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Dongria Kondh boy Kalia stands in front of the Niyamgiri hill range

Lewis Davids/Survival

Spotlight: India’s adivasis and the web of indifference


India is home to about 700 tribal groups with a population of 104 million, as per 2011 census, constituting the second largest tribal population in the world after Africa. Down to Earth magazine examines the many grave threats they face from government, corporations and phenomena like climate change, and our continuing indifference to their plight.

Karnika Bahuguna, Madhu Ramnath, Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava, Richard Mahapatra, M. Suchitra & Anupam Chakravartty, Down to Earth

India is home to about 700 tribal groups with a population of 104 million, as per 2011 census. These indigenous people constitute the second largest tribal population in the world after Africa. As industries encroached upon their lands, many communities were displaced and some continued to wage a struggle to either protect their homes or demand a fair compensation.

By taking away forest lands for industries and plantation forestry instead of preserving natural species that provide livelihood to these people, the government was depriving them of the basic means of livelihood.

The battle for Niyamgiri may be won by Odisha’s Dongria Kondhs and the Baiga tribe of Madhya Pradesh may have become the first indigenous people to get habitat rights in India after a century-long struggle, but these developments don’t dwarf the challenge that lies in promotion and protection of indigenous people’s rights.

Recognising their rights to forest areas and forest management practices is critical to understand their struggle for survival. Loss of forest cover, mining and the expansion of hybrid crops remain direct threats to food security of these people who count on forest resources and wild food.  There’s a need for scientific discourse on the impact of climate change on species that grow in the wild and are used by indigenous people living close to forests.

As legal loopholes, poor enforcement of existing safeguards, bureaucratic apathy and corporate neglect of human rights try to further isolate these indigenous people and muffle their voices, it is time we had a look at the encouraging and disturbing developments that took place over the last few years.

Battle over oil, coal and forests

As India debates how to allocate natural resources, the north-eastern states face a peculiar challenge: communities want recognition of their ownership over coal, forests and oil, the three “nationalised” resources.
These tribal communities have traditionally controlled vast tracts of land and its resources, such as forests and coal, through well-established community institutions. They are now eager to exercise their ownership over oil. The Centre has for long protected their autonomy through various Constitutional provisions. The state governments have acknowledged this. But as the value of natural resources touch an all-time high, the governments turn their eyes to the largely untapped region, perhaps the most resource-rich landscape in the country. The hydrocarbon reserves in Nagaland may increase India’s on-shore oil and natural gas production potential by 75 per cent. The coal reserves in Meghalaya are worth 10 times the state’s GDP. In Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram, 60 per cent and 30 per cent of forests are with communities (see map `Centre v state v community‘). As the Centre tightens its control over oil, coal and forests, states try to wrest control from it by citing special Constitutional provisions and community rights. With industries on board, the states are also exploiting legal loopholes to hoard benefits from these resources. Communities now find themselves in a quandary. While tribal communities in Nagaland and Meghalaya are protesting and approaching courts to protect their rights over oil and coal, those in Mizoram, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh are struggling to retain control over their forests.

Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava travels to the region to unravel this fight for resources

OIL

On a slippery slope

Nagaland government wrests control of oil resources from the Centre; communities cry foul

Chumtamo Kithan folds a towel and wraps it around his mouth and nose before making his way into a dense patch of grass. The withered tufts of grass on the hill in his village Changpang in Wokha district of Nagaland soon give way to a vast barren land, at places covered with thick dry tar. Hot fumes fill the air. Eyes and skin feel the irritation. “You feel it before you see it,” says Kithan as he walks carefully, avoiding stepping on the sticky soil. A few metres ahead, concrete walls surround abandoned oil rigs. One can hear the bubbling sound coming from behind the walls. Kithan picks up a stick, climbs up the boundary wall and dips it into the crude oil leaking from the rig. “It has turned into a 1.5-metre open oil well,” he says. “These leaking rigs are all we have been left with following our historical struggle to assert rights over the land and natural resources.”

The struggle of Kithan’s tribe, Lotha, dates back to the early 1980s. With the state’s permission, the country’s multinational public sector unit, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), had just begun extracting crude oil from the rigs it had sunk near Changpang. The area is part of Schuppen Belt that is believed to hold 600 million tonnes of crude oil and natural gas. “ONGC over-extracted our oil but gave us very little share in the profits,” alleges Kithan. Irked, the residents of Changpang and adjoining Tsorri formed a union and protested against the oil giant. The Changpang Land Owners’ Union (CLOU) argued that Nagaland enjoys a special status under Article 371-A of the Constitution, which recognises customary rights of communities over land and its resources. The state cannot allow ONGC to exploit the resources without their consent. CLOU demanded that the company should sign a lease agreement with the village council (traditional decision-making body in a village) or Lotha hoho (the apex body of the tribe). The Naga Students’ Federation joined the protest, alleging that ONGC mined 1.02 million tonnes of oil, which is much more than the amount permitted to it in the exploration lease. ONGC shut shop in 1994 following widespread protests and threats from insurgent groups. “It was a watershed event. It was a recognition of Naga people’s rights over natural resources,” says Janbemo Lotha of Green Foundation, a non-profit in Wokha district.

Changpang village in Nagaland is part of an oil belt that is believed to hold 600 million tonnes of oil and natural gas (Photographs: Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava)
Changpang village in Nagaland is part of an oil belt that is believed to hold 600 million tonnes of oil and natural gas (Photographs: Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava)

But the euphoria did not last long. “Every summer, as the crude oil heats up at those depths, the rigs start leaking. With the first gush of rain, the spilled oil flows down into villages,” says Kithan. The authorities have unsuccessfully tried to contain the spill by constructing concrete walls around the rigs.

In September 2012, People’s Science Institute, a non-profit in Dehradun, found that the groundwater of Changpang contained oil, grease, phenol and iron beyond the standard limits. The oil spill is affecting the soil quality and health of all living beings in the village, the non-profit said in its report. “Many people in the village now suffer from respiratory and skin problems. Crop yields have also taken a hit,” says Chenithung Kithan, another resident of Changpang.

“We own the oil and should get the entire royalty from oil companies. The state government can levy a tax on them and keep it”

—Jonas Yanthan, Vice-chairperson, Kohima chapter, Lotha hoho

In 2011, a resident of Tsorri and non-profit DICE Foundation in Kohima moved the Gauhati High Court against ONGC and the state. They demanded Rs 1,000 crore in compensation for “four decades of pollution” caused by the oil spill. ONGC hurriedly abandoned the establishment without decommissioning or capping the rigs properly, they said in the petition.

While the fight continues, the state has once again allowed oil mining in the region. This time around, desperate to earn from its vast hydrocarbon reserves, the state has erred on the side of caution.

Ploy against people

The abandoned oil rigs had divided the community of Changpang into two groups: people on whose land rigs were sunk and those who were affected by oil spill. According to DICE Foundation, in 2006 landowners of the rigs signed a deal with SRM Exploration Pvt Ltd, a Gurgaon-based oil company, for tapping the treasure beneath their land. They also obtained 25 years of oil and gas lease from the village council. The Lotha hoho and the Naga hoho (the apex body of all Naga tribes) opposed the deal, saying oil belongs to the entire community and not to a few individuals.

Between 2006 and 2007, the Centre again allotted oil blocks in Nagaland to ONGC. But the company could not proceed due to community opposition.

The Nagaland government seized the opportunity. “Some politicians came to our village and said we tried to trade in oil but messed it up, so now they would do it for us,” recalls Kithan.

In 2009, the state suspended all activities related to oil and annulled previous exploration and mining leases. It formed a Cabinet Sub Committee (CSC) to work out modalities for governing oil and natural gas. But there was another stumbling block. Before Nagaland was formed in 1963, the Centre had introduced the Oil Fields Regulation and Development Act, 1948, and the Petroleum and Natural Gas Rules, 1959, which authorised it to develop and regulate hydrocarbon reserves across the country. States holding the reserve are eligible for a royalty decided by the Centre. Though Article 371-A guarantees that no Central law pertaining to land and its resources applies to Nagaland unless the Assembly ratifies it, the state government did not want to take a chance. In July 2010, it passed a resolution which allowed it to develop petroleum reserves in the state, acquire mineral-bearing areas, set land compensation rates and landowners’ share in the royalty and issue environmental and forest clearance to projects. In 2012, it introduced Nagaland Petroleum and Natural Gas (NPNG) Regulations.

This made the Centre jittery. Worried that it might lose control over the vast reserve of petroleum—Nagaland has the potential to increase India’s onshore oil production potential by 75 per cent—the then petroleum minister M Veerappa Moily wrote letters to then chief minister Neiphiu Rio, opposing NPNG regulations. In June 2013, Moily, on the recommendation of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, asked Rio to rescind NPNG regulations and withdraw the notification inviting companies for developing the reserves. He said Article 371-A does not confer on the Nagaland Assembly power to make laws related to oil.

“The government has manipulated community leaders by giving them roles in the prospective oil trade to extract consent from the landowners of rigs”

—T Methna, Former president, Konyak Students’ Union, Mon

This is when in 2011, the then Union petroleum ministry, replying to a Lok Sabha question, had said that “land and its resources” in Article 371-A includes minerals and oil. Speaking at a public meeting, Rio accused the Centre of taking a U-turn on the matter.

The state’s firm stand against the Centre, however, was not primarily meant to benefit communities.

As per the benefit-sharing mechanism of NPNG regulations, for every Rs 100 of crude oil produced, the company will give Rs 16 to the state and the communities. The state will keep 50 per cent of the share, or Rs 8, and pass on Rs 2 to landowners of the rigs. The District Planning and Development Board will get Rs 2 and the remaining Rs 4 will be divided among the community.

A section of Naga communities are opposing this regulation. “It is scientifically wrong to give a higher royalty share to the landowners of rigs,” says Jonas Yanthan, vice-chairperson of the Kohima Lotha hoho. The rig may fall on anybody’s land but the reserves are spread over a vast area. At the most, the landowners of rigs can get a land access fee. Besides, on what basis does the government claim to be the owner of oil along with people and demand the highest royalty share, he asks. “It’s only the caretaker of whatever little land it has acquired for public works,” he adds.

“It is wrong to say that the government has become owner of oil and gas because the (NPNG) rules clearly state that unless the landowner (of the rig) signs the agreement with the selected company, the oil operations cannot take off in any district,” Chief Minister T R Zeliang told Down To Earth (see ‘State has the right to regulate oil and gas’).

T Methna, former president of Students’ Union of Konyak Tribe in Mon district alleges that the government has manipulated some community leaders by giving them roles in the prospective oil trade to extract consent from the owners of land where rigs are. One rule says the government “will request the president of the Naga hoho to obtain consent of the landowners in writing…for undertaking the operations…”

The process of awarding contracts to companies is also dubious. Instead of inviting bids, the NPNG regulations assess a company based on its track record in Nagaland, its experience and how conducive is its financial and operational profile to undertake oil operations. Final selection is simply done by a ministerial group headed by the chief minister. “No technical officer is involved in the selection process,” says an official in the state’s mining department, wondering how the group decides technical aspects of leases.

“While most NPNG rules are flawed, the state did not follow them while awarding contract,” alleges a journalist in Kohima. In February 2014, a little-known Metropolitan Oil and Gas Pvt Ltd (MOGPL) bagged the contract for developing Wokha and Peren oil zones. The Union corporate affairs ministry’s data shows that MOGPL was floated four months before Nagaland invited applications from companies in January 2013.

MOGPL had claimed that its promoters, Spice Energy, SRM Energy and Cals Refineries—all part of one Spice Energy Group according to the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI)—have experiences in oil operations. An investigation by Down To Earth (DTE) reveals a fraudulent history of its promoters.

MOGPL: flawed before conceived

To establish its experience, MOGPL had mentioned in its application that Cals, which holds 91 per cent of its equity, is setting up an oil refinery at Haldia in West Bengal. But Cals has been mired in controversy.

“Government has favoured MOGPL. The company’s adviser Krishna Kumar is also adviser to the apex body of the chief minister’s community”

—Amos Odyuo, President, Kyong Students’ Union, Wokha

In 2007, Cals issued 7.8 million global depository receipts (GDRs; sets of company shares listed and traded in a foreign country) to generate capital for the Haldia project. The GDRs, worth US $200 million, were immediately subscribed by Honor Finance Ltd owned by Sanjay Malhotra by borrowing US $200 million from a bank in Portugal. Incidentally, Malhotra was a promoter of Spice Energy Group. “This resulted in Cals itself financing its GDRs,” said SEBI in a show-cause notice to the company in September last year. This subscription of all GDRs of Cals through “fraudulent arrangement” pushed the demand for its shares in the Indian stock market, said SEBI. In another deal in 2009, Cals paid US $92 million to a Hong Kong-listed Asia Texx, owned by Gagan Rastogi, son of Cal’s director and Spice Group promoter Deep Kumar Rastogi, for purchasing refinery equipment. While no equipment was delivered, Asia Texx used the money to buy back GDRs of Cals from Honor Finance. Malhotra’s company then used the money to pay back its loan. Following the “unfair trade practices”, SEBI last year banned Cals from issuing equity shares for eight years.

Another Spice Group company and promoter of Cals, SRM Exploration has also been indicted in the GDR forgery case. In March 2012, the Delhi High Court ordered winding up of SRM Exploration while hearing a petition by a Czech company against its financial dealings. SRM Exploration was hired by landowners of rigs in Changpang for exploring oil in 2006.

In September this year, Kohima Lotha hoho moved the Gauhati High Court against Nagaland for selecting MOGPL. Its petition shows the 22 companies that had applied for the contract included experienced firms like Assam Company (India), Prize Petroleum, Deep Industries, Shiv-Vani Oil & Gas and Jubilant Oil & Gas. MOGPL has, however,begun operations in Wokha in July. On September 22, the government announced that MOGPL will start explorations in Peren, home district of chief minister Zeliang.

Vested interest?

In May this year, Zeliang replaced Neiphiu Rio after the former chief minister got elected as Member of Parliament. A politician in the state alleges that Zeliang could win over the support of MLAs against another senior contender for the post because of his involvement in the process of restarting oil trade.

“I did advise Zeliang-rong baudi. But the three-state tribal body has nothing to do with the land and ownership matters in Nagaland”

—Krishna Kumar M B, Adviser, MOGPL

As the minister of planning and coordination, Zeliang had played a crucial role in drafting NPNG regulations.

Kyong (Lotha) Students’ Union of Wokha alleges that the state favours MOGPL. “The profile of an adviser with MOGPL, Krishna Kumar M B, shows that he is adviser to Zeliang-rong baudi, apex body of chief minister Zeliang’s community in Nagaland, Assam and Manipur,” says Amos Odyuo, president of the union. Documents with DTE show Kumar is in the management of MOGPL. When DTE contacted Kumar, he admitted his association with Zeliang-rong baudi. “But I do not advise Zeliang-rong baudi anymore because people created unnecessary controversies,” he said. Defending MOGPL’s promoters, Kumar said, “most companies face such legal cases. ”

Next, land targeted for oil

After oil, those in power are eyeing oil-bearing land in the foothills. In March this year, the state prepared a vision document to set up Nagaland Special Development Zones (NSDZs) in these areas. An internal concept note on NSDZ, issued by the chief secretary’s office to deputy district commissioners in November last year, says the idea is to restructure the legal land tenure systems, “that are largely tribal in nature,” to allow “commodification of land as has happened in all other societies…around the world”. At present, the state laws do not allow non-natives to settle in the state. This arrangement aims to protect Nagas from land alienation. Under NSDZ, a system for “permanent settlement of non-Nagas for investment purpose” will be developed. They will also be issued pattas (land titles), according to the note.

“This is a ploy to sell the oil-bearing land to industries,” says a politician in the state. After all, as per the NPNG rules, the owner of the oil-bearing land will get a share in the revenue earned from oil production. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre is yet to clarify its stand on the matter.

`State has the right to regulate oil and gas’

Naga communities say the state is trying to gain control over the vast reserves of oil and gas trapped under their land. In an interview to Down To Earth, Chief Minister T R ZELIANG responds to allegations against himself and the state

Community leaders say the state has misused Article 371-A to subvert their rights and exploit oil resources.

The special Article safeguards the rights of Naga people as per their customary laws and governs transfer of land and its resources. No Central law can impinge upon these rights without the approval of the state Assembly. So, the Nagaland government has the right to regulate oil and gas by formulating its own Nagaland Petroleum and Natural Gas Rules. There is no question of misusing Article 371-A or subverting communities’ rights by formulating the rules. It was prepared after consultations with the apex body of tribes and civil society and following landowners’ consent. It is illogical on the part of community leaders to claim the entire revenue from oil exploration without sharing with the state who is their sole guardian.

It is said that Metropolitan Oil and Gas Pvt Ltd (MOGPL) that has begun explorations has no experience in the sector. On what basis did you select it?

There have been media allegations but no one substantiates those. MOGPL was the only company that offered the highest share of revenue and agreed for agreement with state and landowners of oil-bearing zones.

The state plans to restructure landholding regime in oil-rich foothill areas by setting up Nagaland Special Development Zone (NSDZ). It is alleged that by doing so the state is making way for selling the land to outsiders.

There is no plan to restructure the landholding system in foothill areas. Though the Assembly has passed a resolution to set up NSDZ, it is still a vision document. More consultations will be held before the final draft is ready. So it is too early to say that permanent settlement will be allowed to investors. Besides, oil and NSDZ are two separate issues.

It is said Peren oil zone has been kept out of NSDZ as you own large tracts of land there.

I don’t have large tracts of oil-bearing land. If NSDZ is implemented, Peren will not be out of it.

COAL

A dark truth

Meghalaya government ignores Central mining laws; communities lose coal to mining mafias

Coal dumping yard of mining baron Donush Siangshai in Ladrymbai village, East Jaintia Hills district of Meghalaya
Coal dumping yard of mining baron Donush Siangshai in Ladrymbai village, East Jaintia Hills district of Meghalaya

RESIDENTS OF Meghalaya’s Umkyrpong village avoid any conversation on coal and forests with strangers. “You come to dorbar shnong (traditional village assembly) and we will tell you everything,” a resident tells Down To Earth.

The 200-odd families in this tiny village in East Jaintia Hills district claim that they own a hill. They had traditionally depended on its 70 hectares (ha) forest for firewood and other produce and grew paddy on parts of it with approval from the village council. In 2010, some people from the village approached the Jaintia Hills Autonomous District Council (ADC) for individual pattas (land titles) over the forest. ADC is a democratically elected body that represents tribal people in states like Meghalaya, governed under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. The village council filed a petition requesting the ADC not to issue pattas over community land. The ADC, however, issued pattas over the entire forest to 13 individuals, saying it received a letter from the village council withdrawing its objections.

In response to queries under the Right To Information (RTI) ACT filed by the village council, ADC produced approval letters and receipt of the notice of titles from the village council bearing signatures of its headman and secretary. The village council alleges that the documents were forged. Everybody in the village knows that the then headman Phamles Manar is illiterate. RTI responses revealed that on the same day the titles were issued, the 13 individuals had sold the forest to Donush Siangshai, a coal baron. It did not take much time for Umkyrpong residents to realise that their forest has been grabbed for coal mining.

Umkyrpong village council then moved the High Court of Meghalaya against ADC officials, the 13 land buyers and Siangshai. On May 21 this year, the court termed the landholding certificates illegal.

“(Because of ban on rathole mining) those engaged in mining for more than half a century stand uprooted”

—Vincent Pala, MP from Meghalaya, in a private Bill in Lok Sabha in July 2014

Unkyrpong is not the only village where coal barons have grabbed community land. The genesis of such conflicts lies in the state’s vast reserves of fine quality coal—576 million tonnes that alone can drive the state’s economy for 10 years—spreading horizontally under the hills in the form of narrow seams. Extracting coal from these seams through open cast mining is economically unviable. This gave birth to an indigenous method, rat-hole mining. People dig up to 50-metre-deep pits on the hills till the coal seam is reached. From there horizontal tunnels are made through which a miner crawls to dig out coal. Till recently, the state and the Centre had exempted such mining from any regulation because of its apparent small-scale nature and the traditional rights of indigenous communities over their land and resources.

Coal mafias and the elites in the community took advantage of this exemption. Coal production in the state increased from 3.3 million tonnes in 1995-96 to about 6 million tonnes in 2009-10, show data based on royalty received by the government. Trade insiders say the actual production could be three times more.

Most people in East Jaintia Hills are farmers. They had stayed away from rat-hole coal mining due to lack of capital and because of its labour-intensive and hazardous nature, according to the Status of Adivasis/Indigenous Peoples (SAIP) Mining Series on Meghalaya, a 2014 report coordinated by a group of scholars working on tribal rights across the country.

“Since the state does not have proper records of land titles or deeds and customary practices, dubious land deals became the order of the day. Community-owned land became easy targets,” says H H Mohrmen, a pastor and environmentalist in Jowai. Individuals and communities selling off land to coal mafias, willingly or unwillingly, is a well-known practice in the state. “In many cases, the miners just buy coal below the land by making a one-time payment and tell the land owners that the top soil belongs to them,” says a Jowai-based journalist. This led to massive conflicts over land in heavily coal-mined areas like East Jaintia Hills.

“Communities didn’t benefit from rat-hole mining. District councils, state and Centre could have set up a mechanism for sharing profits with them”

—Shilpa Chohan, Supreme Court lawyer

“Till 10 years ago, it was a peaceful region. Now, it has become a war-zone,” says a police official at Khleriaht police division. Following the orders of the Meghalaya high court, three battalions of police have been deployed inside the forests in coal-bearing areas.

Rat-hole mining had another downside. Earlier this year, the All Dimasa Students’ Union of the adjoining Dima Hasao district of Assam filed a petition before the National Green Tribunal (NGT) that acidic water from the mines and coal dump yards in East Jaintia Hills was polluting rivers downstream. Several studies, including those by government agencies, established this, following which in April this year NGT banned rat-hole mining. It has asked the state to propose a scientific mining plan for coal.

The initial reaction of coal barons and several politicians was that the NGT order infringes on the customary practices of communities. Vincent Pala, an MP from Meghalaya, introduced a private bill in the Lok Sabha in July this year that sought limiting jurisdiction of NGT. Pala argued that the ban on rat-hole mining has jeopardised livelihoods of people.

But the fact is all these years the state government had illegally allowed mining in tribal areas.

Wilful blindness

Unlike Nagaland, where Article 371-A states that national laws concerning land and its resources would not apply to the state unless the Assembly ratifies it, Meghalaya, a Sixth Schedule state, can be exempted from national laws only if the President issues a notification to this effect, says Shilpa Chohan, a Supreme Court lawyer.

But Meghalaya never sought President’s notification. “Without it, all national laws related to mining, environment and labour are applicable to the state,” says Chohan. As per the Coal Nationalisation Act, coal is under the Centre’s control and can be extracted only after receiving mining leases from the state government and forest and environment clearances from the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. In response to queries under the Right To Information (RTI) Act by Shillong-based non-profit Samrakshan Trust, the state government and Union coal ministry admitted that all national mining laws were applicable in Meghalaya.

While the state kept its eyes shut from regulating mining, it did not use provisions of the Sixth Schedule to protect communities from land alienation by the powerful people and the non-natives nor did it provide them benefits from coal mining. “The income generated from coal mining and its distribution remains highly skewed,” says the SAIP report. Many villages do not have basic facilities like electricity, roads and safe drinking water, it notes.

FORESTS

Losing track

Governments in the Northeast frame policies to subvert community rights over forests. In many cases these policies benefit companies

Communities own and control one-third of the 1.9 million hectares of forest that cover most parts of Mizoram (Photo: Surya Sen)
Communities own and control one-third of the 1.9 million hectares of forest that cover most parts of Mizoram (Photo: Surya Sen)

WHAT Coal has done to community forests in Meghalaya, oil palm seems to be doing in Mizoram. Since 2005, the Mizoram government has been implementing an ambitious programme of the Centre, Palm Oil Development Programme (PODP), that aims to catapult India from being an importer of oil palm to being self-sufficient in the wonder crop. After all, oil palm is in demand for everything, right from making vegetable oils and biodiesel to soaps and cosmetics.

While several of the 12 states under PODP struggle to meet the annual targets of oil palm cultivation due to land scarcity and competition from other crops, Mizoram has managed to substantially expand the area under oil palm, at times beyond its annual targets. Of the 101,000 hectares (ha) it plans to bring under the crop, it has already covered 19,000 ha.

What’s striking is most areas brought under oil palms are community forests on which Mizo tribes have practised jhum, a slash-and-burn shifting cultivation. These tribes own and manage at least one-third of the 1.9 million ha of forests in the state. The Sixth Schedule of the Constitution that governs tribal areas in the Northeast is meant to protect their traditional practices. But the state holds jhum responsible for deforestation and land degradation and has been trying to end it since 1980s. With PODP in hand, it has meticulously drafted a policy that will not only help curb jhum but promote oil palm. On the face of it, the New Land Use Policy (NLUP), 2011 aims to provide “sustainable income to farming families…by weaning them away from the destructive and unprofitable shifting cultivation practice.” Under the Centre-funded policy, farmers receive Rs 100,000 as one-time support for giving up jhum and opting for plantations such as cashew, banana and oil palm. High subsidies to oil palm under PODP make it lucrative than the other crops.

By pushing oil palm plantations, Mizoram seems to be effectively abolishing the traditional community forestry management systems, which has been on the wane. Under the systems, the traditional village assembly identifies forest land around the village for jhum and allots it to families for a year. Size of the land depends on the need of the family and its capacity to cultivate. This system ensures that no tribal remains landless. Under NLUP, the government undermines this traditional right of the village assembly and allots patta (land title) to individuals who take up permanent cultivation on jhum land. “In many cases, contractors or businessmen from distant towns bag the land titles,” says an Aizawl-based journalist.

“The jhum cycle has reduced from 10-15 years earlier to 2-3 years. If we don’t curb the practice now, the forests will be destroyed in 20 years”

—James Lalrinchhana, Secretary, New Land Use Policy Implementation Board, Mizoram

At the same time, the government is creating conducive business environment for palm oil companies. Between 2005 and 2006, it signed memoranda of understanding with Godrej Agrovet Ltd, Ruchi Soya Industries Ltd and Food, Fats & Fertilizers (3F) Ltd for palm oil production. It gave these companies exclusive rights over seven of its eight districts for procuring oil palm from farmers at a fixed price and offered each of them Rs 2.5 crore for setting up oil mills.

“Under this arrangement, even though a tribal farmer grows oil palm on his land, in practice it becomes captive plantation of the company. The arrangement undermines the farmers’ rights to sell the produce in open market,” says T R Shankar Raman of Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore.

Studies show expansion of oil palm has resulted in social and economic changes in tropical countries, says Umesh Srinivasan of the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru. Following an oil palm boom in Ghana in 1970, many non-native farmers leased or purchased community lands by bribing customary chieftains. Community-owned lands in Papua New Guinea are also being sold to people who have no customary birthrights in the region, says Srinivasan. In Indonesia, he adds, conflicts emerged between communities and oil palm companies over unequal benefit sharing and uncertain land tenure.

Monoculture plantations like oil palm can destroy the biodiversity of a region, says Raman, who has studied jhum in Mizoram for a decade. Jhum, though causes temporary deforestation, does not affect the biodiversity as much. “Today major criticism against jhum is that its cycle has reduced from 10-15 years to two to three years, which affects regeneration of forests. Plantations have decreased land availability for jhum, reducing its cycle,” Raman says. Oil palm may be economically rewarding but nobody takes into account ancillary services of jhum. Farmers not only grow rice, maize, vegetables and fruits on jhum farms, they harvest bamboo, bamboo shoots and firewood from the patch during fallow period, Raman informs.

Manipur, Arunachal toe the line

In Manipur, 70 per cent of the forests are traditionally owned and managed by tribal communities. But these community forests are categorised as Unclassified State Forests (USFs) in government records. The government has proposed the New Land Use Policy, 2014, which aims to bring the entire recorded forest area in the state under “undisturbed” forest cover and joint forest management (JFM) without considering the traditional use of the forest land. Under JFM, the forest department ropes in communities for forest management but retains it control over forest.

“Monoculture plantations like oil palm can destroy the biodiversity of a region and permanently alter its ecosystem”

—T R Shankar Raman, Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore

Taking a step ahead, Arunachal Pradesh is drafting a law that empowers the forest department to bring almost any kind of land, including traditional community forests, under its control.

Traditional community forests account for 60 per cent of the 5.1 million ha of forests in the state. But just like Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh has categorised these forests as USFs and put them in the list of government-controlled forests. To make matters worse, the government is now hammering out the draft Arunachal Pradesh Forest Act, 2014, which will allow any land on which “no person has acquired either permanent heritable and transferable right of use or occupancy under any law for the time being in force” to be converted into “reserved forests”. Since there is no record of customary rights of communities over their forest land, community forests can be considered as “government property” and converted into reserved forests, says tribal rights activist Madhu Sarin. This will restrict activities of communities in their homeland. The proposed law has also provisions for acquiring private land and “waste land” and notifying them as reserved and protected forests. It seems the government intends to bring every category of land under its control, says Sarin. The proposed law bars people from collecting forest produce from USFs. Since, most customary lands have been recorded as USFs, this will imply a major infringement of customary rights, she adds.

The Centre’s Forest Rights Act, 2006, recognises traditional rights of forest communities. But the state has been dragging its feet over implementing the Act. Last year, it informed the Union tribal affairs ministry that FRA does not have much relevance in the state because most of the forests belong to communities whose territories are identified by natural boundaries. Such clarity is missing from the proposed forest law. Following objections by community leaders and academicians, the forest department has constituted two committees to carry out a “wider consultation” on the draft law.

Habitat Rights

SC puts an end to OMC’s bid to mine Niyamgiri

Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A three-judge bench of the Supreme Court on May 6 rejected Odisha government-owned miner, Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC)’s petition for conducting gram sabhas for the second time for mining in the Niyamgiri hills, putting an end over the speculation that mining may be resumed in the sacred hills of the primitive tribe, the Dongria Kondhs.

Earlier on April 18, a Supreme Court bench hearing the petition filed by OMC to start the mining of bauxite in these hills, had asked the Odisha government to get clearances from 12 gram sabhas in the two districts of Rayagada and Kalahandi. However, these gram sabhas had opposed the joint venture between OMC and UK-based mining giant Vedanta Group citing that the Niyamgiri hills were sacred for the Dongria Kondh tribals. The state government has made a fresh move to mine bauxite which is to be supplied to the Lanjigarh alumina refinery owned by Vedanta from the Niyamgiri hills in Kalahandi and Rayagada districts nearly three years after gram sabhas rejected the proposal. Following the Supreme Court order, the gram sabhas unanimously reiterated their opposition to the mining.

On May 6, a bench headed by Justice Ranjan Gogoi dismissed the petition saying OMC could approach appropriate fora against the decision of the gram sabhas.

According to Bhubaneshwar-based activist, Prafulla Samantray, who has been closely associated with the movement, the judgement is a decisive victory for the Dongria Kondhs who have been opposing mining right from the beginning. “This is the end of the road for those who were eyeing on mining in the Niyamgiris,” he added.

Baigas get home

Living in the dense sal forests of Maikal Hills, where streams intersect their homesteads, the Baigas in Dindori district of Madhya Pradesh have gained the right to their habitat. This is for the first time habitat rights have been given under the Forest Rights Act of 2006. For the Baigas, it is a Pyrrhic victory that has come after a struggle for more than a century.

Habitat rights go beyond the individual and community rights conferred under the Act. They aim to protect not just land rights and livelihoods of the people living in forests, but encompass their whole culture and way of life. These are composite rights over larger landscapes covering multiple villages that recognise territories used by vulnerable tribes and pre-agricultural communities for habitations, livelihoods, social, spiritual, cultural and other purposes.

The Baiga community is one of the 75 particularly vulnerable tribal groups, or PVTGs, who are eligible to get habitat rights under the Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, also known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA). Over the years, increasing state control over forests and diversion of forest land for development and conservation have seriously threatened these forest communities.

Although gazette notifications dating back to 1890 provided the basis for giving habitat rights to the Baigas, the administration, activists, experts and community leaders were clueless about implementing such rights. The forest department’s reluctance to relax its control over forests only made it difficult. Even when the FRA enshrined this right in the law, in the absence of guidelines to implement these rights no one is sure of how to go about it.

The definition of the habitat rights was incorporated through an amendment in the FRA in 2012. As per the amendment, the district level committee under the Act shall ensure that all PVTGs receive habitat rights, in consultation with the concerned traditional institutions of these groups, after filing claims before the gram sabha.

Participatory exercises to help the Baigas claim habitat rights began in 2013. “The exercise we conducted was to determine the habitat zone of the tribe, crops they grow, their cultural beliefs,” says Nirmal Joshi, Prime Minister’s rural development fellow, who is attached to the Dindori district collectorate to oversee the implementation of habitat rights.

District Collector Chhavi Bhardwaj held the first meeting with activists and Baiga members to recognise the rights in November 2014. Naresh Biswas, a forest rights activist in the region, says that to explain their habitat, the Baigas used the example of a tiger’s territory. Tigers roam a large area in a forest when they hunt, one of the tribals pointed out, adding that when national parks are created that whole area becomes the habitat of the tiger, not just its dwelling, which could be a cave. When the collector was convinced, a mapping exercise was undertaken in which villagers were asked to prepare their own maps. These maps were overlaid on the ones prepared with the help of GPS locators.

Community members and activists allege that the forest department opposed the claims to habitat rights. Initially, they did not even come to the meetings organised by the district collectorate, says Ujiyar Singh Dhurve, peoples’ represen- tative in the Zilla Parishad.

After three years of research, consulta- tion and mapping, it was in November 2015 that the authorities began handing over legal titles. Bhardwaj told Down To Earth that the right has been granted over 9,300 hectares (ha) to about 900 families in seven villages (see ‘Habitat, legally’).

However, in selecting these villages the district administration relied on a notification passed by the British in 1890. The notification recognised seven villages in the region as having limited rights over the forest. This area was called Baiga Chak. Today the Baiga territory is spread over 52 villages in the Samnapur block of Dindori. “If we were to really consider the area of the Baigas, it would begin in Achamakmar forests in Chhattisgarh to Amarkantak in Madhya Pradesh, an expanse that would include forests like Kanha,” says Ramesh Sharma, convenor of Ekta Parishad, a non-profit based in Chhattisgarh that works on tribal rights. “However, for the authorities that was not possible. This is still a small victory for the community.”

A history of persecution

The recognition of Baiga Chak came after several attempts by the British to remove the community from the forests. Historical accounts show the British were in desperate need of teak to build railways and ships, and the Baigas were resisting felling of trees. Shifting cultivation or bewar done by the Baigas was outlawed as one of the measures to drive them out of these villages, says Sharma. “However, some officials realised that the Baigas were completely dependent on forests and led a simple life, even as the other part of the administration was busy seizing their farming tools—a practice that continued till the beginning of the 21st century,” adds Sharma.

Officials distribute title deeds and seek feedback on the implementation of FRA at a meeting in Rajni Sarai in January 2016
Officials distribute title deeds and seek feedback on the implementation of FRA at a meeting in Rajni Sarai in January 2016

With the recognition of Baiga Chak, the community was allowed to practice bewar within the seven villages. But the recognition was short-lived. By 1927, the British government formed a new law related to transportation and collection of timber and forest produce, jeopardising the Baigas.

Ironically, after participatory exercises for habitat rights, the administration has come to appreciate shifting cultivation that protected and enriched soil. It involves mixed cropping of up to 18 varieties of grains, vegetables and mushrooms.

Wrong twist in the right

When distributing the land titles the Dindori administration told the people they are free to enjoy their ancestral rights over land and forest, and even State cannot transfer any of their land for non-community uses without their consent. However, people are not convinced. According to Dhurve, the forest department has other plans. A working plan of the department seen by Down To Earth shows that the Madhya Pradesh government plans a tiger heritage corridor focusing on wildlife tourism in an area 600 km long and 80 km wide. This will uproot not only the seven villages recently accorded habitat rights but also 45 others where Baigas coexist with other tribes like the Gonds.

The proposed corridor will span the buffer zones and tourism areas in Jabalpur, Dindori and Mandla districts. While forest officials were not available to comment on the status of habitat rights, Joshi says the district administration is yet to take any decision on the corridor. “We are working closely with the forest department so that habitat rights are not violated when the corridor comes up. We have worked closely with the community so that they can assert these rights,” he says.

Lalla Singh, sarpanch of Ranjda village in the area, says 96 individual claims were settled in his village, while community forest rights have provided the village with 24.5 ha. “The efforts will go waste if the wildlife corridor is allowed,” he adds.

Long way to go

Dindori district officials say the granting of habitat rights is still in an experimental stage. Interpretation of habitat rights under the FRA varies in languages. While the English interpretation uses the expansive meaning of the word “habitat” under Section 3 (e) of the Act, the Hindi inter- pretation, largely used in title deed, restricts the meaning of habitat to “gruh” meaning home and “awaas” meaning dwelling.

In case of habitat rights given to the Baigas, the Dindori administration used Section 3 (i) of the FRA, which, according to experts, is nothing but community forest rights. Although the title deed states that the Baigas have a right to habitat in collecting forest produce, cultivation near their homesteads and fishing, Section 3 (i) refers to a community’s right to regenerate and manage its forests. “Ideally, the district administration should have conferred these rights under Section 3 (e) which are rights to community tenures of habitat,” says Venkat Ramanujam Ramani, a scholar with the non-profit Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, who is studying the Baiga habitat. “In effect, this means the government can potentially divert the rest of the forest (not mentioned in the title deeds) for other purposes.”

Most crucial is understanding what constitutes a habitat and lay down clear-cut guidelines for recognising habitat rights. While the Union tribal affairs ministry has commissioned a study to gain clarity on these matters, the report is yet to be published. But the trickle has started. A couple of other tribal communities, such as the Sahariyas in Madhya Pradesh and the Kutia Kondh in Odisha, have taken their first steps to claim their habitats.

Ten years of FRA

A report card

Of THE 4.4 million claims consisting of individual and community forest rights filed, only 2 million titles were given in 19 states till October 2015, according to official data. This means close to 47 per cent of the claims were rejected. Except Assam, north-eastern states say the FRA has minimal relevance in view of the customary laws that protect their people and forests. Uttarakhand and Goa have not been able to implement the law. The Uttarakhand government has an amusing excuse: the state had elections in 2012, so it could not notify any measure as “there was a model conduct of elections in force”. Goa blamed opposition from Other Backward Castes.

According to a preliminary assessment of community and individual forest rights by the US group Rights and Resources Initiative and Odisha-based non-profit Vasundhara in July 2015, at least 150 million forest-dwelling people have had their rights recognised over at least 40 million hectares (ha) of forest land in over 170,000 villages.

Community forest rights (CFR), which also reflect tribal land-owning patterns, have not received much thrust. For these rights, 40,269 gram panchayats have received titles for 870,711 ha till October 2015. This includes 2,148 titles for 28,438 ha to collect community forest resource.

This is when the national census and the Forest Survey of India show that half of India’s forests fall within the definition of CFR under FRA. “But barely 1.2 per cent of this area has been recorded and (rights) recognised,” says Arvind Khare, executive director of Rights and Resources Initiative working on forest rights. Potential CFR recognition could be from 7.72 million ha to 11.4 million ha. In contrast, since 1980 1.2 million ha of forest area has been diverted for mining, dams and other industrial projects, says environment minister Prakash Javadekar.

Threats to food security

A woman dries mahua flowers (Photo: Reuters)
A woman dries mahua flowers (Photo: Reuters)

I have noticed that conservation work in tribal India is most difficult in well-forested areas. When people have good forests, from which they can procure food, construction material, medicine and ingredients for fashioning their articles of utility (baskets, mats and traps), they would want little else, especially from the state or the non-state organisations that tend to worry about them or the protection of their forests.

Much of this tribal indifference, which really is independence, to the various schemes inflicted upon them stems from the fact that they are able to find sufficient food in their forests.

One often hears a forest guard or a road contractor complain that it is very difficult to get labour in tribal areas, where villages are full of people but nobody wants to work. They usually say, “The tribals have nothing to do, but they will not come and earn some money.” When one has a guaranteed source of tasty and high-quality food, for free, why would one wish to go and break stones by the roadside and be shouted at?

One way of categorising wild foods gathered for subsistence is through their importance for people’s survival. Some are exclusively famine foods (leaves of celosia and bidens, usually regarded as weeds), some are seasonal (bamboo shoots during monsoon), some are occasional (bamboo seeds during the periodic flowering), some are collected routinely as a staple (various yams and greens) and some may be delicacies (such as the larvae of Vespid wasps). Wild foods are gathered from a variety of landscapes, including agricultural and pastoral, by a wide range of people not restricted to hunter-gatherer communities. A study by Zareen Bharucha and Jules Pretty, researchers in sustainable agriculture at the University of Essex (published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, August 2010), documented 90 to100 species in 22 countries in Africa and Asia..

Variety of fish
Variety of fish

Some of these foods can thrive in degraded environments. Over-exploitation does not have any obvious negative impact (such as weeds and rodent pests in an agricultural field), while some are sensitive to unregulated harvest. It is necessary to know how communities go about collecting wild foods: whether there are implicit regulations in their tradition; whether they recognise the space (degraded lands, forests, swidden fallows, rice fields, sacred groves) from which foods are gathered; whether there are any specific ways in which foods are processed or stored before consumption.

Two important factors in wild food foraging are the skills (when and how certain fish and frogs are collected) and the tools required to procure the food (traps and specific fibres for ladders).

Mushrooms
Mushrooms

People should also be able to identify food species correctly which is possible through a flow of knowledge between generations. Usually such circumstances exist when a community’s traditions with regard to forest use is more or less extant. Though this situation is rarely encountered in the country today, there are communities across central India much of whose food comes from the wild (see “A fiery delicacy from the tribes of central India” on p50). When traditional knowledge is not passed down from one generation to the next, or when certain raw materials become scarce, the amount of wild food a community is able to gather and consume declines. This shows immediately in a society’s health, despite the supply of foodgrains in sufficient quantity. Incidences of anaemia, piles and diabetes across rural and tribal India are on the rise, indicating high levels of starch and lack of iron and roughage in their diets.

Wild food collection is a strategy among all sections of people, whichever ecological, economic or social zone they inhabit; these foods are especially important for the poorest households. Agro-ecosystems that have been simplified by monocultures have had the greatest impact on the poor; as agricultural systems change, the pressure on wild food availability increases. In many areas across rural India, especially in Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, vast tracts are now under cash crops. As corn is lumped together with other coarse grains (sorghum, millet, barley), the increase in coarse grain production is due to the corn and not because of an increase in sorghum or millet production. According to the Global Agricultural Information Network, corn has shown “a steady upward trend due to continuous expansion in area under hybrids, currently estimated to be around 60 per cent”.

The network states that millet and sorghum “are also facing competition from other crops such as cotton, soybean and pulses in several states” (see “Swamped by cash crops”). In Bolangir district in Odisha, people in villages at the foot of the Gandhamardhan Hills, famed for its forest and medicinal plants, seldom went to dig yam earlier. But in one house, they had not eaten yams in four years. There are few fish in the streams due to the run-off of pesticides used to grown cotton. A similar situation prevails in adjacent Bastar region in Chhattisgarh, where the predominant crop is corn. In some countries, the response to such change has been to domesticate some wild food species in house gardens or degraded lands near villages.

Wild foods, often found in agricultural or forest landscapes, represent a “hidden” or “free” complement to whatever crops are cultivated. These hidden foods fill in the gaps in micronutrients, especially zinc, iron and various vitamins that are often missing or found in insufficient quantities in the staple foods of people. After the Green Revolution, which increased cereal crops in quantities large enough to have surpluses, there was also a simultaneous loss in diet diversity. Cereal-based diets were lower in zinc; there were shifts to higher pH soils; phosphorous-based fertilisers decreased zinc uptake and nitrogen-based fertilisers reduced the translocation of this essential metal from leaves to seeds.

Verugul kuccha (Celastrus sp.)The Green Revolution has also affected biodiversity as it focussed on finding high-yield varieties of only a few crops, essentially rice and wheat. As a result, there have been no productivity-enhancing technology as far as coarse grains are concerned. The response to emergencies, such as famines, has been to cut down on agricultural and biological diversity. Much of the mainstream research on agriculture as well as forestry still concentrates on cereal crops, timber or medicine; little attention is given to the bulk of plant and animal products harvested for food from lands and forests inhabited by indigenous communities.

An important but overlooked aspect of wild foods is their documentation as “indicators”, their ability to point to changes in microclimates, in the ecosystem, of water-tables, or of the availability of honey from a particular forest. In central India, a preliminary survey by this author noted about 400 species of plants and animals used as food.

The threats to wild foods are many. There are issues like loss of forest cover, mining and the expansion of hybrid crops; there are also less obvious reasons such as migration among the rural youth, depletion of resources like bamboo, protected areas where people are denied access, the distribution of subsidised foodgrains and the uncritical popularisation of fast foods. These are all direct threats to people’s food security, none of which are even remotely hinted at in the National Food Security Act. We are told that political parties moved more than 200 amendments to the Bill. How one wishes that such diversity is reflected in the freely available wild foods rather than in politically coloured opinions about the food Bill.

Madhu Ramnath is an ethnobotanist who works in Bastar

Vanishing from the wild

The global discourse on climate change and food mostly revolves around cultivated foods. The impact of climate change on species that grow in the wild and are used by tribal people or by those living close to forests is rarely studied. Research on wild, uncultivated food plants that are becoming extinct due to changing weather patterns is virtually absent.

“When I came to this house after marriage four decades ago, naltenga used to grow in abundance just outside. Now it is rare to find it even in the forest,” says Rashimoni, a sexagenarian living in Assam’s Muktiar Ajarbari Hazong village. Naltenga or Passiflora assamica is a wild edible plant with a sour taste. Small fish cooked with its leaves is a local delicacy. Kolakosu and dhekia xaak plants, says Rashimoni, are also becoming difficult to find in the wild. So much so, that they have started growing these in their kitchen garden.

Rashimoni is not alone in noticing this trend. K K Baruah, professor at the Department of Environmental Science, Tezpur University, has observed that many of these plants are on the verge of extinction. “Climate change has caused variations in the flowering and growth of these plants,” Baruah says.

Erratic rainfall and temperature leading to forest degradation, coupled with changes in land use, are causing many leafy vegetables and medicinal plants to disappear, says Harisha R P, research associate at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bengaluru. He gives the example of tribal communities in Karnataka’s Male Mahadeshwara Hills wildlife sanctuary. It has been documented, he says, that these people traditionally used 122 wild plants species. “Now they use only 88 species and the remaining 34 are becoming rare. Around 12 herbaceous species which were a major source of leafy vegetables have disappeared due to low rainfall, invasion of lantana and forest degradation,” he says.

Many varieties of wild edible mushrooms found in Odisha, like amba chhatu and bali chhatu, are becoming rare because of erratic rainfall. The production of wild edible varieties of jackfruit, mango, tamarind and mushrooms has declined by 25-30 per cent in Rayagada district of Odisha, says Salome Yesudas, a food and nutrition scientist who has worked with the tribal people.

A study published in The Lancet in March 2016 says that climate change will lead to per-person reductions of 3.2 per cent in global food availability and be associated with 529,000 deaths worldwide by 2050. In such times, wild food plants could help bridge the hunger gap, but these delicacies too are disappearing.

Carlo Petrini, founder and president, Slow Food International, a global network headquartered in Italy that works on local food cultures and biodiversity, says that these species are “very vulnerable” to climate change. Each region has its own local food tradition linked to the climate and the environment, he says. If even one of these is affected, the others will slowly change, leading to the development of new products which are adapted to the new environmental conditions, he warns, adding, “what was known in the past will be lost.”

Source: compiled from various sources

Petrini cites the example of Brazil where climate change has contributed to prolonged absence of rains and the loss of vegetation in desert areas in the northeast of the country. “As a consequence, the production of honey is now at a serious risk, particularly the honey produced by the mandaçaia bee (Melipona mandaçaia), and the munduri bee.”

Similarly, some fish species, like the pacamã which is native to the São Francisco river, have almost disappeared. In Angola, the drying of pastures has made life difficult for semi-nomadic ethnic groups such as Mucubal, Cavelocamue and Bibala. The survival of their livestock breeds and the dairy products are, therefore, at risk. Angola’s biodiversity has also been hit by climate change, claims Petrini. Maungo, a moth whose caterpillar is an important source of protein and income for rural communities, is on the verge of extinction.

India at risk

India is particularly vulnerable to this risk, considering 27 per cent of its population depends on non-timber forest produce for subsistence and income. “This dependence is particularly intense for half of India’s 89 million tribal people, the most disadvan-taged section of society, who live in forest fringe areas,” says a 2014 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization. These tribal and rural households, which are dependent on wild foods, risk losing nutrition, health, medicine and economic stability.

The country can take its cue from various global efforts to protect the biodiversity in food. For instance, Slow Food International has an initiative called Ark of Taste which catalogues over 2,500 products that run the risk of extinction. The aim is to point out the existence of these foods, draw attention to the risk of their extinction and invite everyone to take protective action. Similarly, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, a specialised agency of the United Nations, has launched an initiative called Recipes for Change to study the impact of climate change on traditional products and encourage small-scale farmers to adapt to it. Launched in December 2014, the initiative involves celebrity chefs who travel to rural areas and cook with local ingredients that are endangered by climate change.

Another example is Brazil which issued an ordinance on socio-biodiversity in May 2016 to support nutritionally important native species and make their cultivation attractive for small landholders.

“Wild food plants need places to grow. If we destroy nature around us, we won’t have any left, except the most tenacious ones that tolerate and even thrive in urban environments. Nature is very adaptable, but sometimes we change the environ ment so much that we don’t give it a fair chance,” sums up US-based ethnobotanist Joseph Simcox.

The story was published in the 1-15 August, 2016 issue of Down To Earth magazine.

Recognising Indigenous people

‘Most countries don’t want to recognise indigenous people as people’

Mohammed Taghi Farvar, former director of Avicenna University in Iran, is a well-known ecologist and social scientist. At present, he is the president of Indigenous Peoples’ and Community Conserved Areas and Territories (ICCAs) Consortium and is a member of the Council of Elders of the Union of Indigenous Nomadic Tribes of Iran. He belongs to Shahsevan indigenous nomadic tribal confederacy. He spoke to M Suchitra on how the rights of indigenous people and their traditional knowledge remains largely unprotected in spite of international treaties. Some excerpts:

What do you think about CBD’s attitude towards indigenous and local communities?

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is a a legally-binding international treaty. All countries, except the US, have not only signed it but have also ratified it. The parties to the Convention are supposed to make legal framework in compliance with the treaty.

In 2004, in the seventh Conference of Parties (CoP 7), the Programme of Work on Protected Areas (POWPA) was approved and it has a section—Governance, Equity, Participation and Benefit Sharing in Protected Areas. Every state was required to report by 2008 what it has done about giving the indigenous people the rights over protected areas. But almost all of the states have simply not complied with that. Why? Just because they didn’t want to do it. Every country which is a party to the CBD is supposed to form a National Biodiversity Action Plan and they need to protect traditional knowledge of indigenous people and local communities. But the parties are simply not doing it. The problem with CBD is that compliance is very weak. No proper assessment and reviews are done.

Let me point out another thing. The very terminology, “Indigenous and Local Communities (ILC)”, is wrong. It should be Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLC). CBD is the only international convention which uses ILC instead of ILPC. Organisations of indigenous people are fighting against this. See, my badge. It’s ILC.

Does it make much difference if we say indigenous and local communities?

Yes, a lot. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the UN general assembly in 2007, recognises that indigenous peoples have the rights to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions, while retaining their right to participate fully, if they so choose, in the political, social, economic and cultural life of the state. When you replace the word people with communities their legal rights are taken away. If CBD uses the word people, then there are certain rights the Parties will be legally bound to give to the indigenous people. But if they use the term community, then they can bring them under the rules and dominance of the state. The communities will be absolutely subjected to the control and dominance by the state. Most of the countries don’t want to recognise the indigenous people as people.

But is there consensus on this among the parties to the CBD?

Well, I feel, a few parties can obstruct this. They are simply anti-indigenous people. When the United Nations declared the rights of indigenous people, Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand had opposed it and cast their vote against the declaration. These were all countries occupied by the Westerners. They occupied the land of the original inhabitants. They simply did not want to recognise the rights of the indigenous people.

But didn’t they apologise later?

Yes. They apologised. First, Australia expressed its apology. New Zealand followed suit. Canada also did the same. Finally, the US was forced to change its stance, too, and recognise the rights of indigenous people. But when it comes to the implementation, where is the commitment? Where is the compliance with CBD? Your government, my government and all other governments are no different.

Indian ministers repeatedly highlighted India enacting the Forest Rights Act as evidence to its commitment to indigenous people?

Yes, it’s a kind of compliance. That’s true. But when India creates a national park or a protected area, does the Indian government consult the indigenous people and local communities who have been living there for generations or bother to take their prior informed consent? Do all the existing national parks in India have the participation of the original owners in the management of the parks? Do they get forcibly evicted? Is the legislation being implemented properly?

What do you feel about the present Access-Benefit Sharing mechanism?

The ABS Protocol http://www.cbd.int/abs/ gives the powers to the governments not to indigenous people and local communities. It says the rights or benefits for indigenous people and local communities shall be there in accordance with the national laws. Governments think they can decide everything for the indigenous people. Some countries out of goodness of their heart or out of pressure from indigenous people and local communities might have made laws recognising traditional knowledge and protecting it. But on ground everybody is stealing traditional knowledge. Government’s role should be to protect the resources and traditional knowledge rather than to insist on capturing even the last frontiers of the indigenous people.

But then, the UN is a collaboration of governments, not a collaboration of nations or people (laughs). Most of the time, governments unite against their people. It’s an artificial colonial construct. It’s high time that we dissolved the UN system and find something better. May be United People’s Organisation.

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