Residents of Mendha Lekha, the first village in India to secure community forest resource rights. Photo by: Subodhkiran / CC BY-SA

MONTREAL — In 2006, India’s parliament passed the Forest Rights Act, or FRA — a groundbreaking legislation that recognizes the rights of forest dwellers to protect and manage forest resources.

Colonial-era laws established by the British previously granted control of India’s forests to forest departments, the government services in charge of implementing the National Forest Policy, in order to manage large-scale industrial and commercial projects. But this left local communities vulnerable to displacement, socio-economic marginalization, and their lands susceptible to environmental degradation.

Over 10 years after the legislation has passed, only 3 percent of the land on which forest dwellers could potentially claim community forest rights has been secured, according to the Rights and Resources Initiative. Civil society organizations also warn that displacement and land encroachment continues, and that resentment about the slow progress made toward implementing the act is rising among forest communities. Lack of political will at the national and state levels, and lack of resources and capacity-building dedicated to implementing the act are among the reasons cited by RRI to explain this poor implementation.

The Forest Rights Act

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Act (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, also known as the Forest Rights Act, or FRA, was passed by India’s parliament in December 2006 and became operational in January 2008. It recognizes 14 pre-existing rights of forest dwellers, including Scheduled Tribes (groups of indigenous people officially recognized by the constitution of India), to use, protect, and manage forest resources where they live. Among these rights are:

• Individual forest rights and community rights of use and access to forest land and resources.

• Community forest resource rights to use, manage, and govern forests within the traditional boundaries of villages.

• Empowerment of right-holders and the “gram sabha,” which comprises of all adults of a village, for the conservation and protection of forests, wildlife and biodiversity, and their natural and cultural heritage.

If implemented, the act could improve the lives of about 150 million people living in over 32 million hectares of forests. This is partially due to its recognition of the authority of “gram sabhas,” or village councils, over the conservation and management of the land that the communities inhabit, helping open the door to increased revenue-generating activities, and preventing land encroachment for industrial use.

In a bid to reverse this trend, the International Land and Forest Tenure Facility — a Sweden-based international foundation working toward securing land and forest rights through grantmaking and technical assistance —  is funding a new cross-sector initiative that makes use of innovative partnerships, digital technologies, and research to empower local communities to claim their rights, and rally the business community around the need to accelerate the implementation of FRA.

“It is a marriage of implementation, hard work, and figuring out how these interests come together in a very densely populated set of forests in India, and how that can inform the development agenda moving forward for India itself,” said Nonette Royo, the Tenure Facility’s executive director.

Supporting communities

The $2 million initiative, conducted in partnership with the Indian School of Business, the research and policy advocacy group Vasundhara, and the Society for Rural, Urban, and Tribal Initiative, aims to secure the rights of 5,000 villages over the next two years by providing support to communities that are filing claims for recognition of their rights.

It is also building an online portal that will publicize the status of FRA claims, thereby highlighting which states are lagging behind in the implementation of the act, and which states offer a faster process for the recognition of land rights.

“By the end of two years, we will have the most exhaustive actual data on how many applications have been made, where they are standing, how many are at the district level [and] at the state level,” said Arvind Khare, senior director at RRI. He explained how this will help demonstrate how many applications have been recognized, the status of the places where the rights have been recognized, and why applications are pending at different stages and for how long.

Industrial projects are often justified as contributing to economic development, yet civil society organizations claim that power imbalances between the state, corporations, and forest communities conduct to conflict and displacement, which in turn contributes to increased poverty.

Yet anecdotal evidence is showing a correlation between the recognition of forest rights and economic sustainability.

“Where good recognition has taken place, like in [the state of] Maharashtra, one is beginning to see amazing impact,” said Madhu Sarin, an independent researcher, who was involved in drafting the FRA. “The forests are regenerating, the communities are earning very good income from selling bamboo and other forest products. And they're also changing management practices, questioning some of the silvicultural practices of the forest department.”

A third component of the project is compiling data from forest dwellers through a smartphone application, in order to build further evidence on the ability of forest communities to develop sustainable livelihoods from forest resources, and to contribute to environmental conservation. The database could also highlight best practices in land management and cultivation, to be passed on between communities, so as to increase their revenue from forest products.

“If we collect this data at high frequency, as it is happening in a large number of communities, then we should be able to develop diagnostics in terms of what works and what doesn't work, by combining it with external sources of data,” said Ashwini Chhatre, associate professor of public policy at the Indian School of Business.

Making the business case for land rights

Implementation of FRA, which falls under the responsibility of state governments, has been uneven across India. Civil society actors routinely point to the lack of willingness of local authorities to move forward.

“Our hope is that by the end of two years … we will have a critical mass of relevant decision-makers in the business and in the government who would like to promote the Forest Rights Act, because they recognize that it's not only the right thing to do, it's also key to the development of India.”

— Arvind Khare, senior director, Rights and Resources Initiative

“There is no political will to implement this act as assertion of power of forest-dwelling communities is in direct conflict with the agenda of ease of doing business. It also challenges the power and authority of the Forest Department, which since colonial times has managed the forest for commercial gains,” explained Amitabh Behar, chief executive officer at Oxfam India, which has engaged with authorities at the district, state, and national levels to advocate for the implementation of the act. Oxfam India has also taken part in creating a national platform, the Community Forest Rights-Learning and Advocacy, to facilitate information sharing and evidence building on community forest rights.

The case of the FRA in India mirrors the situation faced by other indigenous and rural communities worldwide. New research by the World Resources Institute revealed that the process to formalize land rights remains extremely complex and slow in many countries, sometimes taking up to 30 years.

“Across the board, what we saw is that government agencies responsible for helping indigenous people and communities secure their land rights are underfunded, undermined, and cannot meet their roles and responsibilities,” said Peter Veit, director of the Land and Resources Rights project at WRI, and co-author of the report.

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By contrast, companies are able to secure their access to land for industrial exploitation through procedures that last between 30 days and five years, the report notes, highlighting the imbalance of power across legal systems that favor corporations.

That imbalance, however, doesn’t always fare well for companies. Research conducted by RRI in Africa has shown a direct link between stalled industrial projects and land disputes, while WRI studies in Latin America and the Amazon have reached similar conclusions. In India’s forests, RRI identified 21 high-value industrial projects that have been stalled due to land disputes, bringing close to $29 million worth of investment at risk.

By engaging the Indian School of Business into the project, the Tenure Facility hope to increase understanding among a new generation of business leaders about the importance of implementing of FRA.

“Our hope is that by the end of two years … we will have a critical mass of relevant decision-makers in the business and in the government who would like to promote the Forest Rights Act, because they recognize that it's not only the right thing to do, it's also key to the development of India,” said Khare.

This article is part of a mini-series in partnership with the Rights and Resources Initiative. For more on land and resource rights for indigenous peoples and local communities take a look at RRI’s work here.

About the author

  • Flavie Halais

    Flavie Halais is a freelance journalist based in Montreal, Canada, covering international issues and cities through a social lens. Her work has appeared in WIRED, the Guardian, Le Monde Afrique, Jeune Afrique, the Correspondent ,and Devex.