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India's tribal village first to get rights over its forests

Dec 24, 2009

A tribal village in western India has been granted the right to cultivate and manage its forest, as per the provisions of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest-Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006. For over a decade the villagers have fought against the commercialisation of their land.

As climate change negotiators try and figure out how to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, a tribal hamlet in Maharashtra has shown the way

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This month the adivasi or tribal village of Mendha (or Mendha Lekha), in Gadchiroli district, Maharashtra, became the first village in the country to get a legal record of rights to manage its forests, water and forest produce under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest-Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006.   

The Act gives due recognition to the forest rights of tribal communities, including the right to live in the forest, to self cultivate, and to use minor forest produce. The gram sabha is empowered to initiate the process of determining the extent of forest rights that may be given to each eligible individual or family.

In Mendha, it is the community as a whole, not individuals, that is invested with the rights. The gram sabha, which includes one member of each of the 480 Gond adivasi families, makes all the decisions by consensus.

The most important decision it takes is regarding custodianship of the 1,800 hectares of surrounding forest. The village protested the felling of trees for commercial use way back in 1999.

It stopped ‘outsiders’ from entering its territory, laid down explicit forest conservation rules for its own people, and insisted that no government from Delhi or Mumbai could tell it how to use its own resources.

Mendha has another first to its credit. When the Biodiversity Act came into being, it became the first village to have a biodiversity register – a record of the biodiversity of its forests. Every household has a biogas stove.

The gram sabha is now considering ways in which it can turn minor forest produce like honey, amla and tendu, collected by the villagers, into a source of income generation.

“We are thinking of setting up self-help groups and cottage processing units in households,” says Devaji Topha, a former sarpanch, who played a crucial role in mobilising the villagers.

The manner in which the village has managed its affairs over the years lends credence to the belief that forest-dwelling communities, given the right inputs, can best manage their environment as they depend on it for their long-term survival.

The villagers may never have heard of the cantankerous negotiations on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) going on in the far away UN summit on climate change in Copenhagen. But they don’t need to. As Devaji Topha says: “Nature guides us,” not world leaders.

Several other villages are waiting to follow Mendha’s example and get their legal record of rights. However, each community has to file for its rights under the Act, and many tribal communities are ignorant of the process, which requires a lot of paperwork and eliciting of records held by government. The deadline for registration is December 31, 2009; activists and tribals are demanding more time to complete the process

Source : Infochange
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