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Evicting Millions of Indigenous and Local Peoples from Their Forest Homes—as Ordered by Indian Supreme Court—Is Condemned by Global Experts
Conservation organizations and rights groups agree: the decision threatens conservation, climate, and tigers
WASHINGTON, DC (March 19, 2019)—The Indian Supreme Court decision in February to remove millions of forest-dwelling people in five months will not only have devastating human rights implications but also hurt the global struggle to save forests and mitigate climate change, according to numerous experts. Even though implementation of the decision has been placed on hold until July, the homes of millions remains under threat.
“We do not regard this order as pro-conservation. On the contrary, it is a real setback for conservation in India,” over 30 Indian conservationists said in a statement that has also been endorsed by hundreds of experts from around the world. “The rights of local communities are an integral part of any sustainable and just model of conservation, as is now recognized in international law. Furthermore, the Forest Rights Act not only recognizes these rights, it also legally empowers communities to protect their forests and wildlife as well. It is the first and only law in India that gives those who live in and with forests the power to protect them.”
“The basic premise of this ruling, which treats tribal peoples as illegal residents of the forest, is wrong—Indigenous Peoples are the owners of their lands and forests,” added UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Victoria Tauli-Corpuz. “This is a phenomenon seen around the world. Indigenous Peoples and local communities are treated as squatters when in fact the lands belong to them, and they have protected and stewarded their holdings for generations.”
The landmark Forest Rights Act of 2006 recognized the rights of communities in India to own and manage their forests, laying the groundwork for recognition of at least 34.6 million hectares of land for 150 million people—yet barely 10 percent of that potential has been realized.
National wildlife conservation groups brought a petition to the Supreme Court seeking to invalidate the Act, claiming this was necessary to protect wildlife and forests. On February 20, the Supreme Court ordered the time-bound eviction of 1.1 million families whose claims under the Forest Rights Act had been rejected by the authorities. The ruling could affect at least 10 million people directly, and persuade tens of millions more not to apply for their rights under the Act. Although the Supreme Court has put a temporary stay on the evictions, millions of peoples’ lives have been thrown into limbo by the court decision.
The Nature Conservation Foundation in India said in a statement that, “We believe that the recent Supreme Court order is likely to adversely affect a large number of people with genuine claims but whose claims currently stand rejected. Apart from devastating their lives, it is likely that the order will ultimately prove highly detrimental to conservation in India by further alienating potential allies and by strengthening the false notion that conservation can be carried out only by excluding forest-dwelling peoples.”
Although only a small percentage of the FRA’s potential has been realized, there is growing evidence that where rights are recognized, Indigenous Peoples and local communities are conserving India’s precious forests and biodiversity and opposing destructive extraction projects. Indeed, while many conservation areas in India are established to protect tigers, research shows that the presence of Indigenous Peoples can actually improve tiger populations.
“The FRA also represents a core strategy for mitigating climate change and meeting India’s commitments under the Paris Agreement, as community rights recognition under the FRA has already led to an upsurge in community-led conservation and restoration of forests,” said RRI’s Asia Director Kundan Kumar, citing the Centre for Science and the Environment’s publication “People’s Forest” as an example of documentation of such efforts .
“For generations, India’s tribal peoples have lived in harmony with the country’s wildlife, protecting and managing vital natural resources. It is because of their sustainable stewardship that India still has forests worth conserving. To truly protect wildlife, recognizing the rights of forest guardians would be a far more effective strategy than rendering them homeless,” added Tauli-Corpuz.
“Ultimately, this order is a dangerous step towards denying the rights of those who live in and around forests, and can be the true guardians of our precious natural heritage,” said Professor Bhaskar Vira of the University of Cambridge. “If this eviction is carried out, it will cause massive conflicts that will undoubtedly be detrimental to conservation.”
Insecure land rights have already led to significant conflicts in the country: an analysis of 289 land-related conflicts in India in 2015 found that these conflicts have impacted 3.2 million people and put at risk investments worth over US$179 billion.
“The fortress model of wildlife conservation—which assumes that people and nature cannot coexist—does not heal the planet. It hurts both the planet and its people,” said Prakash Kashwan, Associate Professor of political science at University of Connecticut. “The rights of indigenous and forest-dependent peoples must be protected because they have lived on these lands for generations and because there is wide ranging evidence to show that they are the best stewards of forests, biodiversity, and wildlife.”
Where Indigenous Peoples and local communities have secure rights, deforestation rates are lower and carbon storage higher. This critical contribution is recognized by major conservation organizations such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). IUCN’s Standard on Indigenous Peoples endorse the concept that communities must give consent for any projects on their lands and cannot be forcibly relocated.
Yet Indigenous Peoples and local communities only have secure legal ownership rights to 10 percent of the world’s land, despite have customary rights to at least 50 percent. This gap drives human rights violations, food insecurity, and the destruction of local livelihoods and cultures.
“The conservation justification for this ruling is colonial and shocking to witness in this day and age, especially in the world’s largest democracy. The Modi government needs to either pass new legislation that alleviates the need for these evictions or petition the court to reverse its decision, and accelerate the recognition of tribal and scheduled caste community land rights across the country,” said RRI Coordinator Andy White.
The Rights and Resources Initiative is a global Coalition of more than 200 organizations dedicated to advancing the forestland and resource rights of Indigenous Peoples, local communities, and rural women. Members capitalize on each other’s strengths, expertise, and geographic reach to achieve solutions more effectively and efficiently. RRI leverages the power of its global Coalition to amplify the voices of local peoples and proactively engage governments, multilateral institutions, and private sector actors to adopt institutional and market reforms that support the realization of rights. By advancing a strategic understanding of the global threats and opportunities resulting from insecure land and resource rights, RRI develops and promotes rights-based approaches to business and development and catalyzes effective solutions to scale rural tenure reform and enhance sustainable resource governance. For more information, please visit www.rightsandresources.org.