Adivasi rights groups from across the country have petitioned Parliament demanding that the government should either repeal the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act, 2016, or amend it to ensure that Adivasi rights under the Forest Rights Act, 2009, are not violated by the compensatory plantations that the law facilitates.
The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change is in the process of finalising the rules to implement this law, which seeks to manage the distribution of funds – now amounting to more than Rs 50,000 crore – collected as a levy from industries, miners and others who need to fell forests for their projects. The Act allocates this fund to the forest departments of states to set up plantations to replace the lost forests.
The petition, initiated by the All India Forum for Forest Movements and Community Forest Rights-Learning and Advocacy process, both national-level networks of organisations and individuals working on Adivasi rights, has been signed by several other environmentalists and scholars. It was sent to the Parliamentary Committee on Petitions on December 14.
In the petition, the groups have demanded that the law must be amended to make it compulsory for the forest departments to seek the consent of the village councils of Adivasis and other forest dwellers before carrying out plantations on their traditional lands.
The Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act was passed by the BJP-led Union government amid protests from the Opposition parties and Adivasi rights groups last year. The protesters demanded that in the light of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, which recognises the traditional rights of Adivasis and forest dwellers on forest lands, any tree-plantation activity must require prior consent from village councils, and the afforestation funds should be routed through them.
The Adivasi rights groups fear that the compensatory afforestation fund will empower the forest departments that have been resisting the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, and that the departments will use the plantations as a tool to exert their control over traditional forests used by Adivasis.
At the time of passing the law, the Union government assured Parliament that village councils of Adivasis would be consulted before the forest departments start plantations on their traditional lands. Though the promise was a step down from the requirement of seeking consent from forest-dwelling Adivasis and other communities under the Forest Rights Act, 2006, the government has not acted on the promise even a year after the enactment of the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act.
Cause of conflicts
On the ground, the compensatory plantations have already started to cause conflicts as forest departments are forcing plantations on community lands. Land Conflict Watch, a data-journalism initiative, has documented at least 22 such conflicts spread over an area twice the size of Puducherry. Together they affect 40,000 Adivasis from the heavily forested states of Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Telangana.
The petition says:
“Across the states CA [compensatory afforestation] plantations have been set up on community forests, common lands, homesteads, cultivable land, pastures and religious sites which belong to communities, without their free, prior and informed consent. The forest department and Joint Forest Management Committees have resorted to violence and illegal means to force communities to set up these plantations, including assaults, illegal detentions, destruction of homes, crops and cattle, and forcing villagers to sign blank papers.”
The petition adds:
“At the time of its enactment, the late Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change [Anil Madhav Dave] had assured the Rajya Sabha that the CAF [Compensatory Afforestation Fund] Rules would address forest rights concerns and include provision for consultation with Gram Sabhas in the implementation of CAF programs. More than a year has passed since then, and no Rules or public consultations with stakeholders are forthcoming.”
Scroll.in had reported in August how a draft version of the compensatory afforestation rules prepared by the environment ministry contained loopholes that will help forest departments bypass even the process of consultation with the village councils before setting up plantations.
While the final version of the rules is still due, the environment ministry came up with guidelines to identify land for compensatory afforestation last month. The guidelines say that “revenue lands, zudpi jungle, chhote-bade jhar ka jungle, jungle jhari land, waste lands and others... shall be considered for the purpose of compensatory afforestation.” Such lands will be notified as reserve or protected forests, which are controlled by forest departments. However, most of the lands over which Adivasis have traditional rights fall under the categories quoted above.
The petition says:
“Compounding this dispossession is the 8 November 2017 guideline by MoEFCC [Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change] illegally ordering the creation of land banks from revenue forests and degraded forest lands for CA [compulsory afforestation] projects over which tribals and forest dwellers have got forest rights. Such an aggressive denial of physical and tenurial security has the potential of inflaming Left Wing Extremism in tribal areas, which already report 44 conflicts impacting 51,000 people on account of CA plantations.”