitiveness among farmers, total neglect of the environment, indifference to wild animals, excessive use of chemicals in the form of fertilizers and chemicals, unregulated tube wells, deforestation – all these factors have contributed to increasing environmental problems. Forests that are cut down in the name of development – roads and infrastructure –are a different story. There was a proposal to have an agricultural university in Sagar which if it had come into being, would have taken up farmland as well as forest land. This year, the amount of rainfall received here is not even 50% of the normal rainfall.

Much before summer, most ponds and wells of Sagar taluk have dried. Water has become a scarcity that will become progressively severe during the coming summer months.

People residing in Malnad have been experiencing a steady and slow rise in temperature over the past 8-9 years. Sagar taluk was naturally gifted with dense forests. These forests helped in keeping the temperature low. Trees reflect back 0.15% of the heat from sunlight as a result of photosynthesis, transpiration, etc. If we clear trees and cultivate crops, they will reflect 0.25% heat. If we build concrete structures, then the sunlight reflected will be 0.55%. Any human activity done after clearing the forests will contribute towards increase in temperature in the surrounding areas. This temperature variation will impact the rainfall cycle – cloud formation and rain. Another calculation shows that one acre of dense forest (180 trees) will help in supplying oxygen to 18 people.

Hydroelectric power plants in Sagar make for about 35-40% of the state’s electric power. In the last 1-2 decades, the reduction in rainfall has affected the generation of hydroelectric power. This is another serious spin off from climate change. Most of Sagar’s population (2.5 lakh) depends on farming and horticulture; among them, 75,000 people live in Sagar town. Excluding officials, most of the remaining people’s livelihood is dependent on rain. Climate change with its vanishing forests will influence the lives of everyone in the taluk.

Encroachment and destruction of forest land in Thyagarthi, Sagar. Photo: Akhilesh Chipli

Possible solutions

Then what is the solution to this problem? It is indeed a very challenging task to find a way out of this situation. It is imperative that we find means and methods to tackle this, keeping in mind the well being of our future generations. However difficult it is to implement today, we have to take corrective measures for the sake of humankind.

Under the circumstances, what is feasible? Under these changed circumstances, what are the possible things that can be put in action? First thing – as per Supreme Court definition of forest, there are three types of forest.

One is as defined by the dictionary. Another is the area that is declared as protected forest. Third is non-forest area forests like gomala, bush hills, etc. The forest department must keep this in mind and be thorough when marking its boundaries. The marked boundaries will have to be protected. In case of encroachment, encroachers have to be stopped and moved out of the designated areas. The recouped land has to be reforested quickly.

Secondly, there must be programs at the Panchayat level to educate and bring in awareness about the importance of forests, rainforests, wild animals, ecology and the environment. Most people are ignorant about the interconnection and interdependence between forests and human life, the importance of a tree, pollution and how our actions are the cause for all the troubles that beset us.

The primary reason is greed and the accentuation of the rich/poor divide. The forward class and backward class people have huge differences in land holding. This inequality has to be addressed. This difference is the root cause for most of the socioeconomic issues.

Note:

Back in 1970s, the then chief minister of Karnataka, Devraj Urs, took many populist measures –land reforms being the major one. The “land to the tiller” policy changed the lives of farmers overnight. As a result, many of the tillers grew very strong politically. New local leaders were born. Social justice and equality were commonly heard words. The original landowners who lost their land were angry. The tillers were the new landowners. They, too, did not behave differently from the former landowners. Both began to acquire more farmland to extend their boundaries. Eventually, when the joint family system declined, this farmland got divided into pieces. As a result, the youth began migrating to cities. This was followed by many changes in the political landscape.

The main purpose behind the Forest Rights Act (2006) is to recognize forest dwellers’ rights and to make conservation more accountable. People – forest –wildlife, everyone has to cohabit in harmony. All the concerned departments involved in implementing this act (Forest, Revenue, Panchayat, Social Welfare departments and Forest Rights committees) must work jointly, keeping in mind the policy’s main intention. Social justice should be upheld by making sure that this act reaches the deserving people. Similarly, undeserving people should not be allowed to apply. If they are able to apply, corruption sets in and vitiates the administration of justice. The major responsibility lies with the Panchayat development officer PDO. He will be able to with due diligence make proper decisions on deserving and undeserving people.

One more action point would be to make everyone aware of the Forest Rights Act (2006), in detail – its limitations, guidelines and stipulations. This would prevent false hopes being spread around and misunderstanding of the policy. At every step, care must be taken to complete proper documentation. If needed, videos can be taken when accepting the applications. Middlemen who try to trick innocent people into finding loopholes in the policy must not be encouraged. Political influence should not be wielded in this administrative process.

The explosion in population has laid excessive demands on this planet’s resources. The earth cannot expand as its inhabitants multiply in number. Therefore, with the available land resources, farmers must use organic farming methods to cultivate. The government should completely support the farmers and make the best of farming technology available to the farmer. Small pieces of land will need more labor and expenses. Cooperative farming can be taken up in this scenario. More encouragement should be given to farmers to take up such innovative methods.

Natural resources are abundant in the beautiful Sagar taluk. An annual rainfall of 1400 mm is enough for a sustainable living. Sadly, people have not realized that destroying the precious rainforest will have dire consequences in the very near future. The slogan ‘Harvest Rainwater’ will have no meaning of there is no rain. Slogans and rhyming words on the banner on a roadside board will not help anymore. It is already an emergency, emerging big from the shadows. Any development work has no meaning if it destroys rainforests. Foremost in development work has to be protecting rainforests and growing more trees to combat climate change.

Credits:

This article was originally written in Kannada. Translated from Kannada to English by Divya Sharma, and edited by Suresh Mathew and Marika Straw.

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