CSE, experts demand more rights for communities over forests in India - Nepal and Mexico show the way

  • India’s forest laws are colonial that have alienated communities from their land and resources. Under the current Forest Rights Act of 2006, the government allows gram sabhas to manage and protect forests. However, community rights have been recognised only over 2.5 million hectare (ha) of forests while Forest Survey of India report has identified 31 million ha of forests within revenue villages
  • Indian government recognises community rights only over non-timber forest produce (NTFP) but not over timber

  • About 23 per cent of Nepal’s forests are managed by the community. Nepal leads among South Asian countries in granting forestry rights to communities

  • More than 70 per cent of Mexico’s forests are community-managed. This has happened after a long period of struggle waged by the community

New Delhi, January 23, 2015: Community right over forests is critical to sustenance of rural and forest communities and also for conservation of forests. While Nepal has among the best track records in Asia, Mexico is among global leaders with more than 70 per cent of its forests under community management. India has been lagging behind in granting rights over forests to its communities. 

“India needs to learn from these countries. Our forest laws are still colonial, with the state keeping a tight control over forests without letting communities benefit from them. The government should now look towards democratizing forest governance and enabling communities in forest management by recognizing community rights under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) to make standing forests productive for people,” says Sunita Narain, director general, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).  

Narain was speaking at the concluding session of the Workshop on Community Forestry in India – Challenges and Opportunities in the light of lessons from Mexico and Nepal which CSE organised today in collaboration with Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), Washington DC, and Society for Promotion of Wastelands Development, New Delhi. 

Studies from the two countries which have made great progress in recognizing forest rights of indigenous people are important in the current context in India where the government is pushing for the dilution of Forest Rights Act and where standing forests are almost seen as unproductive resources, waiting only to be chopped for the non-forest use. Experts from Mexico, RRI Washington DC, CSE and grassroots activists working on forest rights from across the country presented their experiences and papers at the workshop.


People earn from forests in Mexico, don’t migrate from villages

Experts informed that today, more than 70 per cent of Mexico’s forests (65 million ha) are controlled by about 35,000 indigenous and rural communities. The earning from forests has slowed down migration from villages. More than 500 communities are operating as market-based community forest enterprises (CFEs) which harvest their forests, own and operate saw mills, produce furniture and also sell non-timber forest produce. A total of over 2,300 communities (having 300 ha to 20,000 ha of forests each) have forest management rights, with timber-logging permits over 8 million ha of forests. More than 80 per cent of Mexico’s timber production (6.8 million cubic metres) comes from community forests. Individuals are not allowed a share of the profit which is used for community purposes such as education, health facilities, roads, public buildings, water and sewage structures or is reinvested in the business.

Mexico’s forests are better-protected now

Community forestry has also restored the ecological value of forests which was lost due to severe exploitation by the timber industry during the period of private forest concessions in the 20th century. Satellite data shows that between 1990 and 2010, Mexico’s deforestation rate reduced from 354,000 ha per year to 155,000 ha per year. Communities had to fight to gain their right over forests and to get actual control over forests. This struggle saw a transformation of the government from being a controller of forests to a facilitator of community forestry. 


Nepal, leader in South Asia

About 23 per cent of the forests in Nepal are under community forestry for over 20 years and are managed by over 17,600 community forestry user groups (CFUGs).  Nearly 33% of Nepal’s rural population has benefited from the earnings from the forests. CSE’s study shows that the CFUG villages have improved their livelihood when compared with non-CFUG villages. There are federations of CFUGs which protect the rights of communities against the government policies diluting community rights. These communities are also known for transparency, equity, equal women’s representation.


Far behind

India continues to follow the colonial forest regime that has alienated communities from their land and resources. At present, the Indian government recognises community rights over their forests under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006, and empowers the gram sabha (village council) to protect and manage them. But the law remains poorly implemented as forest departments continue to resist ceding control over forests.

The Forest Survey of India’s (FSI’s) report in 1999 shows that 31 million ha of forests lay within revenue villages. “This should be the minimum area over which community forest rights need to be recognised,” said Narain. But the government has so far recognised rights over only 2.5 million ha. This mostly has habitation rights for tribal families and hardly includes community forests. “Worse, the Indian policies are such that the people are hardly benefitting from the forests. FRA does not provide explicit rights to communities over timber. It only recognizes community rights over non-timber forest produce (NTFP). But the communities are yet to benefit from this provision as the sale of most lucrative NTFPs such as bamboo and tendu leaf are controlled by the forest department. 

While the forests in India are legally owned by the government, the standing forests are now seen as unproductive entities. Government owned forests provide only 2.5 million cubic metres (cum) of timber a year. This is meager to meet India’s soaring timber demand, which is expected to increase from 74 million cubic metres in 2005 to 153 million cubic metres in 2020. “The forest departments prioritise conservation over production. But an analysis of FSI data by Down To Earth suggests that India might have lost 9.4 million ha of government-managed forests between 1999 and 2013. Clearly, something is wrong with the way forests are being managed in India,” said Narain. 

• For more information see Down To article on Mexico’s community forestry http://www.downtoearth.org.in/content/forestry-mexican-way?page=0,0