Hundreds of trees of native species used by local communities – such as neem, lemon, sehjan, amla, jamun, mango, chironji and mahua – were symbolically planted in the District Court headquarters in Robertsganj, capital of the district of Sonbhadra in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, on July 4, 2011 by tribal women to protest the tree plantation drive being undertaken by the Forest Department, with funding from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).
This action forms part of the community tree planting programme being carried out on a massive scale under the banner of the National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers and the local organization Kaimur Kshetra Mahila Mazdoor Sangarsh Samiti, on all the lands that have been reclaimed by tribal people in the Kaimur region of Sonbhadra, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Bihar in recent years.(1)
The Kaimur region is known for its rich forest and mineral resources. In 2006 the government of India enacted a very revolutionary piece of legislation, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, to recognize the rights of forest peoples denied to them since colonial days and remedy the historical injustices inflicted on them. Since the passage of this act, there has been a growing movement to challenge the dominant control wielded by the Forest Department.
The major emphasis of the Forests Rights Act (FRA) is to enforce the rights of communities to their lands and to management of their forests. However, there is a direct conflict between the people and the Forest Department, which is unwilling to allow them to claim the ownership of the land that they inherited from their colonial masters. In order to prevent the proper implementation of the FRA, the Forest Department, through the Ministry of Environment and Forests, is undertaking various tree plantation schemes, in the name of “afforestation”, funded by multinational companies and international agencies, one of them being JICA.
The JICA-funded project in the state of Uttar Pradesh (2) is scheduled to last for eight years and will operate in 14 districts and 20 forest divisions. This project has no legislative basis, but it is being undertaken in the very same forest divisions that are covered under the FRA. The Forest Department, which controls 23% of the land in the entire country, is afraid that if the FRA is fully implemented, it will lose control over much of that land. There is a tough battle being fought between the local communities, especially the tribal people and other forest dwellers who are dependent on the forests, and the Forest Department over the control of the vast forests that now fall under the category of "community rights" according to the FRA.
It should be mentioned here that the movement for land reclamation in the entire Kaimur region over recent years has brought honour to tribal peoples and other forest dwellers, because through this movement, they implemented the FRA in their own way even before the act was enforced. After five victorious years of this movement, the forest people have been successful in reaping crops and accessing other forest products, even in the drought years. These crops and forest products have provided them with food security, which means they are no longer forced to work as bonded labourers in the fields of feudal landlords who were using them as slaves. The tribal peoples had been pushed out of forest areas by the Forest Department, while in the villages they were subjected to exploitation by the feudal landlords who appropriated their ancestral lands. Through the reclamation of their lost forest land, they have been able to overcome poverty and increase their assets. Within this movement, women have played an exemplary role, emerging as leaders and fighting the repressive state machinery and feudal landlords to assert their constitutional rights.
After the tribal peoples attained stability in the production of food grain crops this year, they pledged to plant trees to protect their livelihoods and the environment. In as many as 20 clusters where forest land has been reclaimed by the tribal peoples, a movement led by women plans to plant more than 10,000 trees this year. This initiative is also a form of protest against the JICA-funded Forest Department plantation drive. The JICA project is supposed to be carried out through the creation of Joint Forest Management (JFM) committees involving local communities who depend on forests. However, these committees are in fact made up of feudal landlords and upper-caste village dwellers. These JFM committees are not governed by any legislation and are working against committees formed under the FRA. The JFM committees are planting trees on lands where forest peoples are filing claims under the FRA or have already been granted land titles under the act. The result is a situation of caste and class war within the forest areas due to the schemes launched by the Forest Department. The forest peoples have openly challenged these JFM committees to defeat their nefarious designs.
The community tree planting drive started by tribal women is a move against this foreign-funded Forest Department plantation drive to assert their community rights over the forests. A massive rally to demand respect for these rights was held by tribal women on July 4 in Robertsganj, capital of the district of Sonbhadra. The women were dressed in red and green saris (a traditional women’s garment in India) and each carried a tree sapling. After marching through the capital carrying these saplings, they assembled at the District Court headquarters, where they planted them in a large park inside the court premises. The planting was done with great enthusiasm, like a festival with beautiful songs sung by women.
The rally sent a loud message to the entire region that tribal people are taking control of their forests and will not allow any companies, the Forest Department or anyone else to take that control away from them. These women have also challenged the government, stating that if their community rights are not recognized, they will draw maps themselves to identify the boundaries of their forest lands and take over their possession from the Forest Department.
Sokalo Panika, a tribal woman, said that the Forest Department plantation drive is a total failure: the planting is being done on paper only, and the JFM committees are nothing but money-making committees. Rajkumari Bhuiya, another tribal woman, said that the tree planting done by the JFM committees is of no use to the community, since they plant commercial varieties that are neither useful for the community nor good for the environment. The tribal people have started serving notices in accordance with the FRA to these JFM committees, ordering them to stop these plantation activities. Otherwise, action will be taken against them under Section 7 of the FRA, which establishes that anyone working against the act shall be punished.
The women serve these notices in a ceremonial way that creates shock waves not only in the Forest Department but also among all the government authorities who are not serious enough to implement the FRA. In large groups, all of them dressed in red saris, the women paste these notices outside every office starting with the JFM committee, the forest ranger’s office, the police station, and then the deputy collector’s and collector’s offices. Copies of each notice are also sent to the state Secretaries of Forests, Revenue and Tribal Affairs, the Chief Secretary and Chief Minister of the state, and the national Ministers of the Environment and of Tribal Affairs.
Mithai Lal Gond, a tribal leader, says: “In the past, we were served notices by the Forest Department to vacate our land. Now we have rights and power under the FRA, hence we will now serve notices to these departments for illegal activities.” Tribal people have also sent notices to newspaper agencies, calling on them to write in their favour and stop writing in favour of the Forest Department. A multi-pronged strategy has been adopted by the tribal people to fully assert their community rights.
By Roma, 10 July 2011, NFFPFW (Kaimur) / Human Rights Law Centre, Uttar Pradesh, India, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, http://jansangarsh.blogspot.com
(1) - In 2007, there was a major movement, led by women, undertaken by tribal and Dalit people to reclaim their lost land in the Kaimur region of Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Bihar. The lands that tribal people had occupied for centuries were stolen from them by feudal landlords, the Forest Department and various industrial projects before and after independence. The reclaiming of land was viewed as the “working class taking back its lost political space”. Through this movement, thousands of hectares of land were reclaimed under collective possession by tribal people. These lands are also collectively cultivated by women. During this time, leading activists were jailed and cases were filed under false charges against thousands of forest people, 80% of them women. The writer of this article was also jailed for one month for her role in leading the movement and booked under the National Security Act. She was released by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati herself after the state government found that all of the cases filed by the Forest Department and police were fabricated. This was a major victory for the people’s movement and since then, tribal and Dalit women have been in the forefront of the movement, challenging the state in a collective manner through their collective political consciousness.
(2) The JICA project is being implemented in the entire country. Here we focus on only one state, Uttar Pradesh. For more information, see:http://www.jica.go.jp/english/operations/evaluation/oda_loan/economic_cooperation/2007/pdf/india07.pdf