Nearly 250 million people in India depend on forests to survive. They include Indigenous Peoples or Adivasi, the collective name for India’s ‘Scheduled Tribes.’ The Adivasi have struggled for centuries against colonial-era forest laws. These laws fostered centralized government control of forests and led to their dispossession and criminalization, loss of cultural identity, and conflict. In 2006, the Government of India passed the Forest Rights Act (FRA) to redress these historical injustices. The FRA has the potential to catalyze one of the largest public land reforms in the world, which would transform the lives and restore the dignity of India’s poorest peoples.
Currently, about 23% of India is classified as forestland. The FRA recognizes Adivasi and forest dwellers customary rights to use forestlands. Moreover, it sets out Community Forest Resource rights that empower village assemblies to govern and manage community forests. Full implementation could secure more than 32 million hectares of forest claimed by 150 million tribal and forest-dwelling people living in 170,000 villages. (See map below.) Implementation could make a major difference for Adivasi women, who are frequently criminalized and repressed. Under the Act, female and male heads of households can hold joint title to forestlands claimed individually, and all adult men and women are members of the village assemblies, known as ‘Gram Sabhas.’ Implementation could also have a positive impact on the environment and enable some of India’s poorest communities to lead their own economic development. Communities that have already obtained their forest rights under the Act are now restoring degraded forests, protecting biodiversity, and earning substantial incomes from bamboo and other forest products.
Unfortunately, resistance and low capacity in government institutions, as well as a lack of awareness of their rights among Adivasi and forest dwellers’ communities, are impeding implementation of the FRA. Barely 3% of potential rights holders have been recognized. These communities are primarily located in areas where civil society organizations have catalyzed the process of recognition of collective rights under the FRA.
In 2018, the Indian School of Business (ISB), the research and policy advocacy group Vasundhara, and the Society for Rural, Urban and Tribal Initiative (SRUTI) began supporting India’s Adivasi and forest dweller communities to secure their community forest rights under the Act. This Tenure Facility-funded initiative capitalizes on political will, grassroots mobilization, and civil society capacity in the states of Odisha, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh. (See maps below.)
The project aims to secure the rights of 5,000 villages over 1 million hectares of community forestland, and build the awareness, capacity, and momentum needed to upscale across the country. In addition, the initiative will collect and evaluate data, and create an online portal for sharing information about Forest Rights Act implementation and community forest governance. It will also engage with the private sector to build awareness of the business case for clear tenure rights and support for implementing the Act.
Through this initiative, the partners aim to upscale collective forest rights recognition across the country. The initiative will also help restore degraded forests, improve livelihoods, conserve biodiversity, reduce community vulnerability to climate change, and achieve India’s commitment to sequester 2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent.