India: History of regularization of appropriation of forest lands

‘If you want to own a piece of land, fell the trees standing on it’ is
the message conveyed by the Forest Rights Act, passed by the
parliament a year back; so is the implication that timber is for the
rich and the non-timber forest produce is for the poor. This is not
the first time that encroachment into forestland by the tribals and
the locals has been regularised by the government; when the colonial
masters appropriated the forests by declaring them as ‘reserve
forests’ and denied the tribals their genuine rights two hundred years
ago, the seeds of unrest had been sown.

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There have been over a hundred tribal uprisings, revolts and
rebellions in different forests, since then; the colonial policy has
continued after independence under the guise of scientific forestry;
tribal unrest, deforestation and encroachments have continued unabated
too. An innovative concept of joint forest management to involve local
communities in protecting the forests and in return giving them
regulated access to non-timber produce was launched in the 1990s;
several independent studies have dubbed this programme a failure owing
to bureaucratic shackles and the low returns the beneficiaries reaped;
the forest department itself has admitted that waged employment has
been the main benefit so far; the one ray of hope is that forest
growth has improved owing to protection afforded by the community
although the community’s poverty has remained unaddressed. People
living amidst rich forest resources are abjectly poor.

Deforestation and forest degradation are an issue across developing countries and tropical forests; studies have shown that ownership, tenure and timber are the key to not just forest conservation but more importantly,
improved livelihood of the forest-dependent poor; among nations, China
leads the way with its bold and imaginative reforms. Its forest
plantations on state and collective forest lands have improved forest
cover by 35 million hectares [equal to 50 percent of India’s forest
area!] since the 1970s. Forest reforms in our country have so far been
characterised by fits and starts; the society, the policy makers and
politicians have not realised the potential of forests to lift the
communities out of poverty. Bold policy reforms a la China to promote
household forestry will also help in the context of carbon markets.
Forest reforms will address a major cause of extremist activity from
our forest areas. Millions of owners living on the spot will protect
the forests more effectively since they own the property.

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