Neema Pathak-Broome and Yagyashree Kumar
The Yawal Wildlife Sanctuary, in Jalgaon district of Maharashtra state in central India, was on the brink of an ecological and social collapse around the turn of the century. Extensive timber smuggling and encroachment of forest lands had severely degraded the habitat over the years. But, a collaborative initiative between a regional organization, Lok Sangharsh Morcha (LSM) or the People’s Struggle Front, which was formed in 2000 and the local Forest Department, supported by other government bodies, led to an amazing revival in the sanctuary. The work done under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) enacted by the central government in 2006, and which recognizes and promotes the rights of indigenous people, turned the area, once again, into a thriving habitat for wildlife, including tigers.
It was shocking, then, for the local community to learn that a conservation organization based in the town of Jalgaon had issued a press release in a local newspaper asking for the relocation of five villages in the sanctuary to areas outside its limits. The organization claimed that the local villages were an encroachment on the sanctuary, and now that the area had been revived they should be removed from this critical wildlife habitat. In the light of this twist in the tale of the Yawal Sanctuary, this article explores the relationship between forest dwellers and protected wildlife areas in India and the traditionally crucial role they’ve played in the conservation of these threatened habitats, one which should continue to be supported by the state and society.
Origins of Conflicts
The Yawal Wildlife Sanctuary is spread over an area of 172 square kilometers and was officially recognized as a protected area in 1969. It is a part of the ecologically, historically and culturally important biogeographic landscape of the western stretch of the Satpura mountain range of central India. The six villages inside the sanctuary are entirely indigenous. Yawal belongs to a large network of protected areas around India where despite their celebrated status the issues of land and resource rights have been systemically ignored, leading to extreme hardships to people living within their confines. The tribal population inside Yawal, for instance, has faced numerous problems over the years including lack of livelihood options; closure of the only road running through the sanctuary, which literally isolated the villages; discontinuation of the State transport buses plying to the villages, which resulted in deaths of the sick who needed to go to hospital; public servants never visiting the villages; corruption in the schemes implemented in the villages; and lack of access to markets. This experience has led to enormous anger among the local people against the protected area authorities and the obvious distrust of the entire apparatus.
Land and resource rights
Commercial forest operations have been going on in and around Yawal since the time of the British and the local population was regularly employed in these forestry activities. These operations continued even after the forests were accorded the status of a protected area. But, unfortunately, the resource use and access rights of the local people were never recognized, making the people completely dependent on the Forest Department for both cash and subsistence needs. In 1991, however, in recognition of the sanctuary status of the forests, the government stopped commercial forestry operations and started focusing on plantations and soil and moisture conservation. This resulted in systemic reduction in livelihood options for the local people. In 1996, the sanctuary was handed over to the wildlife wing of the Forest Department, and all forestry operations, including extraction of non-timber forest produce and bamboo, were terminated. The local people, who had minimal agricultural land and no access to forest resources, were left with no options to sustain themselves. Through the decades, as forest policies changed, people who were used for departmental activities and were made dependent on the department were left in the lurch. Even if some recommendations were made by people from within the government to allow regulated grazing and fishing within the sanctuary, as well as the construction of a road linking all the villages, the Forest Department would strike them down citing the protected status of the area. Its harassment of the tribal community, however, never ceased and the people continued to live without basic human rights and dignity.
Land claims under the Forest Rights Act
It was in response to the relentlessly distressing condition of their community that led local leaders to the LSM. As part of the organization’s work, they became actively involved in numerous local and national level processes, movements and rallies in support of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) in its early stages. The FRA was enacted in 2006 and its Rules were notified in 2008. By 2009, after an initial period of confusion relating to its implementation, the LSM began organizing training and study programs for local villagers on the provisions of the Act and the processes for filing claims. Under the FRA, village councils were given the mandate to consider only those claimants who had occupied or were in possession of land on or before December 13, 2005. No occupations after 2005 are eligible under the FRA.
The first hiccup in implementing the FRA provisions came pretty early. Despite the act’s purported good intentions, it was possible to manipulate it, and not surprisingly from within the administration itself. Local people claim that soon after the promulgation of FRA a Range Forest Officer went from village to village, particularly in the neighboring state of Madhya Pradesh, informing people about the “land-giving Act” and encouraged them to occupy forest lands. As a result, many out of state people from Madhya Pradesh, as well as the locals, began to occupy forest land for cultivation. Such occupants of land would pay substantial amounts to forest staff every year. Ultimately, this led to serious conflicts between the local residents and those who came from Madhya Pradesh to occupy forest land. The locals came together to physically stop the outsiders attempting to occupy land in one of the forest compartments close to their villages. This turned into a fight that continued for over two years (often reported in the local media as clashes between villages). In these two years, the villages in Yawal did not have access to markets in the nearest town in Madhya Pradesh where they had been going, traditionally. Considering that access to places within Maharashtra is difficult in the best of weather, and these places are nearly inaccessible during the monsoon (as there is no road to these villages), village residents were forced to sneak into markets in Madhya Pradesh at night to buy provisions. After two years of the embargo, they sought help from the Forest Department and the police, both of which advised them to settle their disputes and let the people from Madhya Pradesh occupy the land.
The local village residents claimed that such “encroachment” would never have taken place had the police and the Forest Department supported them. They claimed that cases were filed against local village residents, who eventually had to pay to get the cases dismissed. Those who could not afford to pay continued to go for hearings, incurring serious inconvenience and expense. Over a period of time, having understood this nexus and corruption cycle, opportunists among local and outside villages, forest staff and land agents joined the bandwagon of forest occupation and illegal land dealings. This led to further curbs on the local people, as they—as a generalized group of people—unfairly, took the blame for this complex situation. Demands for their relocation, destruction of their standing crops, and physical clashes with the Forest Department became common, while the claims they had filed under the FRA remained unheard. A large number of claims were rejected without any stated reason. The LSM continued with rallies and pickets on the insecure land and rights situation of the local people. Finally, on May 2, 2013, an agreement was reached with the Collector of Jalgaon that a verification of filed claims would be carried out once again under Section 12A of the FRA Amendment Rules, which was notified on September 6, 2012.
A new chapter
As the conflicts escalated, senior government officials, including the then Principal Secretary of Forests, intervened to look for a solution with the active participation of the village residents and LSM. Contending that lack of rights and access, and livelihood security were at the root of the various conflicts in the sanctuary, members of the LSM proposed that the rights of the local people under the FRA be recognized and that 17 villages in and around Yawal be allowed to prepare their own village development and conservation plans with their village councils. The administration conceded that the ecological security of the sanctuary could not be delinked from the livelihood and cultural security of the people residing in the forests. As a result of this dialogue, the first of its kind in the history of the sanctuary, many important decisions were taken, including that a team comprising members of the village Forest Rights Committees and representatives of the Revenue and Forest Departments would carry out field verifications of all the claims that had originally been accepted. Members of the LSM were to participate in this process as independent observers. Seventeen villages in and around Yawal were selected where village development and conservation plans would be developed with the village councils, and implemented by converging the resources from different government agencies.
In the following months, council members, village youths, students and members of the LSM, supported by outside agencies such as Kalpavriksh, began the process of mapping traditional village boundaries and collecting detailed data on the social, economic and ecological parameters of each village. These findings were discussed in all the village councils, and livelihood and conservation plans were drafted. Special meetings were held to discuss these plans and to pass resolutions. The councils were enthusiastic and full of hope for their future (even as they remained skeptical and distrustful of the Forest Department because of the long history of conflicts). All the resolutions strongly condemned fresh land occupations. Interested in ensuring the ecological health of the forests as it had a direct impact on the lives and livelihoods of the people, councils, through their resolutions, demanded that government functionaries support them in their efforts to meet their own needs and forest conservation efforts. All the village councils subsequently resubmitted their CFR claims on the basis of the new information and evidence that they had generated.
Over the next two years, village councils along with members of the LSM helped the Forest Department in controlling the timber mafia, for which security personnel had to be employed in the past; participated in the land occupation verification process; and facilitated dialogue with new land occupiers to ensure that land occupied after 2006 was vacated. At the same time, through the convergence of the resources and schemes of local government agencies, many agriculture and livelihood development activities were taken up. This paved the way for village residents to gradually gain access to some of the basic amenities and facilities that had been denied to them.
The overall result of these efforts is now clearly evident on the ground, with forests regenerating and wildlife populations returning. In the words of the Conservator of Forests in charge of Yawal: “In2014, 1,208 ha of illegal encroachment was successfully removed; around 1,400 still existing, out of which 1,350 ha is under FRA claims and will be decided by due process of law (under the FRA)…. Please don’t quote Yawal Sanctuary as a bad example …Please quote it as a good example of protecting a wildlife habitat….”
Even as the villagers continue to live in insecurity with all their rights not as yet recognised and constant demands being made for their relocation, it is evident today that the tiger habitat in Yawal has improved not because of the strict and exclusionary provisions of forest and wildlife laws and policies but because there was dialogue with the local people and because the FRA was used for their benefit, which led to benefits for wildlife.
Neema Pathak Broome is a member of Kalpavriksh and based in Pune. She was centrally involved in the micro planning process the Lok Sangharsh Morcha facilitated in 15 villages in and around Yawal in 2013.
Yagyashree Kumar was an intern with Kalpavriksh and as part of her internship was based in Yawal Wildlife Sanctuary between April and October 2016.
Pictures – Yagyashree Kumar
Adapted from an original article published in Frontline, India http://www.frontline.in/environment/conservation/lesson-from-yawal/article9769795.ece