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The tribal rights Bill can make a big difference in implementing conservation measures only if the local populations are involved in the protection plans for forest areas, writes Ashok Swain.

india Updated: Dec 11, 2006 23:27 IST

The tribal rights Bill can make a big difference in implementing conservation measures. But, only if the local populations are involved in the protection plans for forest areas.

The Government of India is considering passing the Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill, 2005, in the current session of Parliament after accommodating the Joint Parliamentary Committee’s (JPC) recommendations. The JPC recommended providing mining rights in addition to food-fuel and fodder and is against restricting benefits to only tribal communities.

The JPC also advises against any blanket allocation of land to each family and recommends empowering gram panchayats to settle land disputes. The Indian government’s willingness to accept the recommendations has received strong protests from wildlife conservationists and environmental activists. They fear that the regaining of these powers by the forest communities will expedite the deforestation process in the country.

The deforestation issue has remained prominent on the global environmental agenda for some time now. Unsustainable exploitation of natural forest resources is destroying not only the source of survival for thousands of indigenous people, in many cases, the natural environment itself is under threat. Decreasing forest cover incurs severe losses in biological diversity and ecological services, including nutrient recycling, watershed management and climate regulation. Given the linkages between natural systems, deforestation has serious implications at the local, regional and global levels.

In recent years, the establishment of reserves and protected area is being increasingly adopted and encouraged for the protection of forest areas. The UN Conference on the Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992 endorsed the goal that countries protect 12 per cent of their area to conserve natural flora and fauna.

Pressures from international agencies such as financial institutions and aid agencies support this measure. According to the World Commission on Protected Areas, there are over 30,000 protected areas covering around 8 per cent of the Earth’s surface, the size of India and China put together. International and national concern about deforestation and loss of biodiversity has led to this development. In India, nearly 29 per cent of its forest is declared as protected areas.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) has made six categories for the management of defined protected areas. Different countries use different terms for their designated protected areas. Thus, the IUCN categorisation helps identify them on the basis of their management objectives. There is large-scale regional variation over establishment and management of protected areas. Regional variation is not only limited to number and size of the Protected Areas. Some regions have more of a particular category of the protected area than others.

More than half of the Category V sites are located in Europe and North America, with the objective of combining conservation with recreation. This category involves the inclusion of the people in the management of the forest areas as well as getting economic benefits from recreational activities. In developing countries like India, forest dwellers have been regularly evicted from the protected forest areas. Mostly, these people are left to themselves to find alternative sources of survival. The transfer of people to a different socio-economic environment with the provision of land unsuitable for their traditional agricultural activities leads to frustration and anger towards the state.

Protected forest areas increase State control over the forest while simultaneously decreasing community control. By and large, forest communities, which have traditionally considered forest as common property, are excluded from access to resources. People care for that over which they have ownership. Forest communities, dependent on the biodiversity of forests to sustain their livelihood, target the forest for unsustainable uses if they perceive to be losing customary custodianship. Thus, protected areas become sources of conflict. If the State enforces conservation within protected areas, they often become islands of conservation amid massive destruction of nature around it.

Sustainable forest management and conservation is an evolving concept. Decisions go far beyond the conventional forest sector. Political decisions on conservation cannot be effectively implemented if they are not understood, accepted and supported by the population. The idea of forest protection is located primarily in the developed world and has been seen as imposition on a sceptical Third World. There is need to bridge the gulf of this North-South divide, providing help to increase the capacity of developing countries.

At the local level, State agencies in developing countries need to include local communities. A core issue revolves around meeting residents’ demands. The devolution of protected area management to local communities should be promoted. The recognition of the Forest Rights Bill, 2005, if the JPC recommendations are accepted, will be a welcome step in this direction.

A fruitful partnership between the State and the people that effectively preserves and protects forests can be possible by enacting new legislation and policies, and by change of the State’s attitude regarding including the people in the decision-making process. Cooperation among the stakeholders is essential for the measures for the protection of forests to be successful.

Ashok Swain is Professor of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, Sweden.

First Published: Dec 11, 2006 23:20 IST