“Let’s give them back”: Addressing the Rights of Forest Communities as Stakeholders of their land

Community Forestry is an evolving branch of Forest Management where the most significant role is played by the local communities as they participate in land use decision, facilitating support to the government along with officers of the law. It involves large scale participation of numerous stakeholders including community, government and non-government organisations (NGO’s).

There is no universally accepted definition for “Indigenous,” although there are some basic characteristics that are quite common among the indigenous people:

  1. They are relatively small in population. However, in Bolivia and Guatemala they are more than half of the population
  2. They usually have their own distinct language, or experts say they used to have their own language. Today, they speak almost 4,000 different languages
  3. Their culture is very different than the ordinary residents.
  4. They have or had their own land, in which still today they are tied to.
  5. They are self-identifiable as indigenous.

Some examples of indigenous people includes the Inuit of the Arctic, Native Americans, hunter-gatherers in the Amazon, traditional pastoralists like the Maasai in East Africa, and tribals in the Philippines.

Declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights welcomed the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which was passed in the General Assembly session of September 13th 2007. This was a victory not just for humanity but it was a triumph for justice and human dignity which was finally achieved after two decades of negotiations between governments and representatives of the indigenous people.

This declaration was adopted by 143 member nations while 4 voted against it (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States) and 11 nations (Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burundi, Colombia, Georgia, Kenya, Nigeria, Russian Federation, Samoa and Ukraine) were abstained from the voting.

The declaration establishes the universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity, wellbeing and rights of the world’s indigenous peoples. The Declaration supports both collective and individual rights; cultural rights and identity; rights to education, health, employment, language, and others. It condemns discrimination of any kind against the indigenous peoples and promotes effective participation in all the matters that concerns the indigenous peoples. It also supports their rights to become distinct from the general public and supports them to pursue their own priorities in economic, social and cultural development. The Declaration encourages peace and cooperation between the governments and the indigenous peoples.

Addressing the issue: The UN Stakeholders Agreement

UN estimates that there are almost 70 million indigenous people who depend upon forests for survival while another 350 million resides the rural areas and depend upon forests for livelihood. Many of these communities have had a long standing relationships with the Forests and have rights that are now recognised by every authority.

The reason for promoting active participation of indigenous people and other forest dependent communities is that their involvement in forest management promotes positive results and decreases the rates of deforestation.

Although, Indigenous Peoples and other forest-dependent communities are getting heavily effected by degradation of the ecosystem, and these stakeholders, despite being rightful owners, lack both political will and support to voice their rage.

Juan López-Dóriga Pérez, Director of the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation explains the UN-REDD Programme as an “organization which focuses on Indigenous Peoples and other forest-dependent communities, while also encouraging broader multi-stakeholder processes.”

He further states that “The UN-REDD Programme supports a number of different activity areas in support of this goal at the Global and at the National level. The UN-REDD Programme also works closely with the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) to ensure harmonization of approaches.”

Special Focus: Joint forest management in India

Almost half of the states in India have supported the strategy of joint forest management (JFM), in which the forest departments and communities jointly manage forests and share responsibilities and rights. The idea of joint forest management began in the forests of Sal (Shorea robusta) in West Bengal. Here community cooperation made a remarkable effect on the rehabilitation of much degraded Sal forests. Satellite images showed that the Sal forests increased from 11% to 20% in Midnapore District alone, and many kilometres of the degraded Sal forests were restored and opened.

Encouraged by the results, the Indian government expanded the programme in the 1990’s and by 1995, most of the state government had replicated this scheme. Under this JFM the ownership of the lands remained with the government. Village communities who are the co stakeholders enjoy a lot of benefits under this scheme. Forest management committees are formed by the local authorities, involving most of the stakeholders, to manage the protection of forests. These local institutes are more effective in protecting forests than the state governments.

The JFM strategies have required a change in the attitude of communities and forests departments towards forest conservation, protection and management. Rural communities have come together, avoiding the inter village conflict and regional disputes and have learnt to work with the forest officials of the government. Forest officials have had wonderful experiences as they could easily communicate to the general public ad openly speak on the issues, challenges faced by the people in forests, making them more responsible than ever. To support this initiative, the government authorities have provided them with institutional backing, including land reforms, social forestry programmes, sharing of user rights with local people and educating stakeholders in participatory processes.

A key lesson of the JFM experience in India is that involving local communities in forest management can lead to more effective forest protection. Another lesson is that successful conservation depends on cooperation from local people and forestry officials, and on legal and institutional backing from the State.

Image Credit: [1] http://tinyurl.com/o8r9j4m [2] ] http://www.asiaforestnetwork.org/pub/pub30.htm

Article Contributed By: 

Anant Mishra is former youth representative United Nations. He has served in number of committees including United Nations Conference for Trade and Development and United Nations General Assembly primarily focusing on international trade, middle east crisis, education, finance, economics. He can be reached on anantmishra92@gmail.com

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