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Land Grabbing On The Quiet: Tens of Thousands of Hectares Seized Every Year, Courtesy Environment Ministry

By Campaign for Survival and Dignity

29 June, 2010

The press is filled with debates about Operation Green Hunt, corporate resource grabbing and displacement issues. But there's an elephant in the room, a larger process of seizing lands, forests and resources on a huge scale, that has so far been totally ignored. Behind this process lies one Central government agency: the Environment Ministry. Most people associate displacement with land acquisition, but that is only one way of displacing people. The Environment Ministry's control over forest land gives it far more power over people's homes, livelihoods and lives – and lakhs are facing brutality, impoverishment and injustice as a result. Consider this:

Under the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980, the Environment Ministry has the final say over the use of 23% of India's land area – areas recorded as forest land in government records. From 2006 (when the Forest Rights Act was passed) till date, in MP and Chhattisgarh alone, the Ministry has illegally handed over (through “in principle” and final clearances) 15,411 hectares of forest land to various projects. The Ministry did not consult or even inform the people who lived on, used and depended on this huge area of land. And that’s just in two States. On August 3rd, 2009, the Ministry admitted this was illegal and issued a circular ostensibly to stop it – but has gone on in the same fashion since.

But the land grab doesn’t stop with forest diversion. Under the FC Act, for every hectare diverted, one hectare of revenue land or two hectares of degraded forest land has to be planted with trees. While this looks good on paper, it makes no environmental sense – a tree plantation is no replacement for a natural forest and often results in biodiversity loss and damage to water tables. But plantations do allow for yet more land grabbing – this time by the Forest Department rather than by projects. The plantations take place on lands that often actually belong to individual forest dwellers or that are village common lands. Thus people lose their lands at both ends – to the projects at the diversion site and to plantations at the afforestation site. The intentions are made clear by a 2003 circular of the Ministry, which explicitly recommends that various types of community forest lands be used for compensatory afforestation. It then requires them to be notified as reserved or protected forests and transferred to the Forest Department – meaning people lose all rights to cultivate, collect firewood or forest produce, or graze their livestock in lands that were in fact their own1. Between 1980 and 2009, such 'compensatory' plantations took place on 11,83,472 hectares of land – of which 5,54,635 hectares was revenue land which was now brought under Forest Department control.2 If the compensatory afforestation required for the illegal diversion in MP and Chhattisgarh were to take place on degraded forest land, the diversion and the afforestation together would require 46,235 hectares of land – larger than the area of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, all illegally grabbed in the space of three years and in just two States.

More land grabbing goes on through plantation programmes and “Joint Forest Management”(JFM). JFM has become a way for the Forest Department to extend its control over more lands and to divide villages in the process. The village committees set up under JFM are controlled by the forest guard, who is their member secretary / joint account holder. Their “participatory” plans for forest protection have to fit entirely within existing Forest Department plans. They are not given any rights but instead promised a share in timber and other revenues in exchange for free labour; and the share is often never paid. As a result, JFM Committees often consist entirely of contractors, traders, elites and others close to the Forest Department, and function as proxies for the Department, to the extent of attacking and evicting other members of villages on the Department's instructions. Enormous sums of money are then pumped into these “participatory” committees by the National Afforestation Programme (Rs. 1056.74 crores was given between 2008 and 20103). The money is routed through Forest Development Agencies, which once again have forest officials in all key positions. In 2008, the Standing Committee on Environment and Forests condemned the current form of afforestation policies as “afforestation ... deprives forest dwellers and tribals / adivasis of some or all of their lands and adversely impact their livelihoods and basic needs – for which they are neither informed, nor consulted, nor compensated.”

And this is not the end. Even as illegal diversion continues, even more money is being funnelled into plantation and afforesation programs:

5,000 crores of international loans were taken by State governments in 2009 for forestry projects, mostly to be implemented through JFM.

More than 11,000 crores of compensatory afforestation funds are being gradually released for spending in the same manner since July 2009 – despite an explicit recommendation from the Parliamentary Standing Committee to overhaul the entire structure.

Another 44,000 crores has now been proposed to be allocated to the supposed afforestation of a staggering 10 million hectares of land under the Green India Mission. Internationally, the government is seeking even more money under the climate change agreement REDD – Reducing Emissions from Degradation and Deforestation – once again in the name of plantations and JFM; private companies may also get involved in more plantation activities.

We call upon the government to respect the law and justice and halt the Environment Ministry's land grabbing. We demand:

Full implementation and respect for the provisions of the Forest Rights Act

An end to Joint Forest Management

Afforestation programmes to be under the transparent control of the gram sabha and not under the Forest Department

Full respect for the democratic and legal rights of communities to protect and manage their forests

1See MoEF letter F.No.2-l/2003-FC dated 20.10.2003.

2Answer to Unstarred Question No. 2494 to Ministry of Environment and Forests, Lok Sabha, on 22.07.2009.

3Answer to Unstarred Question No. 4221 to Ministry of Environment and Forests, Lok Sabha, on 21.04.2010.

Campaign for Survival and Dignity
www.forestrightsact.com, 9873657844