Los­ing track

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

Down to Earth - - COVER STORY -

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 onethird 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 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

"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"

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

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.

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 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 TR 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.

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.

SURYA SEN / CSE

Com­mu­ni­ties own and con­trol one-third of the 1.9 mil­lion hectares of for­est

that cover most parts of Mi­zo­ram

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