India's Indigenous Peoples organise to protect forests, waters and commons

Women of the Dongria Kondh tribe make their way to a gram sabha hearing to determine their religious rights over the Niyamgiri mountain in Odisha, 13th August 2013. Photo: jimanish via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
Women of the Dongria Kondh tribe make their way to a gram sabha hearing to determine their religious rights over the Niyamgiri mountain in Odisha, 13th August 2013. Photo: jimanish via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
India's neoliberal government is attempting the mass seizure of indigenous lands, commons and forests in order to hand them over for corporate exploitation with mines, dams and plantations, writes Pushpa Achanta. But tribal communities are rising up to resist the takeover, which is not only morally reprehensible but violates India's own laws and international human rights obligations.
People from my community and I were beaten, detained or jailed unnecessarily for opposing tree felling in our forests. The government did not assist the injured. Despite the police and government indifference, we will fight for our land and environment.

In early October, news emerged that India's Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change was blocking the implementation of a high-level government panel's report on tribal rights that recommended the creation of stringent rules to safeguard indigenous people from displacement.

Meanwhile, two state governments have begun implementing a much different set of guidelines on 'Participation of Private Sector in Afforestation of Degraded Forests' - issued in August without any interference - that allow the private sector to manage 40% of forests for profit at the expense of indigenous forest dwellers.

The All India Forum of Forest Movements (AIFFM) issued a statement noting that the guidelines are in breach of the Forest Rights Act, the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Area Act, the Indian Forest Act, and the Forest Conservation Act, and allow no space for community involvement.

"The Government can not change laws at will", the AIFFM stated. "Its executive powers do not extend to amending them, or changing them in such a way that the constitutional and legal essence of such laws are altered.

"Yet the present government keeps on doing precisely this; realising that they lack the requisite majority in parliament for amending the statutes, a governance through decrees, ordinances and executive fiat is replacing the rule of law altogether."

Indigenous Peoples also enjoy specific rights in international law under the International Labour Organisation Conventions 107 and 169, while Article 10 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) states:

"Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories. No relocation shall take place without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned and after agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the option of return."

Article 19 provides additional safeguards: "States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them."

'Degraded' forests support the needs of 100 million people

But India is neglecting its legal and moral obligations to its indigenous peoples. Another ordinance passed this year will permit private corporations to easily acquire land and forests from indigenous communities and carry out ecologically harmful mining.

People from my community and I were beaten, detained or jailed unnecessarily for opposing tree felling in our forests. The government did not assist the injured. Despite the police and government indifference, we will fight for our land and environment.

These legislative and policy decisions are usually made without the knowledge of indigenous communities whose lives, livelihoods and ecosystems will be worsened by these irresponsible actions of the government.

And according to Dr N. C. Saxena, a member of India's Planning Commission, in his paper 'Tenurial Issues in Forestry in India', Saxena argued handing over 'degraded' forests to private companies is a disastrous policy that will only increase economic and social conflict:

"Such lands may have a low tree density, but satisfy the fuelwood, fodder and livelihood needs of about 100 million people. In fact, these lands are degraded because they suffer from extreme biotic pressure, and require neither capital investment, nor higher technology, but protection and recuperation, which can be done only by working with the people, where industry has neither expertise nor patience.

"The West Bengal experience shows that about 2,000 peoples' forest protection committees have regenerated more than 300,000 hectares of sal forests at little extra investment, simply by protection on the promise of sharing wood and non-wood products with them.

"If lands on which peoples' livelihoods are dependent are given to industry, they may have to employ muscle power to keep people at bay, thus escalating social tensions, which are already quite acute in several forest and park areas."

Indigenous communities get organised

Hence, indigenous communities in Uttar Pradesh, a northern state and Odisha, in the east, are strengthening their organizing to protect their rivers, lands, forests and hills from 'development' that would displace thousands of local residents and destroy the environment.

"People from my community and I were beaten, detained or jailed unnecessarily for opposing tree felling in our forests, some years ago", said Nivada Debi, a feisty 38-year-old woman from the Tharu Adivasi community in Uttar Pradesh.

"We visited the police station multiple times for their release. The government did not assist the injured. Despite the police and government indifference, we will fight for our land and environment."

A mother of four children subsisting on the forests, Debi is active in grassroots resistance that started nearly 20 years ago and has grown into the All India Union of Forest Working People, or AIUFWP. The group is made up of many indigenous people who subsist on forests and are collectively protecting forests from poachers and encroachers.

Debi was among hundreds - from the AIUFWP, the allied Save Kanhar Movement and other resistance groups - who traveled to Lucknow in July 2015 for a rally protesting the continued incarceration of their comrades fighting land grabbing in other districts of Uttar Pradesh.

Police shoot protestors against Kanhar Dam

Roma Malik, the AIUFWP deputy general secretary, and Sukalo Gond, an Adivasi, which means original inhabitant, were among those arrested on 30th June, before they were to address a large public gathering about the illegal land acquisition for the Kanhar dam and the violent repression of its opponents by the state.

Another member of AIUFWP, Rajkumari, who prefers to go by her first name, was jailed on April 21, after 39 Adivasis and Dalits, who are considered outside the caste hierarchy, were brutally shot at by the police on 14th April during a peaceful protest.

The demonstration, which began on April 14 - the birthday of B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution and an icon for many Indians, particularly Dalits - was opposing the construction of a dam across the Kanhar river in the Sonbhadra district of southeastern Uttar Pradesh.

Rajkumari was released toward the end of July while Gond and Malik were freed in September. However, others are still imprisoned on fabricated charges. Courts are delaying hearing their cases or denying them bail.

AIUFWP members, some of whom were previously involved with other local resistance movements, have been actively opposing the construction of the Kanhar dam for years. It would submerge over 10,000 acres of land from more than 110 villages in Uttar Pradesh and the neighboring states of Chattisgarh and Jharkhand, displacing thousands of local people and disrupting their lives and livelihoods.

The dam was approved by the Central Water Commission of India in 1976, but was abandoned in 1989 after facing fierce opposition, especially from the local people whose lives and ecosystem would be destroyed by the proposed dam. However, construction resumed in December 2014, violating orders to stop it from the National Green Tribunal - a government body that adjudicates on environmental protection, forest conservation and natural resource disputes.

No social impact assessment was done, nor were the necessary environmental or forest clearances - mandated by the Forest Conservation Act - obtained by the state government.

"Since this dam can destroy our survival and also adversely impact the surroundings, we have been opposing its construction and related land acquisition for many years", said Shobha, a determined 42-year-old Dalit.

"On December 23, 2014, the police caned some of our comrades when we were peacefully protesting the revival of building the dam earlier that month. However, the police falsely accused some leaders of our struggle of attacking the sub-divisional magistrate."

Niyamgiri sacred mountain is our parent

Shobha, who also prefers to go only by her first name, is among the vocal leaders of a women's agricultural laborers union, which has allied with AIUFWP, in the village of Bada.

Around 400 miles from Sonbhadra, in the Kalahandi and Rayagada districts of southern Odisha, live the Dongria Kondhs, an indigenous community of over 8,000 people. They have been fighting tirelessly to protect their sacred mountain, the nearly 5,000-foot high Niyamgiri, from large private corporations - like Vedanta Limited - that are trying to mine bauxite in the area to produce aluminum.

Supporters of the Dongria Kondhs were arrested in Delhi on August 9 outside the Reserve Bank of India, as they peacefully highlighted Vedanta's illegitimate and harmful mining in the Niyamgiri.

Vedanta's mining would violate the Forest Rights Act, which states that indigenous communities are entitled to remain in the forests - and utilize the produce, land and water in the forests - while conserving and protecting them.

"The Niyamgiri symbolizes a parent to our community", said Sadai Huika, a steadfast 45-year-old Dongria Kondh woman from Tikoripada village. "While the streams that originate from it help our farming, the plants and grass that grows on it feed our cattle and goats. We cannot exist without it and will safeguard it from anyone trying to harm it."

Huika and people from hundreds of villages near the Niyamgiri are active members of the Niyamgiri Protection Forum, which originated around 2003 to resist attempts by Vedanta to begin mining where the Kondhs live, with the support of the Odisha state government.

At every one of the 12 village council meetings with government officers held in 2013 atop the Niyamgari, community members stated that they would not allow mining nearby.

'We will stop anyone coming to plunder the Niyamgiri'

Kumuti Majhi, an elderly Dongria Kondh man and one of the forum's leaders, is among the few people who have traveled within and outside Odisha to advocate against mining and garner vital support for their struggle. He has met ministers to explain how significant the Niyamgiri is to his community and their reasons for safeguarding it.

By organizing protests locally and with allies around the world - and meetings with Vedanta's shareholders and empathetic government officials, who the forum has enlightened about the need to protect the Niyamgiri - the group has stalled the mining.

"We know that extracting bauxite from the Niyamgiri will pollute our environment and also affect all living beings here", Majhi said. "Hence, we will stop anyone coming to plunder the Niyamgiri, despite police harassment and false charges against us and our families."



Pushpa Achanta is a Bangalore-based freelance journalist, blogger and writer on development and human interest issues. She is the lead author of 'Ripples: The Right to Water and Sanitation for Whom', published in July 2013 by the Indian Social Institute in Bangalore. Her articles have appeared in collections of essays and features on different subjects. She also enjoys penning verse, taking nature photography and mentoring youth.

This article was originally published on Waging Nonviolence under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. This version includes some additional reportiong by The Ecologist based on Chris Lang's article on REDD Monitor, 'India plans to hand over 'degraded' forests to plantation companies', together with other sources.

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