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Forest dept shut out of woods

Citing provisions of Act,villagers claim they are guardians.

Written by Vivek Deshpande | Ghati,gadchiroli |
July 11, 2011 12:17:38 am

Over the last one year,villagers of Ghati in Gadchiroli have kept timber out of the forest department’s reach,saying it belongs to them under the provisions of the FRA,short for Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest-Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act.

The FRA recognises their rights only on non-timber minor forest produce but the villagers have interpreted it to include all trees. They say minor forest produces like mahua,tendu,berry,gum,edible fruits and roots grow on trees; hence no tree can be harvested. They also cite a provision bestowing on the village the responsibility of conserving wildlife and biodiversity,saying this means even the forest department cannot touch trees without the gram panchayat’s permission.

They have not allowed any forestry work in the 521 hectares for which it has got the title under the Act’s community rights provision,besides another 381 hectares of adjoining reserve forest they claim as theirs.

The village,with a mixed population of 1,213 mostly comprising non-tribals,has a gat (block) gram panchayat. The two other villages under the gram panchayat,Kuradi and Pendawada,have such no issues with the forest department.

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Ghati gram sabha president Pitambar Thalal says: “We won’t allow them to cut trees without our permission since under the Act the responsibility of protection now rests with us. The government is our servant and we are their paymasters. Can the master allow the servant to run away with his property?”

He adds,however,that “forest guards and officials are free to carry out protection duties.”

Thalal and other village activists propose to allow villagers to pick up timber from their forest for their use,free for a certain quantity and for a price beyond that. “If we get the transit permit,we may even sell it outside,” he says,adding,“We can sell it even to the forest department if they want it.”

Last year,villagers had seized a truck carrying timber of the forest department,unloaded it and allowed the vehicle to go after collecting a “donation” from the transporter. In April,they staged a hunger-strike to stress the claim they have made.

Taken by surprise by the villagers’ interpretation,forest officials replied to a letter from the gram sabha on April 16 saying that selective tree-felling is being done after Central permission to the department’s working plan. “We told them that in any dispute the FRA’s district-level committee’s say will reign. They say it can’t; only state-level committee can decide,” says Deputy Conservator of Forest R M Ramanujam.

“They wrote to the state-level committee that referred the issue back to district-level committee.” The district-level committee headed by the collector has not yet ruled on the matter.

In yet another claim,the village has demanded that fuelwood too be given free to them. Brushwood (shrubby tree) is mentioned in the Act as MFP and this,they say,includes fuelwood too. “We told them they may be right,but we have referred the matter to Tribal Research and Training Institute,Nashik,and their ruling is pending,” Ramanujam says,adding fuelwood isn’t a free nistar (utility) item under the FRA and is to be given at the concessional rate of Rs 1.5 per kg.

The nistar forest in the village is only 82 hectares. “We can’t give away forest without papers of evidence to be produced by the gram sabha under the Act’s provision,” he says.

BATTLE WAGED

Ghati villagers interpret these provisions of the FRA as proof that they and not the forest dept are the guardians of the forest

Section 3 (1)(i): It bestows on forest communities the “right to protect,regenerate or conserve or manage any community resource which they have been traditionally protecting and conserving for sustainable use”.

Section 3 (1)(c): It gives the communities the “right of ownership,access to collect,use and dispose of MFP,which has been traditionally collected within or outside the village boundaries”.

Chapter I: It defines “community forest resource” as “customary common forest land within the traditional or customary boundaries of the village or seasonal use of landscape in the case of pastoral communities,including reserve forests,protected forests and protected areas such as sanctuaries and national parks to which the community had traditional access”.

Section 5: It discusses the gram sabha duties to “protect wildlife,forest and biodiversity and regulate access to community forest resources and stop any activity that adversely affects the wildlife,forest and biodiversity”.

BATTLE WON

Mendha-Lekha: This village,meanwhile,has won a transit pass to sell bamboo; it’s the first in the country to get this right.

Rs 12 lakh: Added to the gram sabha’s coffers after 89,000 bamboos from nistar forest sold to a private trader.

Limit crossed: The forest department working plan allowed the village to harvest only 28,000 bamboos; the gram sabha says they harvested 89,000 since harvesting had been stuck for three years.

Provision sidestepped: FRA provision allows transport of bamboo only as head-load,or on bicycle or in a handcart; villagers transported it in trucks.

Justification: “We laid roads to the coupe by spending Rs 1 lakh. Transporting by truck may not have been right,but we will learn by improving on our mistakes,” says gram sabha president Devaji Tofa,who cannot guess if the bamboo sold will be put to any traditional use but who adds they will try and think,from next year,about how best it can be put to such use.

Challenge ahead: “The village has got rich. Villagers collected Rs 9 lakh towards labour charges at Rs 9 per bamboo. We now have to ensure the money doesn’t create disputes; our aim is to bring all above the poverty line. We also have to educate villagers on the responsibility to protect our forest resources,” Tofa says.

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