Press Conference: Recognition of Forest Rights Act and its sabotage – rallies in North Bengal

January 9, 2008 update:

Friends,

You are well aware that a new act on forest rights and forest management, titled “Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006” had been passed by the Parliament of India on 18 December 2006.

It is a watershed event in the hard-fought and prolonged struggle of adivasis and other forest dwellers of the country. For the first time in the history of Indian forests, the state formally admits that rights have so long been denied to forest-dwelling people. The new forest law is expected to not only right that ‘historic injustice’ but also give forest communities’ role primacy in forest management.

After an inexplicable delay of more than twelve months the Government of India has finally notified “Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Rules, 2007” on 1 January 2008. In these 12 months adivasis in various forest areas of the state and the country have continued to be harassed, tortured and persecuted by the forest department and a host of other forces, who did not like the idea of India’s forest resources being controlled by the forest-dwellers.

Not paying any heed to this Central Act, completely illegal and underhand efforts were afoot to declare ‘human-free wild life zones’ across the country. Recently, the Forest Department of West Bengal has unilaterally notified two such areas in the Sunderbans and Buxa Tiger Reserve (North Bengal). Forest Department claims that the Forest Rights Act will not apply to such areas.

The forest communities of West Bengal expect that with notification of the Forest Rights Rules, this charade will now stop for example in places like Gajaldoba. It seems they have still a long way to go before their just rights are recognized. The Forest Rights Act still contains ambiguities and is incomplete. A lot needs to be done before the Act can be implemented on the ground.

We are surprised to see that neither the Government of West Bengal nor the main ruling party of the Left Front have said a single word about the Act as yet. People’s management of forests in this State is still conceptually related to the dubious Joint Forest Management, which is not covered in any law, and has no real space for people’s participation.

We demand

that the Government of West Bengal must start the implementation of the Forest Rights Act in right earnest, giving full primacy to the Gramsabhas, and not to the so-called JFM (Joint Forest Management) Committees formed by the Forest Department.

that the completely illegal notification for ‘inviolate’ critical tiger habitats in the Sunderbans and Buxa issued by the Government of West Bengal be immediately withdrawn.

that suitable amendments be made to the Forest Rights Act, to include the recommendations of the Joint Parliamentary Committee, and to ensure that all genuine forest-dwellers of the country come under it, and rights enshrined in the Act do not get in any way compromised by interference from, or by the whims of, State Government Officials.

National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers (NFFPFW) has started a Campaign in the forest areas of North Bengal, to demand immediate implementation of the Forest Rights Act. In each Forest Range and Sub-Division in the forest areas of North Bengal, demonstrations are being held right now. On 25th January 2008, thousands of people belonging to various forest communities of North Bengal will participate in a Rally at Siliguri.

We invite you to a Press Conference being held in Kolkata Press Club on Wednesday 9 January 2008 between 3 and 5pm, where leaders of forest movements from West Bengal, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Maharashtra, MP, Orissa, UP and Uttaranchal will explain these demands and speak about the ongoing campaign for forest rights. The Conference will also be attended by personalities like Mahasweta Devi, Debabrata Bandyopadhyay (retd. Land Revenue Commissioner) besides various other civil society representatives. Left trade union leaders and senior leaders of RSP and Forward Block are also expected to be present.

We reiterate that forest communities of India will continue their struggle for amendment and implementation of the Forest Rights Act as part of the broader struggle to conserve forests, and to defend their identity and livelihood, against attempts to put up India’s natural resources for sale.

With regards,

Shibo Sunuwar, National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers (NFFPFW)

Soumitra Ghosh, North Eastern Society for Preservation of Nature and Wild Life (NESPON)

Naba Dutta, General Secretary, Nagarik Mancha

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Event:

Nagarik Mancha and NFPFW invite you to a meeting at the Calcutta Press Club on Wednesday 9 January 2008 between 3pm and 5pm to discuss and to develop a strategy for a broader campaign for forest people’s rights.

Background:

A new act on forest rights and forest management, titled “The Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006” has been passed by the Parliament of India on 18th December 2006. It is a watershed event in the hard-fought and prolonged struggle of adivasis and other forest dwellers of the country.

For the first time in the history of Indian forests, the state formally admits that rights have so long been denied to forest dwelling people who had to suffer ever since their forests were taken over by the State.

Forest communities since long had been harassed, tortured, and persecuted by the state forest administration. The new forest law attempts not only to right that ‘historic injustice’ but also give forest communities’ role primacy in forest management.

The Government of India, however, has been trying to systematically sabotage the Act.

First it dropped crucial recommendations made by the Joint Parliamentary Committee. Then the Rules are being framed in such a manner so that the positive aspects of the Act gets diluted. The State Government, too, is ignoring the Act.

Some so-called wild life NGOs being run largely by the country’s elite, launched a malicious propaganda against the Forest Rights Act. These groups, and also mining/paper lobbies interested in control of forest resources, have been pressurizing the Government of India to withhold the Act, and not to notify it.

National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers (NFFPFW) has started a Campaign in the forest areas of North Bengal, to demand immediate implementation of the Forest Rights Act.

On 16th January 2007, people belonging to various forest communities of North Bengal will participate in a Rally in thousands. In each Forest Range and Sub-Division in the forest areas of North Bengal, demonstrations are being held right now.

How long will a Government that talks about people’s rights keep on betraying the interests of more than a crore of forest-dwellers? How long tribals and other forest dwellers will be treated as intruders, thieves and destroyer of national property in their own forests? We solicit your support in this Campaign which seeks to find an answer to these and many other questions.

We feel that there is an urgent need to broaden the social and political base of the forest movement. It is time that the civil society groups and mass organisations join hands with the forest movements in the Campaign.

We invite you to a meeting at the Calcutta Press Club on Wednesday 9 January 2007 between 3pm and 5pm to discuss these issues, and to develop a strategy for a broader campaign for forest people’s rights.

With regards

Shibo Sunuwar, National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers (NFFPFW)

Soumitra Ghosh, North Eastern Society for Preservation of Nature and Wild Life

Naba Dutta, General Secretary, Nagarik Mancha