Sundarban, West Bengal – Public Consultation to implement Forest Rights Act, February 25-26

February 24, 2011

Organized by Sundarban Banadhikar Sangram Committee

The Sundarban Banadhikar Sangram Committee was formed last year to initiate the work of organising the forest-dependent people in the Sunderbans. The unity of these marginalised sections of the population are to work for the effective implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. Through popular campaigns the organisation is also raising the questions of the ownership of the common resources what is popularly known as the “commons”. Struggle against the appropriation of common resources by the Indian State, particularly those belonging to indigenous and the other marginalised communities, is a regular feature in the Indian political landscape. This has often led to violent confrontation. Resistance to privatisation of resources have been increasing and challenging the state’s role.But state has not stopped this appropriation process.

The Sunderbans lies across the outer deltas of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers. At 10,000, it forms the largest mangrove forest in the world, 40% in India, 60% in Bangladesh. The adjacent World Heritage sites in India and Bangladesh cover just over a quarter of its area. The forest is composed of small forested islands and mudflats intersected by a complex network of tidal waterways, and exemplifies the ecological processes of monsoon rain flooding, delta formation, tidal influence and plant colonisation.The area has a wide range of rare fauna, including the Bengal tiger, estuarine crocodile, Indian python and many reptiles and birds. In 1987, Sunderbans National Park in India was inscribed on the World Heritage List under Natural Criteria ix and x.

According to estimates, approximately 2.5 million people lived in small villages surrounding the Sunderbans in 1981 which by 1991 had increased to 3 million (Ministry of Environment & Forests, pers. comm.,1995). At nomination, some 35,330 people worked in the forest, 4,580 of whom collected timber and firewood, 1,350 collected honey and beeswax and 4,500 harvested the natural resources and 24,900 were fisher-folks and shrimp farmers.Today, the area provides a livelihood at some seasons of the year for an estimated 300,000 people. Local people are also dependent on the forests and waterways for firewood, charcoal, timber for boats and furniture, poles for house-posts and rafters, nypa palm thatch for roofing, grass for matting reeds for fencing, fish, crabs and shrimps taken for food.

Being a World Heritage Site, The Sunderbans are a strong fetish of the ‘conservationist’ lobby – whether Indian or global. There is every attempt to create ‘human-free wild life zones’ in the Sunderbans claiming that the Forest Rights Act will not apply to such areas. The government is acting hand in glove with such lobbyists. Strategies to conserve this forest and its biological resources are as old as the forest. Indigenous and local people have been nurturing the forests for centuries. But official narratives of the history of forest conservation very often skip the role of people living in or around the forest. The history of conservation of the Sundarbans is a subtext of the biography of nation state. It is a linear story from the days of the `wildernesses’ to Mogul Empire to British colonial rule to the formation of the Indian state. Therefore, the challenges to establish peoples’ rights over the forest or more specifically of the communities around the forest and dependent on it are immense.

A survey covering 1100 households was carried on by Sundarban Banadhikar Sangram Committee in the island of Kumirmari in December 2010 -January 2011. The findings reveal that due to lack of irrigation and added to the fact that the islands are surrounded with brackish water, agriculture is difficult in Sundarbans. It is for these reason that a huge number of people adjacent to the forest and many from the surrounding areas are traditionally dependent on the forest for their livelihoods. They engage in fishing, catching crabs and prawns, collecting honey, etc. Traditionally they have also engaged in foraging dry wood from the forst as fuel. Hetal (Phoenix paludosa) & Garan (Ceriops) for their thatching their roofs, etc. However, a large number of atrocities are cartried on by the guards and the officers of the Forest Department rendering the livelihood of the population in danger. The incidents are on an increase in the last couple of years harrasing poor people to forsake their livelihoods and leave towards the city in search of an insecure future. Moreover, the cyclone Aila in May 2009 has caused havoc in the area making agriculture, another important livelihood quasi-impossible.

The forest-people of the Sundarbans have embarked in a serious struggle before their rights are established. The struggles are primarily located in the following areas :

* Community Rights or rights over common resources of the communities in addition to their individual rights

* Rights in and over disputed land

* Right to protect, regenerate or conserve or manage any community forest resource which the communities have been traditionally protecting and conserving for sustainable use.

* Right to intellectual property and traditional knowledge related to biodiversity and cultural diversity.

* Rights of displaced communities.

It is in this context that a public consultation is organised at Gosaba, West Bengal to discuss, debate and decide on the strategies to facilitate a strong movement that would not only limit itself to challenge the local authorities and the forest odepartment but, to raise the questions effectively in order to question the hegemony of the Indian state over the natural resources.

We invite you to join the above consultation and also do seek your fullest collaboration, co-operation and solidarity in this struggle. We do not as well want to see this struggle in isolation but as a part of the larger struggle of forest workers and forest dwellers in India and globally. It is also opening a new chapter in the communities urge to challenge the existing paradigm of development which thrives on the appropriation of the common public resources for the benefit of capital.

The objectives of the proposed consultation are:

1. Building up the comprehensive strategy for effective implementation of FRA in such critical zone.
2. Strengthening the community leadership, focusing on women leadership
3. Building up of alliances local and broader level.

Venue: Gosaba Rural Energy Development (Near Sir Daniel Hamilton Estate Public Trust), Gosaba, South 24 Paragans, West BengalDate: February 25 & 26

Time: 10 am to 6 pm ( February 25) & 10 am to 4 pm ( February 26)

For details contact : Sushovan Dhar +91 98744 85935/94330 34134